Quantum communication: Protecting communication networks
Unlike postquantum cryptography—which uses new quantum-safe encryption algorithms that run on classical computers, as discussed in the sidebar, “Security implications of quantum computing: Postquantum cryptography”—quantum communication is a hardware-based solution leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics to create secure, theoretically tamper-proof communication networks that can detect interception or eavesdropping.
While there are different techniques to achieve quantum communication, quantum key distribution (QKD) is one of the most mature. In QKD, parties use quantum-based techniques to exchange encryption keys, which are then used to transmit data across traditional optical networks. Because the key exchange cannot be changed, cloned, copied, or intercepted without detection, QKD can provide a very high level of network security.
The first commercial QKD systems began to appear in the early 2000s,23 and ongoing global projects aim to extend the distance of viable QKD transmissions. In the United States, organizations have achieved QKD using more than 600 miles of existing optical fiber that connects Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston.24 The solution, which links Wall Street financial markets to New Jersey–based back-office operations, supports not only QKD and other physics-based encryption methods but also math-based techniques (such as postquantum cryptography).
Chinese researchers have several QKD initiatives using both in-ground optical fiber and over-the-air satellite links, including a recently completed 2,900-mile network that combines the two transmissions technologies. These networks serve more than 150 industrial users.25 Chinese organizations have also experimented with short-range quantum communication networks that rely on drones to carry signals.26
Current technology limitations make QKD impractical for immediate widespread adoption: It’s slow and requires expensive transmitters and receivers. In addition, because messages can degrade after traveling about 60 miles, QKD requires the use of signal repeaters, relays, and routers that could be vulnerable to attack.27 However, as quantum communication technologies (including QKD) continue to improve, we expect them to be a key component in securing vital communications.
Quantum sensing: More accurate sensing and measurement
Subatomic particles are sensitive to rotation, acceleration, time, and electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields, among other external effects. This allows them to be used to make very responsive sensors whose accuracy and performance exceed that of conventional sensors. Ongoing research initiatives are focused on developing cheaper, lighter, more portable, and more energy-efficient quantum sensors.
Quantum sensors have the potential to replace existing sensors in many applications, including locating and monitoring oil, gas, and mineral deposits; surveying construction sites; and detecting the slightest environmental, seismic, or weather changes. In the transportation sector, quantum sensors promise to dramatically improve precise navigation and positioning systems. For example, Airbus is exploring the use of quantum sensors to more accurately measure attributes such as frequency, acceleration, rotation rates, electric and magnetic fields, and temperature to improve its navigation systems.28
In the medical field, quantum sensors likely will be used to analyze temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs and to advance the accuracy of magnetic resonance imaging, furthering the ability to track the progress of cancer treatments and diagnose and monitor such degenerative diseases as multiple sclerosis.
Quantum sensors are available today for limited production use cases; their availability and capability likely will grow dramatically within five to 10 years.29
Scientists have been musing about quantum technology for decades, and quantum dynamics is fraught with obstacles. But quantum technologies are gaining momentum and are expected to migrate from research labs to real-world commercial environments within this decade.30 And in terms of potential scale and impact, quantum technologies have much in common with cloud computing. A wait-and-see attitude could cause organizations to miss critical opportunities to test and experiment with the technology while their competitors gain ground.
We encourage a more strategic approach, heavily seasoned with pragmatism.
- Understand industry impact. Learn about quantum’s potential repercussions in your industry. What complex problems could quantum help you solve? Be aware of important technology developments and pay attention to how others in your field are investing in and experimenting with quantum technologies.
- Develop a strategy. Bring together existing talent with the appropriate skills and knowledge to develop a quantum strategy. Even if the strategy is to take no immediate action, determine a trigger event—such as a competitive or technology development—that will serve as a prompt for further quantum investments and exploration. Decide who will lead the quantum charge when it’s time to engage.
- Monitor technology and industry developments. Refine your strategy as events warrant and don’t let your stated trigger event pass by without taking the appropriate action.
- Improve your crypto-agility. Come up with a plan for addressing the security implications of quantum computing and make headway in improving your organization’s crypto-agility.
Although quantum technologies are in their infancy, their potential impact on industries and businesses is too great to ignore. Respect the risk of falling behind and be proactive in preparing for the quantum future.