MIT researchers claim to have created the first five-atom quantum computer capable of cracking traditional encryption methods, potentially enabling the government to crack all encryption in seconds.
In traditional computing, numbers are represented by 0’s and 1’s. In quantum computing, however, these units are referred to as “qubits”, and can occupy a superposition of different terms, being simultaneously 0 and 1.
Usually, its takes nearly 12 qubits to factor the number 15, but researchers at MIT and the University of Innsbruck, Austria believe they have figured out a way to narrow that number down to 5 qubits, where each qubits represents a single atom.
One of the foremost features of the system is that it promises scalability, providing room for additional atoms and lasers. These atoms and lasers can build bigger and faster computers that can factor much bigger numbers.
The Shor algorithm
The development of five atom quantum computers is a solution to a problem first proposed by Professor Peter Shor of MIT. Professor Shor contrived a quantum algorithm that calculates the prime factors of large numbers more efficiently than classical computers.
Fifteen is the smallest figure that can be meaningfully demonstrated by Shor’s algorithm. Without any background knowledge of the solutions, the new system can return the correct factors with a confidence of more than 99 percent.
“We show that Shor’s algorithm, the most complex quantum algorithm known to date, is realizable in a way where, yes, all you have to do is go in the lab, apply more technology, and you should be able to make a bigger quantum computer,” professor Isaac Chuan of MIT said in a press statement.
“It might still cost an enormous amount of money to build—you won’t be building a quantum computer and putting it on your desktop anytime soon—but now it’s much more an engineering effort, and not a basic physics question,” he added.
“In future generations, we foresee it being straightforwardly scalable, once the apparatus can trap more atoms and more laser beams can control the pulses,” Chuang said. “We see no physical reason why that is not going to be in the cards.”
Encryption as a basic human right
If quantum computers are realized, then it could have huge implications for encryption. With this technology, governments could crack all encryption, turning the entire planet into a police state.
“Encryption is a basic prerequisite for privacy and free speech in the digital age. Banning encryption is like banning envelopes and curtains. It takes away a basic tool for keeping your private life private,” noted Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Global Issues.
Encryption has been banned in several countries including Russia, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Colombia. Other countries, like Cuba, Pakistan and India, have tight restrictions on who is allowed to encrypt their communications. Other countries, such as Australia and Britain, have flirted with banning encryption as well. According to Amnesty, however, encryption ought to be regarded as a basic human right.
“Governments trying to undermine encryption should think twice before they open this Pandora’s Box,” Elsayed-Ali added. “Weakening privacy online could have disastrous consequences for free societies, particularly for the human rights activists and journalists who hold our leaders to account.”
Although quantum computers big enough to crack traditional RSA encryption are still a ways down the road, the U.S. National Security Agency is excited about the possibilities this technology has to offer. Back in January, the event posted a FAQ on the potential of quantum computers.
“If you are a nation state, you probably don’t want to publicly store your secrets using encryption that relies on factoring as a hard-to-invert problem,” Chuang told sources. “Because when these quantum computers start coming out, [adversaries will] be able to go back and unencrypt all those old secrets.”