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#Cybersecurity

Why quantum computing is still at the kindergarten stage

Interview
7 Mins.

The game-changing potential of quantum computing is well recognized but, with companies still experimenting with applications, the industry is at an inflection point. G+D spoke to Prof. Dr. Gabi Dreo Rodosek, Executive Director of the Research Institute Cyber Operations Defence (CODE), and André König, an author and investor in quantum technology, to discuss the quantum race, where progress is being made, and the importance of post-quantum cryptography

What initially attracted you to the field of quantum computing?

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Three years ago, the Research Institute CODE discussed becoming an IBM Quantum Hub. We felt we needed to be involved in this exciting technology, even though we had no idea about its potential. Today, the IBM Q Hub at the Research Institute CODE is up and running, and I can say that quantum computing really is the next big thing. It’s an exciting new paradigm and we probably can’t yet imagine how quantum technologies will influence our future. 

André König: I became an entrepreneur working in AI after starting out as a management consultant. The global head of technology at one of the companies I worked with said I needed to focus on quantum computing, not AI, because the impact it has on the enterprise is exponentially greater. When I looked into it, what excited me about quantum was that it was a new technology at an inflection point. At that time work was mainly being carried out in labs, whereas other technology – including AI – was already beginning to scale. Like Gabi, I believe it has the potential to change the world.

How would you illustrate this potential?

André König: Theoretically, quantum computing makes possible the things we know from sci-fi movies – teleportation in “Star Trek,” everything that Tony Stark did with new materials in “Iron Man,” new sources of energy, and, potentially, time travel. More pragmatically, it could help with carbon extraction, universal healthcare, and defining what cities of the future might look like. Of course, all of this is still a long way off.

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: If today’s classical computers are candles, then quantum computers are equivalent to light bulbs. They will enable us to solve some of the problems that are unsolvable today, but this dramatic technological change also means we have to think about the cybersecurity risks. Advances in quantum computing have the potential to shake the foundations of some current cryptography, so, despite quantum computers still being in their infancy, we must address these risks today.

Where are we on the journey to a quantum future?

André König: The industry has made tremendous progress but there is a lot still to learn. We don’t know what basic materials work best to physically build quantum computers, and the technology is not very applicable yet. Quantum communication, sensing, and encryption are more mature and are being rolled out, but they are smaller, niche markets. Overall, in terms of companies using the technology, we’re still at the experimental stage.

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: I like to say that we’re at the kindergarten stage – we’re still learning about the technology, building the hardware, and evaluating which architecture will succeed. We are also building the workforce; quantum computing requires multidisciplinary teams that work with different stakeholders, from research and startups to big companies and public bodies. These ecosystems are forming now.

What’s the best way to measure the progress that industry players are making?

André König: There are technical metrics around performance, such as qubit count or quantum volume, but for me the main metric is users. Given we are still at the kindergarten stage, as Gabi says, the best proxy for users is investors, and they are getting increasingly cautious – a few large SPAC deals notwithstanding. In 2020, there was just $1 billion in private capital invested, half of which came from two huge deals. In part, this is because venture capital firms have already made their bets and are seeing how the industry evolves before investing further. It’s important to remember that, overall, it is a comparatively small market with revenues of $3 billion to $9 billion projected by 2030.

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Alongside private capital, many countries are investing in quantum computing. The EU’s Quantum Technologies Flagship initiative is investing €1 billion over 10 years, for example. Germany is planning to invest €2 billion in quantum technologies in the next five years, and the French government has announced a €1.8 billion quantum strategy. Of course, there are the global tech giants, such as Google, IBM, and Honeywell, who are also investing a lot.

“We’re still learning about the technology, building the hardware, and evaluating which architecture will succeed“
Prof. Dr. Gabi Dreo Rodosek
Executive Director of the Research Institute CODE

As a result of all these investments, we hear a lot about a quantum race – what’s your take on this?

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Khalil Rouhana, Deputy Director-General of DG CONNECT – the EU’s communications, networks, content, and technology department – has said, “Europe’s future is quantum.” But, as I mentioned, quantum is a strategic priority for many other countries too – so, we do have a race, as no one wants to fall behind. What we do not want to end up with is a quantum and a non-quantum world. Collaboration is key – universities, startups, big companies, and public bodies have to work together. To master the challenges in quantum technologies, we need multidisciplinary teams, including physicists, computer scientists, and electrical and quantum engineers. Collaboration between well-educated, curious quantum enthusiasts is also key to success. At our university we have courses in quantum programming and are holding hackathons to explore future quantum applications.

