The Financial Times reported last week that it reviewed a paper by researchers from Google that indicates the company has built a computer that has achieved quantum supremacy. That paper was briefly posted on the NASA website but has since been removed as it hasn't yet undergone the peer review process to verify its findings.
Specifically, the report says Google has claimed "their processor was able to perform a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today's most advanced classical computer, known as Summit, approximately 10,000 years." Of course, at this point, it's only able to perform that one specific calculation, meaning we're still a few years from quantum computing taking over the world.
And technically, Google's isn't the first quantum computer. There are others, most of them experimental, but those have only demonstrated the ability to perform the same calculations as traditional computers at a significantly faster speed. This is different. This one performed a calculation the ordinary supercomputer couldn't.
The good and the bad.
To be sure, there are some pretty incredible things that quantum computing could make possible. For example, complex modeling that could lead to medical breakthroughs including new treatments for currently incurable diseases. It also has implications for artificial intelligence and machine learning that could contribute to analyzing enormous sets of data that simply take too much time with normal computers.
Which leads to another real-world consequence that should have us worried: Most of the ways we keep safe the things we value are based on the simple concept that it doesn't have to be perfect if it's tough. A bank vault doesn't have to be impenetrable to be effective, it just has to be hard enough to not make it worth the effort, or slow down a robber long enough for the police to show up. Sure, some people will try to crack it, but the amount of effort is usually too much for the payoff.
Encryption isn't invincible.
Encryption, for example, isn't secure because it's impossible to crack. In theory, all encryption can be cracked given enough time. The reason we consider encryption secure is that it takes far too long for traditional computers to crack it. Given enough time, every encryption scheme can conceivably be breached, it's just that "enough time" may involve, like, a thousand years. Most of us aren't worried about what someone might do with our data in a thousand years.
But what if they had a computer that enabled them to crack encryption in a matter of minutes? That's an entirely different situation altogether.
Which is why cryptocurrency experts get a little nervous about what happens when a computer is able to potentially undermine the series of encrypted transactions that keep the blockchain secure. The current algorithms are likely safe from the 53-qubit processor demonstrated by Google.
Cryptographers are also working on creating quantum-resistant technology that goes beyond even the virtually-impenetrable SHA-256 crytopgraphic hash, but no one will tell you that they've figured it out. And with Google's latest accomplishment, the timeline for finding a much more secure form of encryption just got shorter.
Why it matters to you.
Encryption is a binary thing. Once a locked system can be cracked -- it doesn't matter if you need a supercomputer to do it -- it's broken. It's either secure, or it isn't. After that, if your information stays safe, it's pretty much just luck. It's not hard to imagine a future where governments decide to require quantum computers to crack encryption on smartphones or hard drives, providing easy access with no "backdoor" needed.
Sure, your run-of-the-mill bad guy isn't going to have access to a quantum computer, but some of the greatest risks we face don't come from run-of-the-mill bad guys, but from companies who hold our most personal information.
Is there such a thing as too smart?
Which brings me back specifically to Google, which already knows more about you and what you do digitally than probably any organization or individual. The company has an enormous amount of information about you that it uses to market you to advertisers. Just because a quantum computer is restricted to an extremely narrow focus today, what's to say it won't be used to analyze and map the data of every American?
Google is a pretty smart company and it has successfully organized the world's information and made it easily accessible to just about everyone. It also created an extraordinarily profitable business collecting your personal information and offering you up to advertisers based on its ability to analyze and monetize that data. Now, imagine that power kicked into quantum overdrive.
For a lot of reasons, I'm not sure we're ready for a world where Google is that smart.