Some heavy-duty human brainpower is focusing
on the job of creating and marketing a spectacular new form of
Quantum computing (QC) might turn currently
unsolvable math problems into snaps, but could also destroy
trusted infrastructure such as bank card security. It also has
the potential to make early entrants in this field very, very
rich ... if their high-risk investments pan out.
Top business and technical minds in QC
descended on the University of Calgary recently to celebrate
the launch of the institution's Institute for Quantum
Information Sciences (IQIS). They join researchers in places
such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of Waterloo - and,
increasingly, the private sector.
"The folks at Waterloo are focused on trying
to build a quantum computer.We're trying to figure out how to
keep the world safe from it if they succeed," laughs IQIS
director Barry Sanders.
|Alex Lvovsky of U
of C's quantum institute at work in
His point is echoed by Chip Elliott,
principal engineer at Boston-based BBN Technologies. "I think
that there are a lot of indications that the ground (of
computer security) may be disappearing below our feet," he
says. "So it might be good to have a plan B available."
He's referring to the very real possibility
that someone with a QC could compromise security that's based
on calculation-intensive math problems. Put a current computer
to work on a toughie like factoring a 1,000-digit-long number
into two primes, and it will run through its bits (0s and 1s)
for decades. QCs use "qubits," which can take on many values
all at once, so they might solve this problem in a flash.
QCs follow the wacky rules of quantum
physics, including the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: If
you touch a piece of quantum information, you destroy it. That
sounds bad, but it can actually lead to unbreakable security
since it renders eavesdropping impossible.
Elliott's quantum network project is funded
by DARPA, the U.S. government research agency that gave us,
among other things, the Internet as we know it. He won't
disclose the budget, but says it's already a technical
"We have six nodes up and running 24 hours a
day, seven days a week, between BBN, Harvard University and
What do they do with the world's first
(known) quantum network?
"Quantum cryptography by a variety of
techniques," says Elliott. "We then try attacking it to see
how well it actually holds up in practice."
Cryptography, the making and breaking of
codes, is the current sweet spot for quantum information
science. Bob Gelfond, CEO of one of the few companies that's
actually selling quantum devices, knows that for sure.
He was one of the early investors in Amazon
and says he was drawn to quantum information science because
it gave him "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spawn a new
company that could be present at the birth of a new
Gelfond founded privately held MagiQ, and
easily raised $6.9 million US in seed funding. He got friend
and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to invest. Then, Gelfond says, they
evaluated MagiQ's options. Acquire intellectual property?
Collaborate with a bigger company? Build something? He chose
the latter path, and they are currently selling the QPN
Security Gateway to people who really, really need to keep
their secrets safe. It provides point-to-point security for
fibreoptic lines up to 120 kilometres long. It offers, they
claim, absolute and "future-proof" security.
Gelfond explains that all existing
communications lines are vulnerable to intrusion. Even
fibre-optic cables can be tapped by bending them and siphoning
off some of the photons. He says there are even techniques to
steal the information without physically touching the
With his QPN system, any attempt to read a
photon in transit destroys the information in it. The
communicating parties will be alerted that something is wrong,
and the eavesdropper will not get any useful information.
Gelfond insists that this is a qualitatively
different kind of protection from anything else on the market.
For example, even if the eavesdropper can't break an
intercepted non-quantum transmission, he could store it away
and hope that more powerful computers will allow decryption in
the future. That's simply not possible with quantum
Gelfond is coy about his customer list, but
admits that the company is far from profitable. His next step
is to try to interest big customers and also data-transmission
carriers. Yes, he has competitors, notably a Swiss company
called Quantique, which also makes quantum products. In a nice
touch, they offer free "true random numbers" (as opposed to
pseudo-random numbers generated by conventional computers)
from a website. If you happen to win a lottery using numbers
from it, they ask you to donate half the proceeds to the
BBN's Elliott has simple advice to Gelfond
and others trying to sell quantum devices for security. "Most
information-security technology follows a very predictable
path," he says. "It's first used by governments, then by very
large financial institutions, then by enterprises, then by
people like you and me.”
Gelfond also needs to look for customers
with deep pockets. With a current selling price of around
$70,000, he says, these things aren't going to be showing up
in Future Shop any time soon.
With more than $1 billion invested since
2001 and the opening of a $43-million photonics fabrication
centre in Ottawa last year, the future is looking bright for
Canada's photonics industry.Speakers at the Calgary conference
praised the university's vision in setting up IQIS, and
professor Raymond Laflamme of the University of Waterloo's
Institute for Quantum Computing welcomed the U of C
researchers into the fold, as did Greg Luoma, chief technical
officer of defence contractor General Dynamics Canada. His
company is working closely with IQIS.
"We do the science," says IQIS Director
Barry Sanders, "and they are going to develop the products.
They have the customer base to sell to.”
In fact, one of the company's senior
researchers is doing a PhD under Sanders.
No credible quantum information scientist is
willing to give a firm date for "the first quantum
They usually punt the question with "your
teenager won't be asking you for one soon" or "perhaps someone
has built one already and isn't telling us.”
But the consensus is that the QC's day will
come. It's pretty hard to believe that the best business and
technical brains are chasing thin air, even if it sometimes
looks that way.
In true Heisenberg uncertainly principle
fashion, we have no way to be certain about the future of
quantum computing until we actually touch it.
Web watch: http://www.iqis.org/ quantum.bbn.com
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University
of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social
implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)