When will we see quantum computers?

What will be the benefits for CSPs?


2017 may become the year of quantum technologies. Microsoft, IBM and Google began developing a quantum computer capable of processing information thousands of times faster than a conventional PC. How will quantum technologies influence CSPs' business models? Will we forget about cyber-attacks once and for all? What will be the telecom market in 15 years? And how many millions of dollars will this miracle cost?

Quantum technologies – a new trend or just a marketing trick?

In the recent ten years, quantum technologies have been actively developing in European, Asian and US markets, gradually paving their way from labs to the practical domain. All this is not just about the quantum computer widely discussed by the media, rather a completely new infrastructure of telecommunications and information security. Major technology brokers in the new markets have long been working in this area – a basis for building tomorrow's business models. The world has eight global clusters embracing capacities for developing and implementing quantum technologies in the US West and the East Coast, in Europe, Great Britain, China, Japan, Australia and Russia. The key features of quantum technologies, that have been scientifically proven and even confirmed experimentally, include quantum teleporting, a high level of data transmission security, new computing capacities, super-high data transmission speeds, super-sensitivity of quantum sensors, etc. Therefore, they can be applied in a variety of fields: transportation systems, the infrastructure of smart cities and the Internet of Things, robotics, telecom infrastructure and satellite communication systems.

What is the key difference between quantum technologies and traditional information systems?

Quantum technologies treat information in a new way. Traditional computing is based on the principle of binary logics and sequential computing, meaning that a computer performs a certain number of sequential operations per unit of time. Therefore, the number of operations grows with task complexity. Let's make a simple example. If black and white beads have been scattered on the floor, a conventional computer would go over all the beads to find a white one. A quantum computer would simply look at the beads and say: "This is the white one". Such a super-computer performs computations in a single machine phase, thousands of times faster than an ordinary PC.

New computing capacities lead to new threats. Forecasts say a real quantum computer will appear already in ten years. Its advent will devaluate all modern data ciphering techniques. This is why we need to think about ways to address this threat in advance. The meaning behind classic cryptography is that the time needed for deciphering cryptographic keys having at least 1024 bits is much longer than the validity period of the data. However, data security is directly related to a decipherer's computational power and is not unbreakable – hacker invasions and cyber-attacks have always existed. A quantum computer will be able to unlock all cryptographic key of the global Internet in just one year, which is as fast as finding the white bead. This quite a serious threat for the humanity.

This means the advent of quantum computer directly relates to the emergence of new security systems?

Rather, the progress of quantum communications is generally linked to finding completely new approaches to the architecture of cryptographic systems. We can safely note we are witnessing the crisis of the modern information security framework. The cases of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame viruses used as a cyber weapon, break-ins and hacker attacks against government and private data transmission systems, the project of building a secure internal European communications network are, on one hand, a classic political game and an indication of real network security problems, on the other. By the end of 2017, the spending on combating cyber-crime is expected to reach $120 billion. According to BCG's estimations, the capacity of the cyber physical systems security market will reach $389 billion by 2020 and further increase to $2.1 trillion by 2035, with a growth rate of 15 percent per year.

Quantum technologies can offer new tools for data protection and ciphering?

Yes, quantum cryptography can be an alternative for classic cryptography. This is a completely new working principle of IT security systems. Classic cryptography is about mathematics and complex algorithms, while quantum cryptography utilizes principles of physics. Information is transmitted through fiber optic networks using light particles – photons, which can have various states. Using this physical state produces the effect of quantum cryptography.

With all this, can we speak of 100% safe communications networks?

Yes, we can, and this is the key difference of quantum cryptography. Imagine that a criminal decided to steal information – anything – your personal data in Facebook or classified documents in a secure communications channel. According to the laws of quantum physics, this information simply destroys inside the channel similar to degradation of a quantum particle. That is why no computing power can unlock the transmitted key. The criminal cannot physically reach the information. Experts say that a switch to quantum systems is expected to happen in the next 5-8 years.

Besides security, accumulation of data is also difficult. Analysts believe that by 2020 the global volume of data will reach 40 zettabytes meaning that each person on Earth will operate 5500 Gb of data. Can quantum technologies handle it?

A few years ago the world community was very enthusiastic about the Big Data trend. But the age of Big Data has not come yet. It turned out we cannot process these data simply lacking computation power which costs much money and often does not bring expected results requiring additional human analytics and interpretations. Modern computing equipment has mostly reached its limited capacity. In this regard, Big Data became the driver of new technologies: quantum computer and other quantum technologies can partly address the problem of processing and storing Big Data.

If quantum technologies are so powerful, why we haven't switched to super-computers yet?

Any scientific idea faces technological and market-driven barriers. The quantum solutions have not been commercialized because time is required for doing this. We are changing service business models in various domains – from public sector to telecom, with new emerging equipment, soft and technology application scenarios. We always need to prove competitiveness of new solutions, as they are much more expensive than previous ones. For instance, in 2011 D-Wave systems, a Canadian company, sold a prototype of a quantum computer to Lockheed Martin, an airplane manufacturing group, for 10 million dollars. D-Wave has been engineering these solutions from as early as 2007, yet no one can call the designed prototype a fully-functional quantum computer. Commercial implementation is also hindered by the lack of international technological standards.

It turns out the market is not ready for the new solutions? 

It is not completely so. There are no standards for these technologies yet, and the stakeholders in the world market have a perfect chance to be the first to exploit the new niche. Usually, we have to follow foreign standards working in hi-tech markets. Today, Russian engineers have an opportunity to draft their own rules of the game. We have the facilities, the research expertise, and the track record of applying solutions, which allow us to set the tone for several regional markets – the Eurasian space, the BRICS and SCO countries, if not globally. According to experts, quantum technologies are shaping a new big telecom market capable of fully replacing the current infrastructure. Another strong trend is the regional scope. Presumably, the new telecom infrastructure to be built in the next 10-15 years, will have new regional areas with their own standards. Competition in these markets will take place right in the field of standards.

