Bridging expertise in quantum and classical networks

An interview with Daniel Karrenberg, Chief Scientist at RIPE NCC

"It’s very useful that TU Delft is also taking up a role on thinking about the impact of quantum technology"

What is RIPE NCC’s role in the development of quantum networks?

The RIPE NCC is an independent association of classical internet providers. We support the infrastructure of the internet through technical coordination. We’re also an open space for exchanging ideas on, for example, quantum networks. Everyone in the space of classical networks should understand what’s coming, specifically in the area of cryptography, because the best-before date on the encryption we’re using today is rapidly diminishing.

You are a true internet pioneer. How do you see your own role in the development of quantum networks?

I want to help connect the quantum networking work with the classical protocol work, and I’m focusing on making the right connections to get it going. In practice, the people who know a lot about protocols have little knowledge of quantum networks. And the people working on quantum networking usually don’t know much about protocols. They need to have enough understanding of each other’s spheres in order to have a successful interdisciplinary collaboration.

What can we learn from the development of the classical internet?

Conceptually, I would like to see an architecture that can grow organically without central coordination or supervision – as is the case with the classical internet. How can we apply the same design principles in building a quantum internet, allowing decentralised growth by allowing local interconnections?

How important are open standards and what are the challenges involved to make it happen?

We need to work on open standards for a quantum internet from the start. In the classical internet, it’s a mixed bag; even today we struggle in some areas with intellectual property rights which sometimes hinders interoperating.

In my opinion, universities could have a bigger economic and societal impact if they could find ways for researchers in academia to get credits for the efforts they spend in developing – or help developing – open protocol specifications in an interdisciplinary way. Today, researchers are for a large part evaluated based on publications. And an open protocol standard doesn’t count as a ‘real’ publication.

What is the potential effect of big tech companies’ involvement in the early development stages of quantum networks?

It is no surprise that big tech companies are taking a big role; you need serious amounts of money to equip labs. You can’t do it in a garage, which makes it very different from the development of the classical internet. But who knows, someone might come up with a radically different way to create stable qubits that doesn’t require expensive equipment, and suddenly we’ll see an explosion of developments.

The trend that I’ve seen emerge over the past five years in the classical networking space is that even the most closed big tech companies are now realising that there’s an advantage to sharing the basic technology in open source communities. They won’t make it available in a productised version, but they will make some of the basic underlying foundations available for those who know where to look. This fosters spin-off developments and applications of that basic technology that they couldn’t develop themselves because money just can’t buy that. You need to engage the right minds. They can find ways to monetise it later on, and also use the open source community for recruitment purposes. IBM is moving a little bit in this direction with their publicly available quantum computer in the cloud.

Who will be early adopters?

Governments and other companies and institutions that need strong encryption today. Quantum key distribution is the first powerful use case. The promise of the quantum internet is that it will make it feasible to share one-time pads between anyone who needs strong encryption. In the beginning, this will still be quite expensive, but I hope that it will become affordable and available even to individuals like you and me before our current crypto becomes too vulnerable.

Do you see any dangers in blind quantum computing?

The concept is fascinating. In practice, I don’t think it is that different from what you can do right now. If money is no object, you can harness diverse cloud computing resources on a massive scale, and thereby obfuscate what you are really computing quite well.

When should regulation come into play?

It’s much too early for governments to think about regulation. Governments are just finding their way in governing the internet, finding the right balance between regulating and not-regulating the internet. The quantum internet doesn’t even exist. Thinking about the possible impact is a good thing, but regulation is two steps further. It’s very useful that TU Delft is also taking up a role on thinking about the impact of quantum technology.