Andrew Lord, senior director of optical networking research at BT, discusses how near-future quantum computing could solve major challenges across a number of industries.
With each passing year, near-future quantum computing is closer to being implemented in the modern digital world. To date, a significant amount has been invested in research and prototyping, attracting the attention of governments, cryptology experts, businesses, and the cybersecurity industry.
Quantum computing can perform calculations simultaneously on many bits of information, solving problems that conventional computers cannot perform. This has far-reaching implications for the ability to solve challenges that are currently considered intractable due to their inherent complexity. Measuring and analyzing enormous amounts of health data to enable preventive measures is just one example of an area that could soon be greatly transformed by quantum computing.
However, quantum computing also raises serious and profound questions: primarily its potential threat to many of the current information security frameworks that protect our data today. Near-future quantum computing has the potential to crack the mathematics behind much of today’s cryptography used to secure networks. Encryption supports the security of banking accounts and transactions, the privacy of medical records, trade and national security secrets, and many more aspects of everyday life.
But it is not just a problem for the future. Protecting encrypted traffic is a pressing problem because data that requires long-term security could be at risk of “store today, decrypt later” attacks, where key data is stored now and broken when a sufficiently powerful quantum computer becomes available. . This has important implications for industries with highly sensitive and durable data, which will be at greater risk of exploitation by attackers.
Quantum meets quantum
Fortunately, there is time to avoid this and other similar threats. Using security principles based on quantum key distribution, for example, it is possible to protect sensitive personal and business data today and future-proof it against quantum computer attacks. The quantum computing capability of the near future is both an aggressor and a defender.
Fundamentally, this rapidly emerging technology presents a number of advantages for a variety of industries, including financial services, professional services, health and life sciences, government and manufacturing, while potentially changing the goals of strategic national security concerns.
But first, some background.
Simply put, quantum computers use the law of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for conventional computers. The language of today’s computers is that of binary “bits”. All data is reduced to one or zero: a “yes” or a “no”, an “off” or a “on”.
This fundamentally limits your problem-solving capabilities. Instead, quantum computers use quantum bits, or ‘qubits’, which can exist simultaneously in zero and one states, radically increasing potential data processing power. Quantum computing can be imagined as a process in which calculations do not occur as in normal computing, but are performed simultaneously.
Near-future quantum computing therefore has the potential to unlock levels of processing power never before imagined. Using qubits, calculations can theoretically be performed in the time that a traditional computer could take years to perform.
The “intractable problems” that quantum computers are designed to solve – from data encryption and cybersecurity to advanced supply chain logistics and exponentially faster data analysis – have many variables that interact in complicated ways.
For this reason, there is growing interest in the technology by governments and various sectors worldwide.
In the UK, the Government has a clear ambition (as outlined in the National Quantum Strategy) to develop a quantum-based economy in which quantum technologies become an integral part of the UK’s digital backbone. .
This would unlock innovation to drive growth and help build a prosperous and resilient economy, while adding significant value to the UK’s prosperity and security. If we look at Europe, we can see that they have already committed to building national and pan-European quantum networks, and we are pleased to see that the UK government is considering building a national network.
Near-future quantum computing can help overcome societal challenges
Quantum simulation is an area where near-future quantum computing will have a significant impact. In this application, quantum computing models complex molecules and simulates their interactions and effects. These simulations could radically reduce the time it takes chemical and pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs and treatments.
However, this competence exceeds the limits of traditional computers, as they cannot provide accurate simulations, as each atom interacts with other atoms in complex ways. Instead, many researchers are turning to quantum computers, as they are powerful enough to model even the most complex molecules in the human body.
As a result, the healthcare industry may be on the threshold of faster drug development cycles and transformative new cures, which are critical in pandemic-type scenarios. Had quantum computers been available and put to work in the Covid-19 vaccine development programme, it is believed the technology would have been able to simulate chemical reactions at a molecular level, quickly narrowing down potential vaccine candidates from 10,000 compounds. to a several dozen.
Optimization and search is another critical business case that can benefit from quantum computing in the near future. Almost every industry depends on optimization in one form or another. Still, virtually endless questions must be addressed to optimize efficiency and value creation within a business enterprise, such as where to prioritize automation on the production line first. What is the most direct route for this delivery fleet?
However, traditional computing is only limited to performing a complicated calculation sequentially. This is a slow and expensive process considering the many variables of any situation. Since quantum computers can work with multiple variables simultaneously, they can be put to work to quickly narrow the range of possible responses. At that point, traditional computing can be used to zero in on a precise answer.
Near-future quantum computing also has the potential to collaborate with advanced algorithms, thereby transforming machine learning in a variety of diverse sectors and fields, such as climate science and automotive.
For example, it appears that quantum computing will accelerate the delivery of autonomous vehicles. Companies like Ford and Volkswagen, as well as numerous mobility startups, are running image and video data through complex neural networks to leverage AI to train a car to make critical driving decisions. The unique ability of quantum computers to perform multiple complex calculations with many variables simultaneously enables faster training of future AI systems.
Quantum: the next frontier in cybersecurity
Today, governments and companies around the world are investing billions of dollars in quantum research and development, and as advances are made daily, the practical application of quantum technologies is increasing.
Here at BT Group, we are on a quantum journey. Today, we work on a wide variety of quantum technologies, from quantum communications to quantum computing, sensing and timing, to explore real-world applications.
We are also exploring the potential of quantum technology to deliver secure connections and communications for some of the most security-sensitive sectors and industry verticals. For example, last year we launched a “world-first” commercial trial of a secure quantum metro network in London, with EY becoming the first customer and HSBC recently joining.
The network can connect numerous customers across London, helping them secure the transmission of valuable data and information between multiple physical locations using quantum key distribution (QKD). The London network represents an important step towards building a national network for quantum-safe communications.
For the UK Government, which recently set out its ambitions to develop a digital economy based on quantum technology, this use case is a clear example of how science and technology can successfully solve some of the big challenges facing the society, particularly when it comes to providing better encrypted and fully secure communications.
Continuing research and investment in quantum technology, where government, industry and academia come together to solve real-world problems, is key to developing the quantum computing of the near future.
Quantum computing: making the impossible possible
It is no exaggeration that all sectors, from engineering to medicine and healthcare, manufacturing, finance and cybersecurity, will be significantly affected by the advances this technology will make in the coming years.
While the industry is still in the relatively early stages of unlocking the potential of quantum technology, several key innovators are building momentum to make certain technologies, such as secure quantum communication, viable on a broad commercial scale as soon as possible. .