A Quantum Technology Revolution and an Evolution
From a technological point of view a revolution is taking shape. Ground-breaking research on quantum technology is being done at TU Delft and at institutions all over the world. A whole new kind of physics is made available to communication and computation. Quantum theory has been applied since the technology of, say, transistors, and laser is also based on quantum theory. Yet quantum internet and quantum computers introduce superposition and entanglement as central means for communication and computation. And that is truly new. Quantum technology creates a revolution by offering all kinds of new applications within communication, computation, sensing, etc. These new applications are game changers that could have a disrupting impact on society.
However, our exploration yielded that the introduction of quantum technology shows similarities with the impact of other (new) technologies. Rather than a revolution, the advent of quantum technology will gradually change and improve existing applications. The impact of these new applications in the domain of communication technology is not necessarily seen by stakeholders as revolutionary or game-changing, but it is assessed as highly impactful. So, from a societal point of view, quantum technology will be evolutionary rather than disruptive. This evolutionary perspective is more productive when considering the possible impact of quantum internet.
Take security of communication, for example. If quantum computers become available, the most widely used encryption methods for securing communication can be cracked. Were this to be a sudden event, the cracking would lead to a security crisis in communication. Messages sent over the internet, from email to data transfer become transparent to third parties, which in turn may compromise the global financial system. To curb this crisis, an urgent call to action will be required. Post-quantum encryption methods that withstand quantum computing should be swiftly put in place: telecom corporations, banks and other institutions should immediately migrate to these new post-quantum encryption methods. At the same time, we should speed up realizing a quantum internet that enables fully secure encryption through quantum key distribution.
Seen from the evolutionary perspective, some of the post-quantum encryption methods are already available and banks are already regularly updating their encryption policies in response to new security threats. A smoother response to the impact of quantum computers can then be envisioned: telecom corporations, banks and institutions can (and should) start to include post-quantum encryption methods in their security updates. This smoother response can be enabled by making information available about the emergence of quantum technologies and by giving estimates when existing encryption methods may become vulnerable to
At TU Delft we see it as our societal responsibility to give industry and society at large information about quantum technologies and their possible impact. We are ready to help stakeholders with building up a knowledge base to arrive at an independent and balanced evaluation of how to respond to the new applications of quantum technology. And we see our efforts to build a quantum internet as our contribution to add new means for communication security. This creation of the quantum internet will moreover not be enough. For building up trust in the use of quantum internet for encrypting communication, we will also support efforts towards certification of this encryption.
Access to quantum internet
A second topic that we encountered in our exploration is that of the accessibility of quantum internet to users. Research and development of quantum technologies are currently taking place in academic institutions and the high-tech industry, regularly in productive collaboration, as is also done at TU Delft. Seen from a revolutionary game-changer perspective, this may bring about a situation in which quantum technology is primarily owned and operated by a few large commercial companies. This may lead to commercial monopolies of the applications of quantum technology, or more mildly to conflicts of interests between companies and other users.
However, for arriving at a global quantum internet, an evolutionary perspective is probably more appropriate. Like with the classical internet, the quantum internet will gradually grow and no single entity will ‘own’ the quantum internet. Instead, it will be a network of connected quantum systems, all working with the same set of protocols. It will need infrastructure and quantum network devices, which will be owned, managed and supervised by many different – commercial and non-commercial – parties. As is the case with the classical internet today.
At TU Delft we aim at making quantum technology accessible to all. We, for instance, contribute to a public quantum internet through our efforts in the Quantum Internet Alliance and quantum internet hackathons. Together with partners we strive to design scalable quantum networks and pursue a quantum internet that is available to all.
These two topics combined – access to quantum internet and communication security – bring us to national issues of cyber security in law enforcement and defence. Quantum internet with its encryption capabilities gives a clear advantage to those parties that have it first: these early adopters can then shield their communication from others. And quantum computing with its decryption capabilities, gives a clear advantage to those parties that can do it first, for those early adopters can start reading communication and decrypting state and industrial secrets. From the revolutionary perspective, you would then expect major disruptions of security and military balances, say when some actors – states or companies – start decrypting the secrets of others, or when communication by some actors – criminal or not – cannot be intercepted anymore by police forces.
From the evolutionary perspective balances will get disturbed, but will eventually reach a new – perhaps slightly different – balance. Law enforcement has to change its methods of intercepting communication, for instance by focussing more on the front and back end of communication. It may also benefit from better encryption of its own communication. The evolutionary perspective will not completely rule out disruptions between actors and states: you can envision new waves of information becoming public, as occurred around WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers. And you can expect a quantum technology version of the current power struggles in cyber space. The evolutionary perspective points, however, at the importance of building up the knowledge base about quantum technology quickly, also at the level of governments.
At TU Delft we aim to make this knowledge available for giving stakeholders the means to anticipate possible disruptions in cyber security, and for enabling that all can benefit from the new applications that quantum technology can bring to society.