Quantum Computing That Can Crack Modern Encryption More Than a Decade Away

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests encryption-cracking quantum computers are possible, but won’t be built in the immediate future.

Quantum computers with the ability to crack today’s encrypted systems are at least 10 years away from development, according to a report compiled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

However, the report—released Tuesday—makes clear that quantum computers pose a dramatic threat to the encryption that secures today’s networks and computer systems and calls for the development of cryptography immune to quantum computers as fast as possible.

“Even if a quantum computer that can decrypt current cryptographic ciphers is more than a decade off, the hazard of such a machine is high enough—and the timeframe for transitioning to a new security protocol is sufficiently long and uncertain—that prioritization of the development, standardization, and deployment of a post-quantum cryptography is critical for minimizing the chance of a potential security and privacy disaster,” the report states.

The report was requested by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in an effort to determine the current state of the art in the field, progress toward general-purpose quantum computers and the ramifications of the technology.

The U.S. is leading the pack of nations researching quantum information science, but the report suggests large investments, including those made by China, have created a global field. The private sector is the largest contributor of American quantum computing research and development, but the report outlines a scenario where government agencies may need to step in to ensure U.S. superiority.

“If near-term quantum computers are not commercially successful, government funding may be essential to prevent a significant decline in quantum computing research and development,” the report states.

Both the White House and Pentagon have introduced plans to maintain edges in quantum computing as buzz around the technology continues to grow.

Mark Horowitz, Standard University and chair of the committee on technical assessment of the feasibility and implications of quantum computing, said it is still too early to know what fields quantum computing will offer the most potential to impact. Use cases will include astrophysics and models that could help scientists better understand the universe and encryption—which is rooted in mathematics problems that are difficult for classical computers to carry out. Yet Horowitz said lots of uses likely won’t be known for a while.

“If quantum computing changes what can be computed, many fields could change,” Horowitz said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “There is a value in creating and catching this wave.”

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