The Quantum Theory of Security Insanity

The most famous illustration of quantum theory, Schrödinger's Cat, actually began as a thought experiment to show just how dumb the idea of a 'superposition' was - how could something be in several different states all at once until it is observed? How can the cat be both alive and dead at the same time?

In an odd meta-twist, quantum computing's effect on security and encryption is currently in a superposition. It's both going to be the end of current security techniques, and it's going to be nothing to worry about.

Ron Rivest, MIT professor and inventor of several encryption algorithms - so someone likely to know what he's talking about - is pretty relaxed. "I'm skeptical there will be much of an impact," he said at a recent RSA conference.

But the Global Risk Institute recently released a report that claimed there was a 50/50 chance that common cryptography tools will be made obsolete by 2031. Cryptography, which uses huge prime numbers to encode and decode information, is currently safe because we don't have the computer power to brute-force a solution. Quantum computing changes this - the infinite number of monkeys with the infinite number of typewriters putting together a draft of Shakespeare's work doesn't seem quite so impossible.

People are worried enough that they're investing in security solutions to deal with this. UK-based Post Quantum, for example, have recently secured $11 million in funding after being struggling along, self-funding, for seven years.

Why does this matter now? This week saw the first 'face-off' between two competing quantum computers. One uses ytterbium ions manipulated by lasers in an electromagnetic trap, while the other uses five small loops of superconductive metal that can be manipulated by microwave signals. And both sound like the sort of crazed gobbledygook a lazy sci-fi TV show might throw at its bamboozled audience.

Neither is particularly impressive yet, with the better of the two posting only a 77.1% accuracy score. But it probably means that it's now time to figure out if our encryption technology will soon be defunct or not.

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