Getting Ready for the Quantum Race

Also published in LinkedIn and Cyber Security India. If you would like to publish it in your website/print media, get in touch with Jesse.

One of the pieces of news that caught the attention of the scientific community during lockdown was the announcements made by Google and Honeywell about the groundbreaking progress they made with quantum computing. That means we are inching towards what was once only possible in theory: quantum computing.

What is Quantum Computing?

The traditional/logical computers see everything black (0/False) and white (1/True). All operations are in essence broken down to a sequence of ‘0’s and ‘1’s for processing.

The quantum processors can carry multiple ‘0’s and ‘1’s at the same time, called qubits. This would drastically increase the computing power in comparison to what we have right now. The reader can find erstwhile literature on the same online. The projects like IBM’s Hello Quantum (mobile app) make learning in this field accessible to even schoolchildren.

Given the exponential improvement in computing power we will achieve with quantum computing, we should be happy. However, are we ready for it yet?

The Present Scenario

An essential component of computing these days is security: an issue we have actively tracked since the evolution of the internet. Termed Cybersecurity, it is said that hackers for each country are fighting the present cold war. The first electric programmable computer, Colossus Mark 1, was developed to decrypt transmitted German messages.

Most of the widely trusted cryptosystems in use today, like RSA; DSA etc. rely on three “number-theoretical” concepts: IFP (integer factorization problem), the DLP (discrete logarithms problem) and the ECDLP (elliptic-curve discrete logarithm problem). Their security depends largely on the fact that it would take ages to crack them with trial and error, given the current computing power.

The problem is that with quantum computing power, calculating all possibilities is just a matter of minutes. That means, from your Wi-Fi password to giant internet servers across the globe, from your PC to government servers storing sensitive data are all at the risk of exposure.

But we have a long way to go before quantum computers can do any real calculations.

The Artificial Intelligence Race

The key factor in this era of the fourth industrial revolution is Big-data Analysis and AI/ML. We have made some technological advancements in the last few years that was not expected for many years to come.

An example is Google-owned DeepMind’s AlphaZero. Initial training is required for all AI/ML systems, with sample data from other sources, mostly from humans. Stockfish is one such AI chess-engine, which is considered to be the best in the field. AlphaZero, on the other hand, is given only the rules of the game. It learns the game itself by reinforcement learning and self-play.

In a 100-match duel between Stockfish and AlphaZero, AlphaZero won in 28 games, 72 draw matches and lost in none. The efficiency of the algorithm also deserves an appreciation, as it defeated Stockfish’s level in 4-hours of self-training. It came up with some winning strategies never recorded in chess history before as well.

The only problem is that we did not expect this innovation for another 10-15 years. This situation is analogous to the leap we will achieve in computing with the advent of quantum computing. But the only problem is that we are not ready for it yet.

Technological visionary, Elon Musk, founder of many futuristic companies like Tesla and SpaceX said: “The nature of AI they’re building is one that crushes all humans in all games … It’s like the plot of the [1983] movie WarGames” He also adds that “That doesn’t mean that everything goes to hell in five years… It just means that things get unstable or weird.”

The same goes to cryptosystems once quantum computing becomes real. For a long time since we conceptualized quantum computing back in the early 1980s, the question was if it is a practical idea. We are already way past that question. Given the race for quantum supremacy and our ability to surprise ourselves, (as we proved with AlphaZero), it is time that we invest more research to make this transition period a bit smoother.

Another notable feat in the AI race that must be quoted is the Elements of AI project by the University of Helsinki. Given the sparse population in Finland, they knew that conventional approach to be a leader in AI race (find a problem, solve the problem) will help them stand out in the race. Instead, they taught the public: “What is AI? What kind of problems it can solve?” It was followed by a simple question: “whether you are a school student or a dentist, what are the day-to-day tasks that you can automate with AI?

With this, instead of becoming the leaders in solving problems, they became leaders in proposing open problems in AI. The Chinese were inspired by it and they are now educating schoolchildren in AI from early ages.

The Quantum-safe Cryptosystems

Experts label the cryptosystems mentioned earlier, like RSA, DSA and TLS, quantum-broken. Are all cryptosystems quantum-broken? Thankfully, the answer is no.

