May 31, 2016 By Larry Loeb 2 min read

Many dismiss quantum computing as a foreign concept that won’t be available for practical use for quite some time. Unfortunately for them, they’re wrong.

IBM has made quantum computing as a cloud service available to the world for the first time. You can check ideas against a real, functional device, although the interface also lets users try ideas out on a simulator.

In many ways this is a game changer: A new method of computing is going to be easily accessible to many. Rather than using a device-constrained model of distribution, which makes the tool available only to those who can physically access it, the functionality of this machine will be available to anyone with access to the Internet; this democratizes the technology.

The Need for Speed

This is not a full-blown quantum computer, but rather the underlying basis of one. Alone, it can’t yet solve real-world problems.

The portal has five individual qubits — a structure capable of encompassing more information than the traditional 1s and 0s of computing — that can be gated together in a logical relationship, which gives an output. In many ways, it is like programming in assembly language rather than a high-level one. It directly interfaces with the hardware with a specificity that is of limited usefulness in general-purpose situations. But it will also be incredibly fast.

The number of qubits available is important because five qubits is the minimum number required to implement certain solutions. It is a workable number for testing solutions and not just fiddling around with some curiosity project. This arrangement contains enough power to solve the math and logic that supports a fully functional quantum computer.

Why Cryptographers Are Freaking Out About Quantum Computing

While the current quantum implementation is not very powerful, it does have some big implications that are justifiably scaring some people — especially cryptographers. Most current cryptography is based on factoring two large prime numbers and applying the results. This is exactly the kind of problem that a large quantum computer would excel at.

The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) responded to quantum computing. It issued its “Report on Post-Quantum Cryptography,” which said the time to change cryptography is now, before such machines become widely available to the public — and cybercriminals.

The NIST report recommended that organizations begin by focusing on “crypto agility,” which is the ability to rapidly switch out algorithms for newer, safer ones — in other words, for the algorithms that are or will be resistant to quantum computer decryption. Creating those safer algorithms is NIST’s long-term goal. But right now, it believes “symmetric algorithms and hash functions should be usable in a quantum era.”

What has been done with quantum computing is revolutionary, and it could not have happened without the existence of the Internet to forge the necessary connections. Add in the extra education efforts such as IBM’s new public tutorials and the fact that public users are allowed to participate in learning this new technology, and the end result is a quantum computing service that has the potential to drastically change the landscape of cybersecurity.

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