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Quantum computing, and why you need to care 

22 November 2023 • by Öykü Işık in Technology

The quantum era is arriving and organizations need to start thinking about encryption now, says Öykü Işık, Professor of Digital Strategy and Cybersecurity....

The quantum world is one of mystery, perhaps best summed up by Albert Einstein who said quantum entanglement was “spooky action at a distance”. Some of the greatest physics experiments in history have shown us that our common sense physical laws may not quite apply in the quantum realm.  

To better understand the workings of the quantum realm, we need to go back to quantum’s roots, which can be traced to Isaac Newton in the 17th century.  

Light: wave or particle? 

Newton’s seminal Principia Mathematica laid the foundation for classical mechanics and the understanding of the physical world. He believed that “white” light was composed of a stream of colored particles. But that did not explain how it could be reflected and refracted.  

Around the same time, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed the wave theory of light, which did explain these phenomena. Some 100 years later, British polymath Thomas Young also challenged Newton’s theory of light, with his famous double-slit experiment. As we now understand it, light behaves like a wave and like a particle. The wave-particle duality of light was affirmed by Albert Einstein in his singular paper on the photoelectric effect that won him the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.  

Meanwhile, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s wave equation expressed the possible position of electrons mathematically. He explained that while we may not know the exact location of an electron, it is still possible to know the probability of its location. Schrodinger laid the foundation for quantum mechanics and played a crucial role in the development of the quantum computer. 

Disrupting the world

In classical computing, bits, which are the basic unit of data, are expressed in either zeros or ones. By contrast, quantum computers use quantum bits or ‘qubits’, which consist of both zeros and ones at the same time. This characteristic of being in multiple states simultaneously, also known as superposition, is one of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics.

Unlike classical computers that can take years to solve complex problems, quantum computers leverage the laws of quantum mechanics to make calculations and solve equations in seconds. The ability to process massive amounts of data at super speed allows quantum computers to manage highly challenging tasks such as optimization problems, data analysis, and simulations.

With their ability to tackle complex problems that were challenging for classical computers, it was only a matter of time that quantum computers disrupted the world.

About a decade ago, there were only a handful of quantum computers around the world. In 2018, this number jumped to over 100. According to a recent report by McKinsey, in 2022, investors poured USD 2.35 billion into quantum technology start-ups, which include companies in quantum computing, communications, and sensing.

One of the early applications of quantum technology was in the development of quantum sensors. The objective was to solve GPS issues such as inaccuracy, a lack of local knowledge, loss of signal, and even jamming. Quantum navigation systems can enhance navigation accuracy in challenging environments. Quantum sensors are also used for bioimaging purposes in the healthcare industry. 

quantum computing
According to a recent report by McKinsey, in 2022, investors poured USD 2.35 billion into quantum technology start-ups, which include companies in quantum computing, communications, and sensing

Quantum computing is also revolutionizing the pharmaceutical industry for drug R&D. Molecules are essentially quantum systems based on quantum physics and the pharmaceutical sector is a natural candidate for quantum computing given the industry’s focus on molecular formation. Quantum computing allows drug companies to predict and simulate the structure, properties, and behavior of molecules more effectively than classical computers.

The financial services industry, hard hit by the forces of digitalisation, is also jumping onto the quantum bandwagon. French banking group Crédit Agricole has partnered with European tech firms, Pasqal and Multiverse Computing, to evaluate its financial products as well as carry out assessment of credit risks by leveraging quantum technology.

Last year, MasterCard announced that it joined forces with D-Wave Systems Inc. (“D-Wave”), a leader in quantum computing systems, software, and services, to build new quantum computing applications that will help transform their customer experiences. 

Risks outweigh benefits? 

While quantum technologies are revolutionizing the way we work and communicate in our daily lives, the technological leap is not without its risks and challenges.

One major issue in quantum computing is the high error rates. Qubits, the building blocks of quantum computers, are highly sensitive to environmental disturbances, including vibrations and sound. Heat also causes errors in the qubits and quantum computers need to be kept at near absolute zero temperatures.

Another challenge lies in the development of software for quantum computing which is fundamentally different from classic computing (algorithms and software development). Quantum software development is in its infancy and currently requires specialized software development and programming languages.

As with any emerging technology, there are also ethical and regulatory concerns on the use of quantum computing as a result of abuse or misuse.

Yet by far, the most critical challenge with the advent of quantum computing is its impact on cryptography and cybersecurity, raising the question: what happens if someone builds a quantum computer capable of cracking RSA encryption, a method commonly used today to secure all our digital data?

Preparing for the quantum future 

Nevertheless, organisations have to gear up for the era of quantum computing or get left behind. Today, tech giants such as Nvidia are already preparing themselves for the next quantum leap by unlocking the potential of hybrid quantum computing systems that leverage the processes and architecture of quantum computers and classical computers for problem-solving. 

cyber criminal
In an age where cyber criminals are known to adopt a ‘store now, decrypt later’ approach, being quantum-safe allows businesses to mitigate the criminal threats posed by this emerging technology

As quantum computing matures and grows in business and social impact, organisations need to get quantum-ready to achieve long-term success. 

Notably, in the new landscape of cybersecurity, organizations need to rethink their strategy on cybersecurity, which includes switching to quantum-safe encryption. Future-thinking organisations need to start thinking about how to operate securely with minimal disruption to their business operations.

One way to achieve this is by reviewing transition plans to ensure that critical systems are protected in the post-quantum era, a key recommendation proposed by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency.

In an age where cyber criminals are known to adopt a ‘store now, decrypt later’ approach, being quantum-safe allows businesses to mitigate the criminal threats posed by this emerging technology.

Other ways that businesses can minimize the impact of quantum attacks include scrutinizing their software inventory, identifying the use of cryptography, and defining a strategy for migrating to quantum-safe solutions.

This includes adhering to quantum-safe cryptography protocol standards and transitioning to the use of quantum-resistant cryptography algorithms such as the algorithms designed to withstand attack by quantum computers selected by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Securing encryption is a high-stakes long game and business organisations have to start planning a roadmap today to navigate the new cybersecurity challenges of the quantum era. 

This article is inspired by a session at IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance in Singapore, which brings together executives from diverse sectors and geographies for a week of intense learning and sharing with IMD faculty and business experts.


Oyku Isik IMD

Öykü Işık

Professor of Digital Strategy and Cybersecurity at IMD

Öykü Işık is Professor of Digital Strategy and Cybersecurity at IMD, where she leads the Cybersecurity Risk and Strategy program. She is an expert on digital resilience and the ways in which disruptive technologies challenge our society and organizations. Named on the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 list of up-and-coming global thought leaders, she helps businesses to tackle cybersecurity, data privacy, and digital ethics challenges, and enables CEOs and other executives to understand these issues.


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