While many of us may not have heard of quantum computing, in the background, it’s quietly starting a tectonic shift in the world of tech. Quantum computers are capable of calculating complex problems in seconds, which would take the fastest supercomputers 10 000 years.

By Prenesh Padayachee, chief digital officer at Seacom

Although the tech has a long way to go before it hits the mainstream, researchers and scientists are looking for ways to harness the power of quantum mechanics and pave the way forward for the quantum Internet. The promise of unprecedented computation power and unbreakable cybersecurity could change communications forever, and lead to many astounding capabilities.

What is quantum computing?

Traditional computers encode information in 1s and 0s, and this basic unit of information is called a ‘bit’. This computing power relies directly on the number of binary transistors that can be used to run computations.

A quantum computer, on the other hand, leverages the unique behaviours of particles on a sub-atomic level. It encodes information using the physical properties of individual particles (such as the direction a photon is spinning) to create 1s or 0s called ‘qubits’. Classical computers exhibit a direct increase in computing power with every added transistor, whereas quantum computing power increases exponentially with every qubit added to the system.

Quantum computers also take advantage of a unique phenomenon called entanglement, where two particles that have interacted can be split up across vast distances – and are still able to interact instantaneously with one another. These particles are inextricably linked, and share information with each other. Knowing the physical state of the one entangled particle allows you to know the state of the other, and because they interact instantaneously across distances, they share information faster than the speed of light.

The quantum roadmap

While quantum computing is yet to reach its true innovative potential, this futuristic tech has been around for longer than you may think. As early as 2004, a bank in Austria carried out the first quantum-encrypted money transfer. Three years later, the State of Geneva in Switzerland used quantum cryptography to protect its elections.

In 2014, Chinese scientists launched the world’s first quantum satellite and were able to achieve quantum entanglement to perform communication experiments across hundreds of miles between Earth and space. They were also able to expand this into a quantum network that spans 4 600 kilometres across China. In 2021, a team of engineers created a network of quantum computers with a bandwidth switch that minimises operational costs and would make the theoretical quantum Internet more efficient.

Although still only a concept, researchers and scientists around the world are racing to build the world’s first quantum Internet. In theory, a quantum Internet will harness the unprecedented capabilities of quantum mechanics by allowing quantum devices to exchange information over a wide network. While it is currently not possible to use quantum entanglement to communicate faster than the speed of light, a quantum network would have other benefits. Sending qubits through a quantum Internet would give us access to computational capabilities that surpass today’s web applications.

Quantum computers can solve complex problems in fields such as supply chain management, chemistry, physics, biology, machine learning, and even finance. With the astounding capabilities of quantum computing power, our ability to innovate would only be limited by what we can imagine. It would also allow us to send information in the most secure way possible: using quantum cryptography.

A new standard for security

Quantum cryptography surpasses most classical encryption methods as it sends information in the form of a physical particle (such as a photon). It is impossible for an intruder to observe these particles without changing or destroying them, so a quantum Internet would be virtually unhackable.

At the same time, quantum computing could pose a threat to current methods of encryption in the near future. Most encryption protocols today use a combination of private and public keys, and with traditional computing methods, it is impossible to derive the private key from a public key that only holds a part of the relevant information. Quantum computers, however, are exceptionally good at decryption, and could derive private keys from openly accessible public keys.

RSA is a widely used encryption method that we rely on for secure data transmission. According to a research paper by Cornell University, a 1024-bit RSA encryption would require approximately 1500 to 2000 qubits to decrypt with a quantum computer. Considering that IBM’s latest quantum computer aims to have 1121 qubits by 2023, it may not be that long before current encryption methods become obsolete. Even the cryptocurrency blockchain, which is praised for its robust security, could be vulnerable. Deloitte has stated that “presently, about 25% of the Bitcoins in circulation are vulnerable to a quantum attack”.

Fortunately, current quantum computers still have high error rates and can only operate in lab conditions at temperatures near absolute zero. There are none that currently have enough qubits to pose a global security threat, but if quantum computing power continues to advance at its current exponential rate, we may soon have to rethink our encryption methods.

The era of quantum communication

Quantum communication may still be in its infancy, but as researchers find new ways to overcome the unique challenges of quantum mechanics, and because of parallel computing, quantum computers are becoming exponentially more powerful and stable.

Quantum cryptography could become the de facto standard for secure communication systems, and if it does, businesses will need to ensure that they find future-facing technology partners. The era of quantum communication seems distant, but it’s certainly worth thinking about what opportunities it may herald along the way.