Physicists had long nurtured the ambition to build a quantum computer. In the early 1980s, one of the most famous among them, Richard Feynman (1918 –1988), questioned whether it would ever be possible to efficiently compute and simulate quantum physics phenomena using a conventional computer. He argued that digital computers couldn’t compute fast enough to calculate and simulate the quantum effects that typically occur within atoms and molecules and between elementary particles – at least not within a reasonable period of time.

Initially, he proposed building a quantum computer based not on digital coding but rather on a direct imitation of quantum systems. His core idea, which continues to inspire the development of quantum computers to this day, was that certain properties of quantum mechanics could be harnessed for computation. Specifically, this would mean taking advantage of two quantum states of particles: superposition and entanglement.

The principle of superposition, for example, can be exploited by quantum computers to carry out faster calculations. While digital computers use binary bits that can only take on the states of one or zero, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, to process information. Qubits can be one or zero, and they can also be both one and zero at once, a state we call superposition. This crucial difference enables a huge leap in computing speed for certain computational problems.

In future, quantum computers promise to perform ultra-efficient calculations that normal computers cannot solve in a reasonable period of time, a milestone sometimes referred to as quantum supremacy. Although scientists have yet to find conclusive proof of the existence of quantum supremacy, recent technical advances have been impressive. In 2019, Google claimed to have achieved quantum supremacy for a specific computational problem for the first time, having built a quantum computer that required only 200 seconds to solve a problem that would have taken a conventional computer 10,000 years.

Encryption could be cracked

Right now, quantum computers are too small and error-prone to pose any serious threat to today’s digital computers, which are capable of performing billions of computations per second. Even Google’s quantum computer was only able to prove its supremacy in a single, specific task. Nonetheless, quantum technologies have now reached a stage where their development lies in the hands of more than just physicists. Today, many computer scientists are “quantum curious”, according to ETH Computer Science Professor Kenneth Paterson. He conducts research in the field of cryptography and works on ways of securely processing, transferring and storing information. “We’ve been ’quantum aware’ in my area of research ever since quantum computing started to become a bigger issue in cryptography about ten years ago,” says Paterson. “As soon as someone builds a quantum computer that is sufficiently large-scale and reliable, the current encryption framework of the internet will cease to be secure, because quantum computing could be used to crack that encryption.”

The encryption and security protocols that run behind the scenes whenever we log on to social media, make an online purchase, use online banking or send an email are all based on integer factorisation and related problems that are vulnerable to Shor’s algorithm. Integer factorisation is the process of breaking down a large composite integer into its prime factors. This requires huge computing power, which is why there is still no algorithm – that is, no calculating procedure – that a digital computer can use to efficiently solve a factorisation problem. Back in 1994, however, mathematician Peter Shor created an algorithm specially designed for quantum computing, which can find the prime factors of composite integers significantly faster than classical algorithms. Shor’s ideas can be used to crack the other forms of public key cryptography in use today.