Here is the full text of cryptography researcher Craig Costello’s talk titled “The promise and peril of our quantum future” at TEDxSydney conference.
Craig Costello – Microsoft Research
I’m in the business of safeguarding secrets, and this includes your secrets.
Cryptographers are the first line of defense in an ongoing war that’s been raging for centuries: a war between code makers and code breakers. And this is a war on information.
The modern battlefield for information is digital. And it wages across your phones, your computers and the internet. Our job is to create systems that scramble your emails and credit card numbers, your phone calls and text messages — and that includes those saucy selfies — so that all of this information can only be descrambled by the recipient that it’s intended for.
Now, until very recently, we thought we’d won this war for good.
Right now, each of your smartphones is using encryption that we thought was unbreakable and that was going to remain that way. We were wrong, because quantum computers are coming, and they’re going to change the game completely.
Throughout history, cryptography and code-breaking has always been this game of cat and mouse. Back in the 1500s, Queen Mary of the Scots thought she was sending encrypted letters that only her soldiers could decipher.
But Queen Elizabeth of England, she had code breakers that were all over it. They decrypted Mary’s letters, saw that she was attempting to assassinate Elizabeth and, subsequently, they chopped Mary’s head off.
A few centuries later, in World War II, the Nazis communicated using the Enigma code, a much more complicated encryption scheme that they thought was unbreakable.
But then good old Alan Turing, the same guy who invented what we now call the modern computer, he built a machine and used it to break Enigma. He deciphered the German messages and helped to bring Hitler and his Third Reich to a halt.
And so the story has gone throughout the centuries. Cryptographers improve their encryption, and then code breakers fight back and they find a way to break it. This war’s gone back and forth, and it’s been pretty neck and neck.
That was until the 1970s, when some cryptographers made a huge breakthrough. They discovered an extremely powerful way to do encryption called “public-key cryptography.”
Now, unlike all of the prior methods used throughout history, it doesn’t require that the two parties that want to send each other confidential information have exchanged the secret key beforehand. The magic of public-key cryptography is that it allows us to connect securely with anyone in the world, whether we’ve exchanged data before or not, and to do it so fast that you and I don’t even realize it’s happening.
Whether you’re texting your mate to catch up for a beer, or you’re a bank that’s transferring billions of dollars to another bank, modern encryption enables us to send data that can be secured in a matter of milliseconds.
The brilliant idea that makes this magic possible, it relies on hard mathematical problems. Cryptographers are deeply interested in things that calculators can’t do. For example, calculators can multiply any two numbers you like, no matter how big the size.
But going back the other way — starting with the product and then asking, “Which two numbers multiply to give this one?” — that’s actually a really hard problem.
If I asked you to find which two-digit numbers multiply to give 851, even with a calculator, most people in this room would have a hard time finding the answer by the time I’m finished with this talk.
And if I make the numbers a little larger, then there’s no calculator on earth that can do this. In fact, even the world’s fastest supercomputer would take longer than the life age of the universe to find the two numbers that multiply to give this one.
And this problem, called “integer factorization,” is exactly what each of your smartphones and laptops is using right now to keep your data secure. This is the basis of modern encryption. And the fact that all the computing power on the planet combined can’t solve it, that’s the reason we cryptographers thought we’d found a way to stay ahead of the code breakers for good.
Perhaps we got a little cocky because just when we thought the war was won, a bunch of 20th-century physicists came to the party, and they revealed that the laws of the universe, the same laws that modern cryptography was built upon, they aren’t as we thought they were.
We thought that one object couldn’t be in two places at the same time. It’s not the case. We thought nothing can possibly spin clockwise and anticlockwise simultaneously. But that’s incorrect.
And we thought that two objects on opposite sides of the universe, light years away from each other, they can’t possibly influence one another instantaneously. We were wrong again.
And isn’t that always the way life seems to go? Just when you think you’ve got everything covered, your ducks in a row, a bunch of physicists come along and reveal that the fundamental laws of the universe are completely different to what you thought? And it screws everything up.
See, in the teeny tiny subatomic realm, at the level of electrons and protons, the classical laws of physics, the ones that we all know and love, they go out the window. And it’s here that the laws of quantum mechanics kick in.
In quantum mechanics, an electron can be spinning clockwise and anticlockwise at the same time, and a proton can be in two places at once. It sounds like science fiction, but that’s only because the crazy quantum nature of our universe, it hides itself from us. And it stayed hidden from us until the 20th century.
But now that we’ve seen it, the whole world is in an arms race to try to build a quantum computer — a computer that can harness the power of this weird and wacky quantum behavior.
These things are so revolutionary and so powerful that they’ll make today’s fastest supercomputer look useless in comparison. In fact, for certain problems that are of great interest to us, today’s fastest supercomputer is closer to an abacus than to a quantum computer. That’s right, I’m talking about those little wooden things with the beads.
Quantum computers can simulate chemical and biological processes that are far beyond the reach of our classical computers. And as such, they promise to help us solve some of our planet’s biggest problems. They’re going to help us combat global hunger; to tackle climate change; to find cures for diseases and pandemics for which we’ve so far been unsuccessful; to create superhuman artificial intelligence; and perhaps even more important than all of those things, they’re going to help us understand the very nature of our universe.
But with this incredible potential comes an incredible risk. Remember those big numbers I talked about earlier? I’m not talking about 851. In fact, if anyone in here has been distracted trying to find those factors, I’m going to put you out of your misery and tell you that it’s 23 times 37. I’m talking about the much bigger number that followed it.
While today’s fastest supercomputer couldn’t find those factors in the life age of the universe, a quantum computer could easily factorize numbers way, way bigger than that one.
Quantum computers will break all of the encryption currently used to protect you and I from hackers. And they’ll do it easily.
Let me put it this way: if quantum computing was a spear, then modern encryption, the same unbreakable system that’s protected us for decades, it would be like a shield made of tissue paper. Anyone with access to a quantum computer will have the master key to unlock anything they like in our digital world.