What is the quantum apocalypse?

Expert warns that the advent of quantum computing is a ‘threat to our way of life’

A photonic chip under a microscope
A photonic chip for quantum computing under a microscope at tech company Q.ant in Stuttgart, Germany
(Image credit: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

Experts have been warning of something called the “quantum apocalypse” – the point when quantum computers become a reality and render most methods of internet encryption useless.

Boris Johnson promised in November that the UK would “go big” on quantum computing – a new and more powerful way of processing information, based on quantum physics. If you imagine a standard computer to be like a horse and cart, then a quantum computer is “more like a sports car – a huge leap forward”, explained the BBC.

The UK is aiming to secure 50% of the global quantum computing market by 2040, said The Guardian, by investing in the National Quantum Computing Centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire. But the US and China have already taken huge steps to revolutionise research in the field, with the Americans achieving a “dramatic lead in quantum computing patents”, said Scientific American.

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A leaked Google research paper published in 2019 suggested that a computer designed by the tech giant had achieved “quantum supremacy” – defined by The Independent as the ability to perform “a calculation that was far beyond the reach of today’s most powerful supercomputers”.

The paper said that Google’s 72-qubit computer took just 200 seconds to perform a calculation that would have taken a supercomputer around 10,000 years to complete.

There is hope that the sophistication of quantum computers could enable scientists to design new chemicals, paving the way for advanced medicines and materials. It could also help weather forecasts and stock trades, and even combat global heating.

Quantum computing “gives us a way to model nature better”, said Jay Gambetta, a vice-president of quantum computing at IBM, which boasts the world’s most powerful quantum processor.

The dark side

However, there is also what the BBC has described as a “dark side” to quantum computing. Current computers would take years, decades and even centuries to crack the encryption codes created by today’s machines, but the fact that a quantum computer could theoretically do this in “just seconds” poses an enormous cybersecurity risk.

The notion of all the world’s most encrypted files – from WhatsApp messages to online banking to government data – suddenly being broken into thanks to the advent of quantum computing is known as the “quantum apocalypse”.

The quantum apocalypse could also mark the end of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, as it would make the blockchain network – which is considered to be pretty much hack-proof – insecure. UK cybersecurity firm Post Quantum has said that if measures are not put in place, then “bitcoin will expire the very day the first quantum computer appears”.

Within ‘10 or 15 years’

The quantum apocalypse isn’t a problem that can be left to the next generation to solve. Tim Callan, chief compliance officer at cybersecurity firm Sectigo, warned The Independent that quantum computers could reach the point of defeating our current encryption systems within “the next 10 or 15 years”.

When that happens, “our modern systems of finance, commerce, communication, transportation, manufacturing, energy, government, and healthcare will for all intents and purposes cease to function”, he added.

This prognosis was echoed in a BBC interview with Ilyas Khan, chief executive of the Cambridge and Colorado-based company Quantinuum. “Quantum computers will render useless most existing methods of encryption,” he said. “They are a threat to our way of life.”

Advancing the algorithms

But it’s not all doom and gloom. As data scientists make advances in the world of quantum computing, they’re also working to create quantum-resistant algorithms to protect our digital footprints.

In the UK, all “top secret” government data has already been classified as “post-quantum”, said the BBC. This means that it uses new forms of encryption that scientists believe will stand up to quantum computers.

“If we weren’t doing anything to combat [the “quantum apocalypse”] then bad things would happen,” an unnamed Whitehall official told the broadcaster.

None of this comes cheap. The UK has invested millions into the industry over the last few years and that amount is only going to rise. But if you listen to the experts, the consequences of the “quantum apocalypse” could be so catastrophic that advancing our current systems of encryption is most definitely money well spent.

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Kate Samuelson is the newsletter editor, global. She is also a regular guest on award-winning podcast The Week Unwrapped, where she often brings stories with a women’s rights angle. Kate’s career as a journalist began on the MailOnline graduate training scheme, which involved stints as a reporter at the South West News Service’s office in Cambridge and the Liverpool Echo. She moved from MailOnline to Time magazine’s satellite office in London, where she covered current affairs and culture for both the print mag and website. Before joining The Week, Kate worked as the senior stories and content gathering specialist at the global women’s charity ActionAid UK, where she led the planning and delivery of all content gathering trips, from Bangladesh to Brazil. She is passionate about women’s rights and using her skills as a journalist to highlight underrepresented communities.

Alongside her staff roles, Kate has written for various magazines and newspapers including Stylist, Metro.co.uk, The Guardian and the i news site. She is also the founder and editor of Cheapskate London, an award-winning weekly newsletter that curates the best free events with the aim of making the capital more accessible.