We already have some quantum-safe cryptosystems, like hashes, MAC algorithms, AES-256 etc. This does not mean that the coming of quantum computing will not have any impacts on them. Quantum-safe algorithms are the ones, which affected by it only slightly.

This has evolved into an independent field of study, called Post-quantum cryptosystems.

How can India Catch up in this Race?

Now, the key players in the race are American and European tech giants. Some tech giants in India may already be working towards it in their closed facilities. Nevertheless, while we wait, can we do something to master the upcoming radical change?

The country celebrated the huge demand for engineers in different fields towards the end of the 20th century. In the last few years, we saw how the need is now saturated. While the countries like Israel grew to be the powerhouse of innovative ideas, India caught up to the trend a bit late, making us less of innovators and more of the skilled human resource pool.

Once the conventional streams of engineering lost its prominence, Big-Data Analysis took the vacancy. It was fuelled by the need to crunch ever-growing data to feed the AI machines. However, this trend might die soon, with AI automating most of the data-analysis processes – a parallel solution employed by tech giants to solve the absence of human talent pool.

One of the fields that will be in limelight then will be Quantum Computing and Quantum-safe Cryptosystems.

It is ironic to see researches get huge funding today even if they typed AI in their proposal by mistake. Studies on quantum-safe cryptography will celebrate that position soon. Since it directly involves national and personal security, it might emerge to be a bigger threat than AI for some time. We should not be surprised if it enjoys more attention than when it comes to research funding AI itself in the coming days.

Along with technology, mathematics and physics will continue celebrating the attention it is getting these days. That means basic mathematics and physics degree holders with interest in technology will be celebrated even those days.

As mentioned earlier, there will be a transition period once the quantum computing becomes real. There will be a great demand for experts who can help governments and corporates transition from traditional cryptosystems to quantum-safe cryptosystems. However uncertain it looks now, fact that most of our banks now run on quantum-broken TLS-encryption, there would be a huge demand for experts who can assist this transition process.

Another field that will need some attention during the transitional period will be the secure interaction between traditional and quantum computing systems. Given that we know only very less about quantum computers, we might have to wait for a little longer to establish it as a field of its own.

We read stories of how the first computers filled large rooms. Over the century, we managed to shrink them to fit in our fists. That might be the case with quantum computing during its initial days. Besides, given the trend these days, the companies may house large computing centres and offer it as a service over the internet – retaining the current need to increase the capacity of the internet. Thus, research in this field with a focus on catering to delivering quantum-computing services may also attract some attention. This comes packs with its own operational and security challenges. Proper awareness in colleges and among upcoming batches of students specializing in this field could motivate them to develop skills in this regard.

I think it is safe to say that we are in a similar position with the Quantum Computing race as Finland in the AI race. Educating the public about quantum computing could not just help us be ready to receive the technology when it is ready, also inspire young minds to enter research in this field.

Conclusion

The new skill-based education proposed in the new Education Policy by the government looks like an ideal match for the proposed idea. Regulatory authorities can also encourage institutions to launch specialized courses and diploma on the same. Given the emphasis on empowering colleges with autonomy, colleges can also use their rights in deciding curriculum to promote such courses.

States like Kerala once took leadership to promote IT education in schools. They can consider taking lead in such endevours as well. The colleges already offering courses like cybersecurity can also consider incorporating such futuristic topics in the curriculum.

We should actively invest in studying the emerging trends in different industries and try to inculcate basic knowledge on it to the upcoming generations. For example, educational agencies had enough data to estimate that the job requirement in different fields of engineering was nearing saturation. However, we failed to raise an alarm, so that a few batches of engineering graduates took the hit.

At the same time, we must now focus on educating students in 9th and 10th grades about emerging technologies like 3D-printing, quantum computing and quantum-safe cryptography in the specific aspects mentioned above. Those fields will probably be at the helm by the time they finish under graduation. We will have a workforce that is a step ahead of the rest of the world, putting us as strong competitors in this race.

At present, most of the quantum computing technology is owned by tech giants, making access to it very limited for educational institutions. Movements like Open Quantum-safe aiming at patenting and open-sourcing algorithms are a relief in the middle of all these.


The author is not an expert in the above-mentioned fields. This is the author’s opinion as a science and technology enthusiast.

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