Quantum computers might break entire industries by breaking encryption

Researchers from MIT and the University of Innsbruck in Austria have created the world’s first five-atom quantum computer which could decipher the security of traditional encryption schemes.

More than two decades after Peter Shor, the Morss Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT, created a quantum algorithm which calculates the prime factors of a large number more efficiently than a classical computer, researchers from MIT and the University of Innsbruck in Austria reported that they have designed a quantum computer from five atoms in an ion trap.

Unlike traditional computing, where numbers are represented by 0s or 1s, quantum computing is all about “qubits” (atomic-scale units), which can be at the same time 0 and 1. The researchers’ discovery is fascinating because even though it usually takes roughly 12 qubits to factor the number 15, their attempt to reduce the number to just five qubits, each represented by one atom only, has been successful. In a paper published in early March in the journal Science, the team announced that they have created a quantum computer from five atoms in an ion trap which uses laser pulses to carry out Shor’s algorithm on each atom, to correctly factor the number 15. The success of Shor’s algorithm depended on a computer with a large number of quantum bits.

Encryption schemes could become obsolete

Chuang opined that nation states probably do not want to publicly store their secrets using encryption which relies on factoring as a hard-to-invert problem. “Because when these quantum computers start coming out, you’ll be able to go back and un-encrypt all those old secrets,” he concluded.

Although the MIT professor said that “it might still cost an enormous amount of money to build [a quantum computer]” and warned that you won’t “be putting it on your desktop anytime soon,” some countries are taking this matter -that a functional quantum computer may decipher traditional RSA encryption- seriously. In early 2016, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) published an FAQ with regard to this scenario.