When Satoshi Nakamoto mined the Bitcoin genesis block back in 2009, quantum computing was still in its infancy. Quantum entanglement had been demonstrated, but a 12 qubit machine was the most advanced model yet benchmarked.
But a lot has changed and not just for cryptocurrency. US politicians are calling for additional funding in the field of quantum research for America’s military and Federal Government; the EU has forked out $1.2bn into a ten-year research plan investigating future use-cases; meanwhile China is halfway through completing a National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, costing $10bn and expected to open in 2020.
Quantum computing is no longer just an idea, it has become a highly-viable and desirable reality.
But What Is Quantum Computing?
“The fundamental difference between conventional computers and quantum computers goes down to a near-atomic level”, says Adam Koltun, the business strategist for the Quantum Resistant Ledger. “Essentially a bit in your standard computer can only be in one of two states: ‘1’ or ‘0’. A ‘Qubit’ can be in any combination of these different states all at the same time.”
Quantum computers operate on very different principles to conventional ones. If you were to ask both to solve a problem, such as 2+2, the means by which a normal computer would solve this would be by breaking it down and solving it sequentially, leading it to come to one answer, namely ‘4’.
Quantum computers go about it completely differently and ultimately end up suggesting many answers, upwards of 100,000 or so, with the right answer being determined as the most common.
Although having very limited use-cases for everyday purposes, this makes them particularly useful for solving mathematical problems as well as in specific use-cases such as chemical equations and cryptography.
“It’s best to think of quantum computers more as a new type, rather than a replacement to conventional ones”, says Koltun. “It’s unlikely at present that we’ll find a viable use for quantum computers at an individual or private level, but for major companies and institutions it opens up many new doors”.
This ‘quantum supremacy’ is what the big players in the field are seeking – proof that their quantum gizmos can outperform ‘traditional’ supercomputers and solve problems that elude even the deepest thinkers like Summit, at the US Dept of Energy in Tennessee – which, MIT Tech Review reports, can perform 200 quadrillion (200,000,000,000,000,000) calculations per second. And it still can’t steal the 0.8 ETH in your wallet.
The Case For Quantum Resistant Networks
Although quantum-powered laptops won’t be coming any time soon, the technology raises a whole new set of problems for the cryptocurrency sector.
In conventional online finance, the security architecture used by your bank – as well as by most mainstream cryptocurrencies – relies on a store of funds that can be identified with a public key but only accessed by parties who hold a private key.
“Your BTC funds held in your wallet are what I like to call ‘functionally safe’ from traditional computers”, says Koltun.“Given enough time any computer could determine your private from your public key but this would take such a long time as to be basically unviable.”
“However the same does not apply for quantum computers which, because of their method of finding solutions, and the fact that they can demonstrably factor very large numbers very quickly, makes them very good at cracking safeguards used to protect your finds,” Koltun explains. “The way I like to visualize it is by thinking of medieval walls that were useful at keeping out invading armies up until gunpowder showed up.”
“Quantum computing is the cannon in this scenario,” he adds.
At present, quantum computers are room-filling monoliths that, because of the heat they produce, are nearly 90% devoted to cooling and stabilizing. Google’s Bristlecone, the largest quantum computer con the planet right now, only has 72 Qubits.
However, considering the interest and national funding going into the technology, Koltun argues that before long quantum computers will start operating with the estimated 200-700 Qubits required to hack present cryptography and leave wallets vulnerable to attack.
A value store and communications system, the Quantum Resistant Ledger (QRL) work on the basis that keeps the public key remaining constant, whilst given users many private keys that can only be used once.
“What QRL is essentially doing is protecting blockchains from quantum computers”, says Koltun. “By creating a system that works outside of factorization, the idea is that we can sidestep the threat.”
Rather than requiring users to maintain potentially hundreds of thousands of separate, single-use private keys, QRL plans to create an interface that makes it superficially no different from any other conventional wallet.
“Key management happens in the background,” says Koltun. “Users will have a password kept off the blockchain which they can put in as normal, but instead of this corresponding to the same key, it will go to a single-use one which the network sees once and which is no longer valid afterward.”
Founded in 2016 and based in the British Virgin Islands, the future of QRL is still yet to be determined: as well as a safe storage of value, the developer is also busy creating a private and secure communications channel that is also quantum-resistant, and is seriously considering a move into smart contracts.
For Koltun, who graduated with a degree in Anthropology and American Studies, the potential of quantum-resistant technology could make it so important that it could become the base-layer for future blockchain platforms.
“It’s a general rule that if the foundation for which your applications are built on isn’t completely secure, they can also be compromised”, Koltun argues. “Although we think quantum-based hacking is still a long way-off, we’re offering a platform which is forward-looking in terms of security”.
Quantum computing and blockchain have come a long way in nine years, to the point where governments and multinationals are researching and investing heavily in both sectors. IBM, for example, which has developed its own blockchain platform, is also busy building a quantum computing system for use in business and science.
As the crypto-community finds itself embroiled in battles over scalability and continues to build walls to protect itself from conventional hacks, the cannon is already being developed.
Seeing itself as blockchain’s answer to quantum computing, QRL aims to address problems and trends that it believes will arise in the not too distant future. When that day comes, QRL hopes it can offer bullet-proof glass and Kevlar for the cryptocurrency community.
Disclaimer: The author is not invested in any cryptocurrency or token mentioned in this article, but holds investments in other digital assets.