André König: Collaboration, beyond the scientific, has really kicked in over the past year. The industry is small, but it’s getting more accessible – I see a lot more grassroots organizations, meetups, and associations. I even met a 15-year-old girl who started a quantum computing club at her high school in New York! That said, there are some issues higher up the chain. In the US there is a government bill that proposes putting quantum technology on the list of banned exports. In Europe, there was some controversy over a suggestion to ban cooperation with Switzerland and Israel – two hotbeds of quantum research and capital – because they’re not in the EU.

How does Europe compare with the rest of the world?

André König: You have to distinguish between the science and the application of quantum computing. The science is widespread and democratized. A lot comes out of western Europe, but also the US, Canada, Israel, Australia, China, and Russia. In terms of applications, the US is far ahead of everyone else.

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Yes, it’s a bit weird, as a lot of the research comes from Europe but those who are building the hardware and the quantum computers are mainly in the US. That said, Germany is working with partners to develop its own quantum computers.

One of the biggest challenges to the reliability and effectiveness of quantum computers is decoherence, or noise. Why is this so significant?

André König: The most advanced machines have around 72 qubits at the moment. Scaling to thousands or millions of qubits – which is what is needed for them to be practicable – is really tough. There isn’t enough room on the chips for the measurement and control tools, and it’s difficult to maintain a noise-free environment. People have come up with software and algorithms to try and address the errors that all these complexities introduce, and then there are those who think we need to try a completely different modality, such as creating qubits that are inherently stable. So, there are a lot of different approaches that present different engineering challenges. Ultimately, I am confident we will solve this issue.

What else keeps you up at night regarding quantum’s future?

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Security threats are certainly a worry. In classical computing there is a clear asymmetry between attacker and defender – the attacker targets a single vulnerability, and the defender has to defend several vulnerabilities, including those that are unknown. To flip this asymmetry in favor of the defender, it is necessary to change the attack surface constantly. Assuming a quantum computer is very fast and very good at problem solving, the current defensive approaches will not work anymore. Post-quantum cryptography is a very important part of the solution, as we need to develop a technology that is unbreakable by quantum computing. We need to invest in post-quantum cryptography development as a matter of urgency. Quantum machine learning is another promising research area.

André König: If we reach the point where a quantum computer can break or hack national infrastructure, then we are too late, so we have to go faster. I think quantum is an opportunity for Europe to regain some independence and power by leapfrogging other regions to address some of society’s most pressing challenges, such as aging demographics and economic competitiveness. Unfortunately, however, I don’t see that happening currently, as we’re evolving into a bipolar world split between the US and China. This is particularly the case if we’re talking about national security. I don’t think that’s even on Europe’s radar, which is a huge worry.

“Quantum computing will be able to create a perfectly balanced financial portfolio, a new vaccine, or a devastating new weapon that is not simply an improvement on something that already exists“
André König
Author and investor in quantum technology

How would you sum up the current state of play in the quantum industry?

Prof. Dr. Dreo Rodosek: Quantum computing is a game-changer. It’s a revolution, not an evolution. But the technology can only be used for the greater good if viewed holistically. We must all discuss how to develop it in a cooperative way, or we risk not knowing what genie will come out of the bottle. It is also important to say that quantum computers will coexist with classical computers and supercomputers, as they will still be more appropriate for many things.

André König: Quantum is different from other technology innovation cycles. Previous innovations, such as AI, while potentially transformative, are incremental. Quantum computing is very different – it will be able to create a perfectly balanced financial portfolio, a new vaccine, or a devastating new weapon that is not simply an improvement on something that already exists. As such, it is more deterministic, and we need to make sure it is used for the greater good.

Biographies

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Gabi Dreo Rodosek
Prof. Dr. Gabi Dreo Rodosek, Executive Director of the Research Institute CODE

Prof. Dr. Gabi Dreo Rodosek is Executive Director of the Research Institute CODE and Chair of Communication Systems and Network Security at the Bundeswehr University Munich. She holds numerous other positions, including Coordinator of the EU’s CONCORDIA project, member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cybersecurity, and member of the Supervisory and Advisory Boards of G+D.

Portrait of Andre Koenig
André König, author and investor in quantum technology

André König is a published author, speaker, and expert on deep tech with 25 years of Fortune 500, consulting, and startup experience. He is the CEO of Interference Advisors, the premier data provider within quantum tech, Chairman of OneQuantum, the leading quantum tech community organization, and Managing Partner of Entanglement Capital, a quantum tech investment fund and startup accelerator.

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