Google claimed that it achieved its long-proposed goal of “quantum supremacy”. This seems to be what a research paper published by the Financial Times has claimed. This is a major milestone in quantum computing and signals a new era in which quantum computers can start out-performing classical supercomputers for various applications. Google’s quantum computer achieving quantum supremacy means that the computational capabilities of these machines far outmatch that of classical supercomputers. It’s the first time a quantum computer has been able to achieve this feat. This means the encryption we all depend on our privacy on the internet and more importantly the same encryption we use to secure crypto networks might become susceptible to cracking.
How worried should we be
While at first sight, it might not sound that threatening, this might be the biggest threat ever faced by cryptocurrencies. Yes, biggest, more than the government, more than hackers and more than financing terror or money laundering. How come? We have to remember that even though crypto has always been attacked by a hacker, technically no hacker or hacking groups have been able to hack into the core network of a cryptocurrency. This is due to two reasons, the combined computing power of the network and strong cryptography. With powerful quantum computers, both of these obstacles can be overcome. The principle behind elliptical curve cryptography is that the amount of computing power needed to break it cannot be achieved in a reasonable time frame. Unfortunately, the expected output of a quantum computer can easily break them. Also, with a few powerful quantum computers, an entity with the right resource can mount an eclipse attack on most crypto networks and succeed in doing so.
Steps to mitigate
Let’s look at some of the possible solutions to the problem.
- Add more computing power to network: This is simply not possible as, in the long run, quantum computers will surely be able to beat the network regardless of the hash rate output by the rest of network
- Use of quantum computers for mining and encryption: This might sound logical, but this assumes that quantum computers will be available for such use. How the technology will be used and to whom it will be available is still to be seen. It is highly unlikely miners are going to get their hands on them. And another problem is that quantum computers are too expensive and need special setup to run. This means that only a few big miners if they ever get their hands on one, will be able to use it (that is a big IF). This means the decentralized nature of crypto will be ruined.
- Use of quantum-resistant algorithms cryptography and proof of work (substitute): While one solution is to simply increase the number of bits in RSA and other algorithms, this will not be feasible after a few iterations and quantum computers will catch up with a matter of years. Another solution is to use quantum-resistant algorithms. The downside to these algorithms is that for one, they will be unproven for many years to come. They also tend to have slower performance compared to the classical algorithms, but this is what makes them more resilient against quantum computers’ encryption-cracking ability.
- Change the protocols such that no node can output too much hash rate into the network: A simple solution is to simply block nodes that output too much hash rate. This will work because unlike classical computers, quantum computing power increases exponentially when they are built as a huge single piece. This means that quantum computers have to be centralized single units, and therein lies the flaw, they have to be a centralized single unit to be effective. And cutting away such nodes from the crypto network, just like how Cloudflare protects websites from DDOS attacks might be the simplest fix.
While it might seem like the end of the world, we are still not at that point in time. Quantum computers are expensive and take up a lot of resources, breaking down a cryptocurrency is not going to the first agenda of these developers. Secondly, the testing done to find out the capability of quantum computers is a synthetic test to generate random numbers. How it will perform in a real-world situation is not yet known. There are a number of paths forward for the crypto community, and as always, let us all hope crypto will come through this challenge too.
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