With a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team’s latest breakthrough, quantum computers are closer than ever to crack systems that rely on classical encryption technology, which is based on factoring, or finding the multipliers, of extremely large numbers.
While regular computers can factor a number with 232 digits in about two years, a quantum-based system could solve the problem in a few hours. Current encryption schemes used to secure sensitive files, credit cards, and states’ classified data rely on factoring problems because large numbers are impossibly hard to factor, MIT researchers explained.
But in the early 1990s, a MIT professor of mathematics called Peter Shor laid the groundwork for cracking classical encryption methods through quantum computers. The only obstacle in Prof. Shor’s way was the lack of a scalable quantum computer.
Older attempts to build a quantum computer that could factor complex numbers have failed because whenever additional “qubits” (the equivalent of bits in classical computers) were added to the system to allow it to perform more complex tasks, scientists lost control over it.
But MIT scientists claim that their newly developed system was successful in implementing Prof. Shor’s algorithm without any drawbacks. According to the researchers, the new system is perfectly scalable so it could be used as a starting point for more powerful and complex quantum computers.
The MIT team’s quantum computer consists of five atoms and an ion trap. Additionally, Shor’s algorithm is implemented on each atom through lasers. So far, the computer was able to successfully factor the number 15. But it could soon perform more complex calculations as more lasers and atoms are added.
Isaac Chuang, the head of the research team and electrical engineer at MIT, explained that the team’s tiny quantum computer was able to process the most complicated quantum algorithm we currently have knowledge of. But if scientists are able to add more technology, they could soon design a stronger quantum computer.
Still, Chuang acknowledged that bigger systems would require a lot of money to build, so we shouldn’t expect quantum computers to arrive at our desktops anytime soon. Researchers believe that it would take several generations before the computer is complex enough to crack our encryption methods.
But when that happens, states that have secured their sensitive documents using factoring problems should be wary that quantum computers could unencrypt all their “old secrets.”
A research paper on the work was published March 3 in the journal Science. The project was jointly funded by MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms and the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA).
Image Source: YouTUbe