Quantum computing is the next frontier in computer science. It can bring untold benefits, allowing the development of new materials, tackling pandemics and making the world a greener, safer place. But it also threatens to break the encryption that keeps our data safe from prying eyes. France’s recent announcement to invest €1.8b into Europe’s quantum computing effort – on top of Germany’s two billion euros and the EU’s one billion euro quantum strategy – will help ensure Europe doesn’t miss the boat on what is set to become the cornerstone of innovation in the coming decades.
In short, quantum computing is an entirely new paradigm for making calculations on computers. Today, all computing relies on sequences of ones and zeroes to make increasingly complex calculations, culminating in the smartphones, cloud services and the supercomputers that exist today.
Quantum computing uses peculiar characteristics of physics to allow machines to perform complex algebra calculations in one fell swoop: “It would take ten thousand years to factor something on the fastest computer today, that could be minutes or seconds given a sufficiently powerful quantum computer,” said McAfee’s chief technology officer Steve Grobman on a recent podcast. “Think about it more as waves than binary,” added John King, a McAfee research fellow also on the podcast. “You reinforce the ones that you want, and dampen the ones that you don’t want,” he said.
To achieve these quirks of physics requires machines operating at temperatures colder than outer space, so it is unlikely that every person will have a quantum computer in their basement anytime soon. However, with the Internet and cloud computing, we will have the ability to harness the power of quantum computing remotely, just like data centres can be used from hundreds of kilometers away at the tap of a few buttons in a web browser today.
Nor is quantum computing always going to be superior to the well-developed binary technologies in place today, which are handsomely suited to making precise calculations. “Quantum computing is not well suited for general purpose computing, but for solving very specific math problems that are well suited to the quantum model,” said Grobman.
But the pattern-recognising abilities of quantum algorithms are uniquely well suited to complex problem. Think how to best distribute COVID-19 vaccines across populations, or even the world, or optimising global shipping networks leading to lower emissions from boats and planes.
On the flipside quantum is also, unfortunately, much better at breaking encryption algorithms than tradiditional computing power . Data that is considered secure today could be rendered public knowledge in the coming decade’s advances in quantum technology, with massive implications for company secrets and national security.
In the US and China, private and public actors are already pouring huge investments into quantum, and without considerable efforts, Europe exposes itself to gaping security holes, and missing out on harnessing the power of quantum to solve pressing problems such as climate change.
This is why France’s recent announcement is not just timely, but necessary, for Europe to continue charting a path of global success in the future. Today, the theory of quantum computers is way ahead of their actual capability. But in 10 years, it will be a different story, and given the scale of the challenge, acting now is of essence.
Making the most of quantum is not just about building the computers themselves. The entire paradigm of computer science is being upended. Europe is already facing a shortage of computer scientists, and its future computer science graduates must have the tools and knowledge needed to harness this new technology. This is why France is right to focusing funding not only on research and equipment, but also talent and skills to power this computer science revolution.
For McAfee, making the digital world safe is a top priority, and naturally our attention gravitates toward the opportunities and threats quantum computing poses to keeping data secure and safe.
But making the world a safer place isn’t just about preventing cyberattacks and encrypting valuable data. It’s equally about making the world greener and using the power of technology to solve our pressing societal and economic challenges. Quantum computing will play a key role in all these goals, provided the technology is in the right hands. Bad actors see the same opportunities in quantum to disrupt and bring chaos as we see in making the world a better place, and the only way to stymie their efforts is ensuring that Europe, along with the US and others determined to make the world a better place, stay one step ahead.