Quantum computing – next big thing or hype?

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Quantum computing may sound like a futuristic technology, but a major research program by the European Union, involving Orange, is already uncovering promising new applications in cryptography and cyberdefense.

Last year, Google announced a 72-qubit quantum computer processor, which it claimed was the fastest ever made. Now IBM has unveiled the world’s first commercially available quantum computer, the Q System One. Microsoft is also in the race for quantum supremacy, having worked on scalable quantum computing for nearly two decades.

Although quantum computing is still an immature technology, it’s attracting a large amount of interest as it "evolves from research to reality," maintains Brian Hopkins, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. "Quantum computing is a class of emerging hardware and software that exploits subatomic phenomenon to solve computationally hard problems," he explains.

Quantum computing is way faster than conventional computing and inherently scalable and parallel. While it will not replace traditional computers, Francesca Ciarletta, Lead Analyst at IDC, believes it has potential in areas such as financial services, material science, logistics and pharmaceuticals.

These industries "would be advised to start investigating the potential of quantum to make the most out of the technology before it reaches maturity."

Francesca Ciarletta, Lead Analyst at IDC

Gartner has gone as far as including quantum computing in its “Top 10 technology trends for 2019.” Gartner admits that it is the most controversial of its trends to watch as it has a long way to go to enter the mainstream. The analyst firm, however, predicts that by 2023, 20 percent of organizations will be budgeting for quantum computing projects, compared to less than 1 percent today, citing its sheer processing power as a disruptor for industries.

Quantum grabs global attention

Quantum has certainly grabbed the attention of governments in the race to make quantum a viable computing technology. The European Union has launched a €1 billion, 10-year “Quantum Flagship” project to drive quantum innovation. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to accelerate quantum computing. China has already invested heavily in quantum, including creating a quantum satellite and communications network.

"The EU Flagship provides a unique opportunity to engage in research alliances that link the strongest academic groups together in the effort to solve some of the major challenges facing society, such as security or supercomputing. The ultimate dream is to build quantum computers that can solve problems that are impossible with existing computers – or a quantum Internet, where unbreakable communication can take place risk free and security is guaranteed by the laws of quantum physics," explains Peter Lodahl, Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, which is part of the high-profile European research collaboration.

Orange is part of the European CiViQ (Continuous Variable Quantum Communications) project, which forms part of the EU’s quantum initiative. CiViQ is looking into the development of flexible, low-cost Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) that can be easily integrated into emerging telecommunications infrastructures.

The project will also put forward quantum cryptography systems and protocols, with the goal of providing accessible, innovative services to individuals, industries and institutions, while meeting the security needs of the telecommunications market.

Quantum: the future of the Internet

Security is a critical issue for the Internet as we become more and more connected. Quantum computing will make some of our strongest encryption powerless – but on the flip side, it can also help solve the problem. Quantum cryptography offers new methods, systems and protocols that cannot be broken.

Quantum cryptography relies on the principles of quantum mechanics. Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is the most widely used of the cryptography protocols and uses quantum particles to guarantee secure communications between two parties. Secure random secret keys are generated, which are used to encrypt and decrypt messages.

Quantum computing budgeting

Quantum cryptography currently isn’t a silver bullet, however. There are still significant challenges to overcome. QKD, for example, is still expensive and will not operate seamlessly in telecommunications networks. The transmission range also needs to be worked on significantly. The University of Geneva has reported a distance record of 421 km for optical-fiber-based QKD. Orange, as part of the CiViQ initiative, will work on overcoming these hurdles.

CiViQ is focusing on a protocol family whereby electric field amplitudes are directly measured using coherent detection – a method used in coherent optical telecommunication. The measured outcomes are continuous values of the amplitudes of electric fields and the detection technique. It’s believed that this technique will ultimately lead to the development of cheaper technology that can be integrated into a plethora of applications for industrialization as well as being integrated into telecoms networks.

"In the next three years, CiViQ will put together technology to meet specific network security requirements. An end-user-driven approach, together with flexible integration into telecommunication networks, is a prerequisite for a successful impact on the cryptography and cybersecurity markets."

Valerio Pruneri, ICREA Research Professor at Institut de Ciències Fotòniques (ICFO) Engineering Sciences and coordinator of the project

The CiViQ program is a great example of co-innovation in action, bringing together a consortium of 21 partners that covers the entire supply chain of QKD, from academic research groups, component manufacturers, industrial equipment suppliers and telecommunication network operators and end users.

Securing the next frontier

Quantum cryptography has the potential to be the foundation of future data security. Unlike today’s security solutions, it can futureproof advances in security, including quantum computing.

The Internet as we know it wasn’t created with security in mind. The expertise that Orange and the other partners bring to table as part of the CiViQ initiative is critical in promoting quantum-enhanced security services, leading to new ways of transmitting data and virtually unbreakable data encryption.

Read more about the research programs at the Orange Group.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.