Quantum Computing of the Future

May 12, 2017

On a recent visit to the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, LGen Mike Hood had a disturbing revelation: advances in quantum computing could disrupt the considerable progress the Royal Canadian Air Force has made over the past few years to construct a secure network architecture.

Students (at left) align the optical setup in the Quantum Optics and Quantum Information lab at the University of Waterloo.
The lab’s research interests are in experimental quantum optics, nonlinear optics, state reconstruction and measurement interferometry. 
(Photo: University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC))

“It is clear that we are on the verge of building a quantum computer in the next decade that will likely make all encryption obsolete,” the RCAF commander said in a recent interview. “Every door will be open.”

If ‘flying information’ is critical for the air force, which is designing an operating concept that views every platform as a sensor and every sensor as a node on the network, then protecting the integrity of its data is paramount. At first blush, quantum computing would appear to threaten that.

“What is the point of developing projects for the next generation of secure communications and encryption when that has the potential to be redundant,” said Hood, who has sought secondment opportunities for aviators with a start-up hub, tech companies, and academic institutions to foster critical thinking around such problems. “There is a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then, but I’ve got to make sure we are thinking of these things.”

Hood’s challenge is a problem facing military, government and industry leaders in all sectors that rely on the integrity of encrypted information. A quantum computer, when it is developed, will have little difficulty breaking the complex mathematical algorithms that protect most classified, intelligence and financial data. It will also dramatically disrupt today’s computing, communications, and sensing technologies as they reach their natural limits. 

However, as Homer Simpson once said, if quantum is the cause of cryptography’s problems, it may also hold some of its solutions. And that represents a unique opportunity for Canada.

“Quantum technologies are perhaps the greatest disruptive innovation opportunity for Canada over the next decade,” says Dr. Ben Sussman, principal investigator with the Canadian Quantum Security Research Centre at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). “We are great at it. We have great research, we have the ability to manufacture, we have the end users. I think it is a chance for us to hit it out of the park.” 

In September 2016, the University of Waterloo was approved  for $76 million in ­federal funding
for quantum research through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. 
(Photo: University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC))

The defence sector, which is often an early adopter of new technology, is just one of many potential end-users of quantum capability, including energy, banking, and pharmaceutical. And since most innovations that are being developed today are exported, quantum science represents an opportunity to not only lead with ideas and research, but also deliver made-in-Canada technologies globally.

Quantum Canada
Over the past decade, the federal government has invested about $1 billion, mostly on R&D. But to ensure researchers, manufacturers and end-users are all pulling in the same direction, in 2016 efforts in Ottawa launched a national strategy known as Quantum Canada. The strategy is being facilitated by the National Research Council (NRC) for a core group of input partners that includes the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), as well as a “mature ecosystem” of government, academic and business stakeholders.

In October 2016, Quantum Canada initiated a community-wide survey of strengths, weaknesses, threats, and gaps. The results of this first step were presented at a national workshop in April. Survey results are expected to serve as the foundation for a strategy document to be published in the fall.

“Canada is well placed in quantum, but there is increasingly a consensus that if we really want to have long-term impact, we need to build coherence across all of the approaches,” Sussman says. 

Within the framework of the Quantum Canada strategy, the NRC, CSE, NSERC, DRDC and other agencies launched the Canadian Quantum Security Research Centre in November 2016. Its laboratory trials industry prototypes and de-risks security and defence technologies. As a knowledge centre to provide technical expertise and guidance to both industry and government on future quantum capabilities such as sensing, imaging, networks and quantum-resistant algorithms. 

While the strategy and the experimentation centre are separate entities, they share a common goal: to knit together the broader research community with the entrepreneurs who can develop solutions for global markets.  

“We need to make sure we are connecting all of that together so that the technology makes it into end-users’ hands,” Sussman says, noting that Canada is a global leader in photonic sensing technologies. This $5 billion-a-year industry will certainly be affected by advances in quantum computing. 

At work in the Quantum Optics and Quantum Information lab at the University of Waterloo. 
(Photo: University of Waterloo IQC)

Scott Jones, CSE’s deputy chief of IT security, agrees. “This can’t help but lead to an increased understanding of potential threats and opportunities for quantum security and defence technologies in Canada,” he said.

The call for a holistic approach to quantum technology development comes as other countries seek to stake a commercial claim in the space. 

