Quantum computing and the bigger picture

Every few years IBM brings out a new addition to its Z series mainframe family. From the information accompanying the release of the new enterprise system, IBM appears to be touting the new z16 machine’s ability to handle real time fraud detection for instant payments across the financial sector. It also offers an AI (artificial intelligence) accelerator, using IBM’s Telum chip. This will certainly be good news for many financial institutes. For instance, speaking at a recent IBM-hosted roundtable, Steve Suarez, global head of innovation, finance & risk at HSBC, described how the bank was “drowning in data”. Suarez sees a need to have technology that can help the bank provide insights that actually benefit people.

What is interesting from the virtual z16 briefing Computer Weekly attended is IBM’s focus on the new machine’s ability to protect against hackers using quantum computing to break the strong encryption that underpins financial transactions.

IBM distinguished engineer, Anne Dames said: “Good technology can be used to do bad things.” In other words, a quantum computer could be used to break the cryptographic keys that are used to encrypt data.

“We are entering a new cryptographic era,” she warns, adding that the IT industry needs to act now before there is an effective quantum computing based attack.

Digital risks

The worst case scenario IBM paints is where a successful hacking attack gains access to a large quantity of encrypted data. Since this data is encrypted, it is near impossible to decipher it in a realistic timescale. The US National Institute of Standards and Technology warns that if large-scale quantum computers are ever built, they will be able to break many of the public-key cryptosystems currently in use. This would seriously compromise the confidentiality and integrity of digital communications on the Internet and elsewhere. Nist is encouraging the IT sector to develop post-quantum cryptography and IBM’s z16 is one of the first systems to claim it is quantum safe.

While this is clearly an important development and IBM’s efforts should be applauded, one can’t help worrying that IBM, Nist and the IT sector at large, are somehow missing the bigger picture. Breaking cryptography is one thing, but quantum computers have the potential to revolutionise drug development and the ability to create new chemical processes such as to reduce carbon emissions. The flip side is that these techniques may also be used to develop devastatingly effective, targeted chemical and biological weapons. As such, policy makers need to wake up to the risk, and track quantum computing in the same way that atomic, biological and chemical weapon materials are monitored.