Are RSA and Cryptocurrencies Safe Despite Quantum Computing Progress?

News and Analysis

A large aerospace contractor Honeywell released a quantum computer that’s heralded as the highest-performing device of the kind to date. The company plans on using Microsoft Azure to make its devices commercially available to a wide audience. Yet, the technology is decades from being a threat to cryptography and the very claim of Honeywell’s device superiority is questioned.

In this piece, we look at the key facts surrounding the Honeywell’s breakthrough announcement and explain what it means for cryptocurrencies, modern encryption, and the quantum computing field in general.

Honeywell’s Conditional Leadership

Given that there is no standard way of making quantum computers and each particular machine is better at certain tasks, there is no easy way to compare a bunch of different systems and say which one is better overall.

Looking at things like the number of qubits (quantum counterpart of classical bits) in the device isn’t really helpful. In 2019, Google reached quantum supremacy with 53 qubits under the hood, but there are systems that have thousands of them, such as D-Wave’s 2000Q with 2048 qubits. The way qubits are structured, the computational tasks in question, the extent of cross-talk between circuits, and errors have their effect on performance.

The key parameter used to compare the capabilities of Honeywell’s quantum computer to alternative solutions is quantum volume. Introduced by IBM in 2017, it is a complex metric derived from the number of qubits in the computer, their interconnectedness, error rate, and other nuances. Quantum volume is meant to be a hardware-agnostic measurement of the performance of a real quantum computer.

In 2020, IBM themselves demonstrated a system with a quantum volume of 32. If the metric works as intended, Honeywell’s quantum computer is twice as powerful with a quantum volume of 64. The thing is that these are the only two companies to use this metric.

According to Venture Beat, other quantum computing companies like D-Wave, IonQ, and Rigetti weren’t too enthusiastic about the quantum volume metric as it fails to “fully capture the nuances of different approaches to quantum computing and applications” and “doesn’t take use cases into account.”

Effectively, the announcement means that Honeywell’s device is twice as good as the one made by IBM, while it isn’t exactly clear how it compares to other systems.

Quantum Threat to Cryptography Remains Remote And Avoidable

Since quantum computers started to become a thing, experts in the crypto-community and beyond expressed concerns about their potential to crack modern cryptography. Back in 2017, researchers estimated that quantum computers will be able to brute force Bitcoin’s cryptography by 2027, given that their clock speed increases substantially.

In 2019, IBM executives warned that the quantum threat to cryptocurrencies is real and isn’t necessarily far away in the future.

“It’s reverse-engineering the private keys which represent the control of your wallet. Your public key is essentially your wallet which holds balances. And I think that’s a real, credible threat. Bitcoin is a public ledger. So you can go out and see which public keys are holding the largest balances and you could go out and target those […] I think that’s even a near term threat,” Jesse Lund, vice president of blockchain and digital currencies at IBM, told Coindoo.

Chief technology officer for IBM data security services Nev Zunic was similarly wary of the risks quantum computers may pose for businesses relying on encryption:

”Companies need to be aware of quantum and the potential risk that it will bring so they can take actions today so that they are not hackable at some point in the life cycle of their products.”

Still, it looks like the field is currently nowhere near that point while mining ASICs and cryptography methods evolve together with quantum computers.

In 2018, in his article about quantum computing threat to Bitcoin, an American writer Jeffrey Tucker wrote that a potentially dangerous device would take about ten years to develop, but by that time it would already be obsolete.

Back when Google researchers broke their “quantum supremacy” news, Bitcoin developer and cryptographer Peter Todd dismissed the threat noting that the problem solved by Google’s computer had nothing to do with breaking cryptography and scaling quantum computers to useful size may get increasingly complicated.

Notably, in April 2020, researchers demonstrated a proof-of-concept quantum processor with “hot” qubits that worked under temperatures 15 times higher than most other quantum computers, albeit the temperature change in question is from 0.1 to 1.5 degrees above absolute zero. Developments like this could potentially solve the scaling problem for quantum computers, but the actual applicable technology is still far away.

As for the ways to protect systems from the quantum threat, for over a decade scientists have been working on post-quantum cryptography algorithms that will be resistant to the immense computational power of future quantum computers.

It is fascinating to watch how quantum computing is getting less like cold fusion and more like the 90’s World Wide Web. Instead of a very much revolutionary technology that remained “a few decades away” since the last century, quantum computers are somewhat available to play with and companies race to get their tech better while attracting hefty investments.

But it’s still experimenting, speculating about future applications, and keeping the hype going rather than solving real-world problems. The only thing that is relatively clear is that quantum computers will come in force and it’s nice to have a few years to prepare.

ForkLog has previously analyzed the concerns about quantum computing threat after Google’s “quantum supremacy” announcement.

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