Cryptography safe for now, but urgent need to build quantum skills

While it is premature to sound the death knell for current key cryptography, there is a need now to build up skillsets in quantum computing to ensure nations have the right knowledge to combat potential threats when the technology becomes viable, says Dell CTO.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

It is premature to sound the death knell for current key cryptography, but there is an urgent need now to build up skillsets in quantum computing. This will ensure nations have the right knowledge to combat potential threats when the technology becomes viable in the near future. 

And that future may play out in the next five years as market players make significant strides in the field. IBM, for instance, said it planned to produce a quantum computer capable of clocking at least 4,000 qubits by 2025. This would push the technology past experimental stage, with organisations able to deploy quantum computers within the 2023 to 2025 timeframe, IBM said. 

Such progress underscored the need to ensure there were skillsets ready to tap and support future deployment of quantum computing, said Dell Technologies CTO John Roese. 

Noting that the tech community was ill-prepared for the emergence of cloud computing, he said there were professionals skilled in traditional programming languages such as C++, but there was a dearth of relevant skillsets to leverage cloud-native architectures. 

Businesses and universities realised this and made the effort to catch up, Reese said in an interview with ZDNet. 

While the industry managed to scrape through, he urged the need to learn from this mistake and prepare for the next shift. This would ensure governments and organisations were ready when quantum computers were commercially available.

He said the technology field required a different set of skills as the programming language and build logic were different. Software frameworks and tool chains also were new, so the tech workforce including data scientists would have to adapt and build up new skillsets for quantum computing. 

Efforts here at least appear to be underway. Dell estimates that governments worldwide have committed upwards of $24 billion in research and development investments to establish competencies around quantum technology. 

This was significant, Roese said, considering the industry today was worth just $900 million in revenue. He added that Asian nations such as China, Singapore, and India were amongst those that had begun work to build up capabilities in quantum computing. 

In Singapore, such plans included focus on security and building quantum-safe networks. The government last month announced it was setting aside SG$23.5 million (17.09 million) to support three national platforms, parked under its Quantum Engineering Programme (QEP), for up to 3.5 years. 

These aimed to boost the country's capabilities in quantum computing and ensure encryption technologies remained robust and able to withstand "brute force" attacks. 

The QEP also encompassed a quantum-safe network touted to showcase "crypto-agile connectivity" and support trials with both public and private organisations. First unveiled in February, the project aimed to enhance network security for critical infrastructures and had roped in 15 partners at launch, including ST Telemedia Global Data Centres, Cyber Security Agency, and Amazon Web Services. 

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat said quantum technology could prove a "game changer", as efforts were made to stay ahead of malicious actors amidst a cyber landscape that was fast evolving. 

Heng said: "Strong encryption is key to the security of digital networks. The current encryption standard, AES 256, has held up, as few have the computing power to use brute force to break the encryption. But this could change with quantum computing." 

As quantum computers continued to achieve higher compute speeds million times faster than supercomputers, he said it was vital that Singapore invested in quantum engineering and research to stay ahead of potential threats.;

Roese noted that while public key cryptography remained robust today, the threat quantum advancements presented was "real enough" and could pose certain risks in the future. 

Personal medical information and certain banking data, in particular, that were permanent records and would remain relevant 10 years down the road must stay secured against future threats. 

"So the risk isn't about exposing the information now, but whether it is potentially vulnerable 10 years from now," he said, adding that governments also would want to ensure communications between nation states remained secured decades on, as a breach could lead to a sticky geopolitical  situation. 

He pointed to the need for tools to support crypto "agility", which would allow organisation to decide what kind of data should be wrapped in post-quantum encryption.

Asked where Dell fit in the quantum space, Roese said the tech vendor was not looking to produce quantum computers. Instead, it aimed to provide the tools and capabilities to piece together what was required to make such systems viable.

Describing the end state for quantum computers as the "quantum sandwich", he said Dell was working with key quantum players including IBM to determine the best way to architect and pull in conventional computer architectures, such as servers, so these could operate efficiently with quantum at the core. 

Part of Dell's efforts here encompassed a hybrid emulation platform that could enable developers to run quantum applications on classical computing infrastructure. 

Roese said: "There are very few quantum computers being built today. To put one into production doesn't involve just the quantum component, but the surrounding parts and you then need to operationalise it."

Dell hoped to drive this by "industrialising" the innovation and making it useable, he said, adding that it aimed to do so through its quantum simulation platform and hybrid quantum architecture systems. 


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