Any changes are linked to financial investments. How big is the cost and are market players prepared to pay it, e.g. in Russia?

There are a few phases to be paid for. The first of them is engineering. Russia has three key centers for quantum communications development which have their own designs – the ITMO University in St. Petersburg and two more in Moscow – the Russian Quantum Center in Skolkovo and the MSU. Turning a design into an end product requires investments of around 40 to 200 million rubles. Today, commercial versions of quantum key distribution devices are already available in the world market at a price of around 100 thousand dollars. The Russian company Quantum Communications created on the basis of the ITMO University also offers its own devices. Yet, developing new technologies is not enough – I repeat again that a Russian standard is necessary as well. Otherwise, Western corporation will come to our market and will be able to push their equipment and set conditions for operators.

Secondly, we need to sponsor the new infrastructure, which is a completely different investment. Laying optic fiber, building same-type communication nodes, backbone access nodes, management systems and user interfaces cost hundreds of billions rubles and can take decades to be built. Such a long-term project should involve both governments and major businesses. Clearly, the new infrastructure will not appear in an instant. Building a quantum network is possible by launching pilot projects – sections replacing the classic infrastructure. Private businesses can handle such projects.

Okay, is Russia already building quantum networks on its territory?

It does. One of the cases is the partnership of the ITMO University and SMARTS (back-up: a Russian operator mainly focusing on fixed network services, headquartered in Samara). In 2016, they launched a project to deploy a backbone quantum telecommunications network in European Russia, and further expand is across Eurasia. To this date, this is the largest project of this kind in the world requiring several billion rubles to get implemented.

The project is expected to deploy telecommunications nodes and data centers powered with quantum technologies that will ensure a new quality of communication and IT infrastructure – a sort of quantum VPN and quantum clouds. In the end, customers will enjoy an unprecedented quality of communications services, with guaranteed security and reliability.

Of course, at an early stage such exclusive services are expensive and consumed by governments, special services and major corporations, e.g. banks. They cost several times more than classic communication services. Yet, as time goes on, an economy of scale becomes possible as more users start unsing the designed infrastructure. Therefore, operators will need to change their infrastructure or lease it from those who built it first.

Are there similar projects abroad?

The USA is implementing a large-scale project of laying a quantum network along its perimeter, through the data centers of major IT companies – Google, Amazon, and Oracle. The data centers are used as traffic exchange points and the quantum network is being laid between them. In future, these super safe communications channels will be available for sale or lease. China has already built the two-thousand-kilometer long Shanghai – Beijing line, and Beijing is building quantum hubs along its perimeter that will become the input points for the quantum network. This network has been handed over to commercial companies for testing and elaborating business models.

How else will quantum communications affect CSPs' business?

Quantum communications can have broader applications other than securing network channels. There are other additional effects that may further alter treatment of data and the principle of connectivity per se. For instance, quantum communications allow tracking and physical routing streams of transmitted data in pre-defined perimeters and synchronizing various devices that will help users and operators manage and track transactions and data sets with better efficiency. Quantum sensors help increase precision of navigation and positioning. Moving forward, entanglement and quantum teleportation can lead to a shift in the paradigm of data transmission and storage replacing terabytes (of zeros and ones) with storage and transferring of states of matter.

Quantum teleportation is a special way of sending data?

Quantum teleportation is the transmission of data without channels. It is based on the quantum entanglement effect. We can entangle two particles in a way that they will behave identically at any distance. If the state of one particle changes, the other particle changes its state instantly. These effects are currently used as one of the protocols of quantum cryptography. In theory, we can teleport information about an object's state to any location if we can move the entangled particles to a place with no base stations, optic fiber lines or satellites. Tampering, stealing or deciphering this information will be impossible.

Are there any ideas on how to apply quantum internet progress in LTE and 5G mobile networks? Or, quantum Internet is so far about wired networks?

We are currently speaking about hybrid technologies when classic networks are extended with a quantum element. The result is classic optic fiber with classic services, yet having new features enabled by quantum technologies. Cases of using such services are already there – in secure VIP banking, elections, protection of channels for transmitting personal genetic data.

In cellular, quantum communications can provide an optic channel between base stations, data and control centers. Here, 5G is an important element of hybrid networks ensuring a link with customer devices in a rapidly developing cyber physical environment (smart devices, M2M, etc.).

The second way of transferring data is through an open space using satellites. In August 2016, China launched the first orbital quantum satellite Mozi. According to a Chinese information agency, a reliable connection has already been established between the satellite and the experimental platform for quantum teleporting in Tibet. By 2025, it is expected to launch commercial quantum connectivity.

Quantum Science Satellite, Mozi

Satellite quantum connectivity: advantages?

Satellite connectivity helps solve the key problem of quantum connectivity – the ability to send a signal at short distances, 100-150 km in average and not more than 250-300 km. Today, installation of a new device transmitting the quantum key is required every 250 km. This technological gap can be addressed in two ways – by improving the technology through engineering and by designing a quantum repeater sparing the need to transfer an optical signal to an electric one and install another set of equipment in these spots. Such a repeater may become available in the next 5-7 years.

There are concerns that building a new quantum communications infrastructure is a project that is too costly and long?

Globally, both governments and businesses are investing big money in the development and implementation of quantum technologies. I do not think these projects will be stopped half-way. Money must be returned. The quantum communications market has to be formed in the next one and half technological life-cycles.

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