2015 Press Releases

Quantum computers threaten online security

30 Jun 2015
Logistical calculations, such as mapping flight paths at busy airports such as Heathrow will take a matter of seconds, when quantum computing becomes a reality.

Quantum computing will bring many advantages, and pose a few hurdles, an academic from the Tyndall National Institute at UCC will say at a lecture to commemorate the bicentenary of George Boole, the forefather of the Information Age.

When quantum computing becomes a reality, it will usher in a brave new world of technological advancement but it brings with it a major threat too: all existing online security systems will be unable to resist an attack from a quantum computer.

Speaking at a public lecture at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in London this evening to commemorate the bicentenary of George Boole, quantum physicist, Dr Emanuele Pelucchi, from the Tyndall National Institute at UCC will pay tribute to Boole’s contribution to the modern Information Age and look ahead to the next technological leap – quantum computing.

Where traditional computers perform their calculations in binary according to Boolean logic – using 1s and 0s – quantum computers exploit the strange characteristics of the quantum state of particles at the atomic scale. In theory this will allow quantum computers to perform certain types of calculations much faster than a typical computer.

“It is difficult to comprehend at the moment just how much more powerful quantum computers will be,” says Dr Pelucchi. “Problems involving massively complex computations which can currently be carried out at the rate of once or twice a year, or which would take so long that they can never be completed, could be solved in a matter of seconds using a quantum computer.”

“All logistical calculations, such as mapping flight paths at busy airports such as Heathrow will take a matter of seconds, as would detailed stock exchange analysis. Likewise, complex calculations involving large sets of variables, such as the engineering of new materials, molecular design or creating algorithms which enable machines to learn tasks, would all become much simpler.”

Quantum computing could also lead to catastrophic security breaches if protective mechanisms are not put in place, or if the technology is first developed by criminal organisations. This is because quantum computers will be capable of breaking the encryption systems which protect almost all private communication online, in particular virtually all financial transactions.

One type of cryptosystem uses two “keys” – one public, and one private – which are derived from pairs of prime numbers. Such public-key systems use prime numbers so large that calculating the private key from the public key would take longer than the expected lifespan of the solar system. But quantum computers can do the same calculations billions of times faster because they would effectively jump directly to the correct answer.

“Quantum computers have the ability to be incredibly effective against modern cryptosystems,” says Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UCC, Professor Patrick Fitzpatrick.

“A unified effort by researchers, academics and IT security firms is needed to effectively neutralise this problem before quantum computing becomes a reality. Quantum computing technology in the wrong hands, without a proper deterrent or protection, could cause a world-wide crisis on a very large scale.”

While it is difficult to predict when the first quantum computers will come into being, experts estimate that it could be as soon as the next 20 to 30 years.

Dr Pelucchi’s lecture entitled, How maths and logic gave us monitors, is part of the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition 2015. It is one of a series of events organised by UCC throughout 2015 to commemorate the life and contribution of George Boole (1815-1864), the self-taught mathematical genius who was University College Cork’s first professor of mathematics and its most famous son.

George Boole’s theory on logic and probability laid the foundations for the system that now bears his name – Boolean logic. It was applied to electronic circuits by Claude Shannon 80 years after Boole wrote his seminal work, The Laws of Thought, and this in turn paved the way for the creation of the first computer. Every laptop, tablet, mp3 player and smartphone today owes its existence, in part, to Boole’s mathematical legacy; so too does the internet.

The Royal Society venue for the University College Cork lecture is particularly poignant because George Boole was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857. His original, handwritten copy of The Laws of Thought is held in the Royal Society’s library where Boole was fond of studying and reading.

The Royal Society’s Head Librarian, Keith Moore said, “We like to believe that Libraries are places for thinkers. So, it’s wonderful to have an example of a scholar who used the Royal Society’s Library for research and who came up with the mathematics that underpinned the digital age – and the technology we use to help researchers in today’s Library.”    

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