In 2013, the UK government announced a £270 million investment over five years in a national program to fast-track the conversion of quantum technologies into the marketplace. And in 2016, the EU gave notice of a €1 billion initiative expected in 2018 to “put Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, bringing transformative advances to science, industry and society.”

As Sussman explains, “We need to move promptly to make sure we are getting the full leverage of our system.”

Calls for Urgent Action
The importance of a united front can’t be over-estimated, say several industry leaders. The quantum challenge is sometimes equated with Y2K, a massive global investment of money and resources to ensure critical computer systems continued to function after midnight on 31 Dec 1999. 

However, given how dependent many mission-critical systems are on secure internet access, the advent of quantum computing is unlikely to be the non-event that Y2K turned out to be. Moreover, the creation of the first quantum computer is a moving target. Breakthroughs in research are almost a monthly occurrence and estimates have fallen from over 20 years to possibly fewer than 10. And unplugging isn’t an option.

“We may not have that much time left,” says Bruno Couillard, president of Crypto4A, an Ottawa-based start-up founded by four former employees of Chrysalis-ITS that is building hardware security modules for public and private data centres, and requires quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms for its modules. “Any money going into research figuring out the next generation of cryptographic algorithms is really important,” he says. “Our society is slowly but surely building more and more of its day-to-day dependencies on the internet, so anything to make sure it stays secure benefits everybody.”

Dr. Michele Mosca, president and CEO of evolutionQ, a Waterloo-based company providing quantum risk assessments, solution development, and training, has been a champion of the Quantum Canada initiative, but he’s also pushing for more urgent action.

Together with a dozen colleagues – what he calls a coalition of the willing in research, industry and government – he’s advocating for a more specific focus on quantum-safe cryptography.

“There is a huge opportunity here to protect our own systems against quantum attacks in a methodical, disciplined way,” he says. “It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. So let’s get coordinated, come up with a plan, make strategic investments, and emerge as leaders.” 

A cluster of optical elements inside the ultra-cold quantum matter and light lab
in the Quantum Optics and Quantum Information lab at the University of Waterloo. 
(Photo: University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC))

Quantum science may ultimately deliver a solution to quantum computing-related threats to encryption, but the near-term solution does not require quantum capability, Mosca notes. “We kind of have a head start in that we don’t need the quantum tech, we just need to know what it can do so we can deploy something to defend against it.”

While no one solution under investigation has emerged as a decisive favourite, there are cryptographic-based mathematical algorithms that have proven to be quantum-safe for certain applications. However, “they can’t be used to replace the whole spectrum of usage that we have now come to depend on,” Couillard says.

And where Y2K was largely a software problem, quantum computing jeopardizes the hardware of backend systems. “It’s not a software fix,” he says. “You will have to replace some fairly fundamental bits and pieces of the infrastructure,” which could result in as yet unknown knock-on effects to internet protocols, network routing, and other processes. “Any investment the government does in that direction is huge.”

Mosca has pushed for a specific focus on quantum-safe encryption because it could be a “sweet spot” that will not get lost within the broader national efforts around cyber security, and he wants to see a defined thrust with its own objectives, milestones, and deliverables.

“It can’t just be lumped in with the guy firefighting today’s fires,” he says, alluding to cyber intrusions that are already plaguing, and in some cases overwhelming, many organizations. 

Some of the best minds in quantum science are already at work in Canada, but many more will be needed. Mosca says significant investment in education and training will be vital. Sussman agrees, saying “we don’t know where the breakthroughs will be,” so the biggest challenge might be “the intellectual capital to do this hard work.” 

Opportunities Ahead
For end users like LGen Hood, data security will be the immediate concern. But success in the development of quantum-safe encryption could pave the way for other emerging technologies in sensing, imaging and measurement that will be of enormous interest to the air force and many others

“There are a whole host of things you just can’t do with classical technology that you can do with quantum sensors – higher precision, higher resolution – you can start to push the limits,” says Sussman.

But first researchers, government and industry need to develop and adhere to a coherent strategy.

“Let’s not pass up this unique historical opportunity to plug in better crypto,” says Mosca. “We have a chance now because we have to deploy new infrastructure.” 

Chris Thatcher is a defence and security freelance writer and founding member of Tactical Media Partners.