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National Academies report on quantum computing
A new report from the National Academies says it’ll be at least a decade before quantum computing becomes powerful enough to crack today’s public-key cryptography, but it could also take that long to develop a new data-encoding system to protect against hacking. (National Academies Illustration)

A new report from computer scientists estimates that it’s likely to be at least a decade before quantum computing tools become powerful enough to compromise the current system of public-key cryptography that serves as the foundation for data security and financial transactions.

But it could also take a decade or more to replace current crypto tools with new protocols that would be resistant to quantum hacking, according to the report, published today by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Therefore, the report’s authors say, it’s urgent to begin the transition toward such “post-quantum” protocols — which can range from increasing the size of encryption keys to developing new lattice-based systems such as NewHope and Frodo.

The study was sponsored by the federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and meshes with policy strategies laid out in September during a White House quantum information science summit. Like the White House strategy document, the National Academies study points out that the rise of quantum computing will have deep implications for national security.

Quantum computing has been a subject of academic study for well more than a decade, but more recently, it’s become the focus of potential applications being developed by such companies as Microsoft, IBM, Google and Boeing. D-Wave Systems, a Vancouver, B.C.-based company that’s attracted investment funding from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, already offers a computer that’s capable of a limited type of quantum computing.

The technology takes advantage of the fuzzy nature of quantum phenomena, in which bits can represent ones and zeroes simultaneously. Quantum computers would be better-suited than classical computers to simulate quantum phenomena ranging from atomic-scale chemical interactions to financial trends.

Quantum computers could also theoretically sift through a wide array of permutations, such as the potential factors of large prime numbers, much more quickly than classical computers. That could result in the obsolescence of today’s public-key cryptography schemes, which are generally based on prime factorization.

The National Academies report, written by a committee of academic and industry experts, says quantum computing is a field of strategic interest for the United States.

“There has been remarkable progress in the field of quantum computing, and the committee doesn’t see a fundamental reason why a large, functional quantum computer could not be built in principle,” Stanford University Professor Mark Horowitz, the committee’s chair, said in a news release. “However, many technical challenges remain to be resolved before we reach this milestone.”

The biggest challenges include the invention of error-correcting mechanisms for quantum computers and the development of methods to convert large amounts of classical data into a quantum state.

Quantum computers are unlikely to replace classical computers, the report says. The more likely course is that quantum-based devices would be used as accelerators attached to more conventional computers.

The report notes that other countries including China are devoting significant resources to quantum computing research, and that it’s imperative for the United States to keep up even if the private sector can’t turn a profit.

“If near-term quantum computers are not commercially successful, government funding may be essential to prevent a significant decline in quantum computing research and development,” the report says.

In September, the House passed a measure called the National Quantum Initiative Act that would set aside $1.275 billion in R&D funding for quantum computing over the course of five years. However, the full Senate has not yet taken a vote on parallel legislation.

The committee members who produced the National Academies report, titled “Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects,” include Krysta Svore, who leads QuArC, the Quantum Architectures and Computation group at Microsoft Quantum Research in Redmond, Wash. The full report can be read online.

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