Conroy’s quantum warning: be ready

Former communications minister, Stephen Conroy has warned that Australian government technology decision makers need to start preparing for the development of quantum computing.

The former senator made the warning during a panel session at the Australian Computer Society’s Reimagination conference late last week. While still in its nascent development stages, the former minister for broadband communications and the digital economy said that it could have major national security implications.

“There’s one other issue that I wanted to put out there that’s coming as a disruptor and that’s quantum computing and how that’s going to affect things like national security and industrial competitiveness,” Mr Conroy said.

“There are discussions that are starting to take place around the world about that and what countries have to do to be at the forefront of that. I think it’s something that government needs to start thinking about”.

Mr Conroy was referring to a major step shift in the way that computers process information that could bring the amount of time it would take a conventional transistor based processor to carry out complex computations from thousands of years to minutes.

While still at least a decade away from commercial reality, quantum computers could have major implications for industry in the fields of medicine and data analytics.

However, its impact on the integrity of the millions of security systems and networks upon which societies rely would be equally far reaching. It could cripple the data encryption upon which they rely for protection as the sheer scale of computation power possible could make hacking them with brute force techniques trivially easy.

The physics of quantum computing is highly complex but essentially quantum computing engineers are seeking to map the conventional processing of binary code — 1’s and 0’s — to materials at subatomic levels to overcome limitations of electron transistor-based computer processors.

Quantum computers encode binary information at an atomic level in quantum bits, or so-called “quibits”. Current electron transistor-based processors have hit limitations due to stability, energy and heat problems that arise if their circuits are fabricated into silicon at sizes small enough to increase their core processing speeds. Quantum computers could overcome these limitations by creating ways to process computer language using low-energy, subatomic materials.

Rather than reading voltage states of transistors to encode 1’s and 0’s, quantum computing engineers have focused their efforts on using the orientation of the weak magnetic field or “spin” of atomic and subatomic particles to create readable qubits.

And because a qubit’s spin can be in multiple states or so-called “superpositions” at once, engineers are likely to adapt machine language in ways let quantum computers accept multiple inputs simultaneously, accelerating the speed of computations even further.

The trick has been to discover materials that sustain their spin long enough to be detected or “read” to create a viable medium for logical machine code processing to match conventional electron transistor systems.

Early attempts to develop quantum computing appeared unrealistic as the exotic and expensive nature of materials engineers used would never have led to commercially viable products.

However, since then, advances in the field have made the possibility of commercially viable quantum computers more realistic.

For instance, in 2013 a team of Australian engineers at UNSW showed that it was possible to read the core of a phosphorus atom’s spin within silicon to represent qubits clearing a path for a new way to encode binary information in a substance readily used in well-established current silicon-based processor manufacturing plants.

Earlier this year, the same team announced that they had successfully applied a similar technique to a single electron.

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