The Quantum Internet: A network for all?

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From optimizing production in manufacturing, to allocating hospital beds, to operating door entry systems of smart buildings, the internet has changed from being a communication network to an advanced control system that manages an ever-increasing number of interconnected devices. Today, critical national infrastructure such as power grids, traffic networks and hospitals depend on the internet to a degree that a loss of connectivity is simply not an option. However, the architecture and infrastructure of the internet is creaking and in urgent need of an update. With the rapid advancement of quantum technologies, the question arises, how will quantum networks change the internet that we so depend on?

The fundamental shift from communication to a complex command and control system presents vast opportunities for the internet to make things better for all: water supply can be managed more efficiently, and carbon emissions may be reduced by optimizing inner city transport routes. The Internet of Things (IoT), pushed by the rapid development of evermore sophisticated smart technologies, enables highly differentiated and dispersed network control not just for large-scale infrastructures but also in everyday life, e.g. smartphone apps that remote-control thermostats in homes or the notorious smart fridge that reorders groceries at its own discretion.

Yet the internet, that is now so ubiquitous, comes with considerable risks and challenges in terms of privacy, regulatory control and democratic oversight. Today, the IoT ‘bleeds into the real world in ways that enhance life but also can compromise personal safety and security’, Laura DeNardis, a prominent internet governance scholar warns. Companies are hungry for the enormous data trails that smart devices leave. And above all, inter-connectivity radically increases the attack surface for adversaries to launch significant cyber-attacks, the number and severity of which keep rising.

The internet as we know it is out of date

The internet, a network of networks, on top of which the World Wide Web sits as its single most important application layer, runs on decades-old technology – it simply wasn’t built to accommodate smart grids, smartphones – and smart cyberhackers. To make the internet ready for the next wave of smart devices and autonomous systems, it requires an urgent update to its physical infrastructure, standards and protocols. Historically, many of the mechanisms that govern the internet are based on transparent, shared protocols and procedures that have emerged predominantly in multi-stakeholder negotiations. These usually involve representatives from various groups in society, including governments, corporations, civil society organizations, and researchers.

But now that the time has come to rebuild internet infrastructure to make it truly ready for the IoT, state actors are presented with a new opportunity to bend the internet to their will: states seem to want to have a much bigger say in the design and architecture of the internet of tomorrow. We are currently witnessing a ‘turn to infrastructure’ in internet governance by which states seek to extend their influence over the ways in which the internet functions. Principles of democratic oversight and transparency are not at the top of this agenda.

The quantum race

The emergence of new quantum technologies exacerbates this push towards state control. Key players, such as China and the United States, are currently engaged in competition to build rival versions of a future quantum internet. This has prompted some commentators to speak of a new quantum arms race between the two superpowers. Indeed, both countries have made much progress of late in developing component parts for a new internet that connects quantum computers over super-secure quantum communication channels.

Private sector giants such as Alphabet (the parent company of Google), IBM and Microsoft also run sophisticated quantum programmes. In February 2019, IBM presented IBM Q System One, the first “standalone” quantum computer. With no indication of a purchase price, the 3x3x3m glass cube is certainly not a household item and should rather be considered a symbol of IBM’s claim to technology leadership in this space. Microsoft, on the other hand, was recently forced to admit that some of its recent claims about successes in quantum engineering were overstated.

What does quantum mean for the future of communication?

Quantum computers exploit quantum phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to build machines that are hoped to perform considerably more operations than any digital computer that is available today. This would make them exponentially faster than digital computers whose processing power only grows linearly with the number of bits. This speedup would allow quantum machines to solve much more complex problems that are intractable even for our most advanced supercomputers, in particular in the domains of number crunching (which is important for encryption), simulating the behavior of molecules and finding solutions to complex optimization problems. Quantum phenomena can also be used to secure the exchange of information in a way that is, at least in principle, unbreakable.

Coupled with a quantum computer, quantum communication channels are set to form the backbone of the quantum internet of the future. The quantum internet is a hybrid network that connects quantum machines with digital legacy infrastructure. Conceptually, a quantum internet provides super-secure communication and cloud applications that are, in principle, unhackable. It provides quantum resources at scale that are widely considered to give IoT applications and autonomous systems a considerable boost in terms of scale and efficiency.

The first standalone quantum machines can be expected to enter the stage in approximately ten years from now. Significantly, the high performance of quantum computers will be able to crack encryption systems that secure much of our digital communication today; governments, security services, and the intelligence community, are naturally alarmed about this. In the majority of instances, confidential data, and top-secret intelligence, must be stored securely for many decades. Thus, because quantum machines will slowly become available over the next ten years, the quantum internet already poses a significant challenge today. Governments will need to work out relatively soon, how they can best secure their systems against attacks from state and non-state actors that have a powerful quantum computer at their disposal.

Precisely due to their vast potential and security sensitive nature, quantum hardware components and the architecture that holds them together are likely to exercise downward pressure on the principles of an open internet. For instance, European Union regulation states that ‘internet traffic shall be treated without discrimination, blocking, throttling or prioritisation’. These principles will be difficult to uphold when security services are engaged in fighting off an adversary whose quantum capabilities allow for much more sophisticated and efficient disinformation campaigns than we see today, and increased opportunities for infiltrating highly critical infrastructure and systems that can’t hold up against sophisticated quantum attacks.

Widening the digital divide

In the early stages, due to the large investments in R&D and purchasing costs of quantum devices, this new technology will likely be available to governments and large research facilities only. Given the risks associated with bad actors gaining access to quantum technologies, legislators and regulators face the dilemma to work out if, when, and how they should introduce this new technology to the general public. A staggered diffusion of quantum technologies may lead to a fragmentation of the internet among states, into several bundles and packages, where access to the internet fast lane comes at a significant premium. Such a breakup of the internet would only widen the digital divide even further.

There is a real risk that the quantum revolution will create a regulatory vacuum. Stakeholders in internet governance may be forced to play catch up with security services and military strategists who will want to push for maximum quantum leverage. The promises of quantum technologies may be too tempting for governments to impose robust restrictions on their development and application in cyber warfare, or to impose democratic control over their implementation. For advocates of an open, fair and transparent internet, the arrival of quantum technologies is likely to present a vast array of entangled problems.

 

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The Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, knowledge and research among policy experts, researchers, and scholars. The opinions expressed in the publications on the IPPI website are solely that of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI.

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