Tiff Macklem is the dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, which is home to the Creative Destruction Lab’s Quantum-AI venture program. He is also chair of the Global Risk Institute.
Michele Mosca is a cryptographer and mathematics professor at the University of Waterloo, co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing and the director of Quantum-Safe Canada.
Brian O’Higgins is chair of Quantum-Safe Canada and co-founder of Entrust.
By now, most of us know that quantum computing is coming and will bring an almost unimaginable increase in computing power. The ability to perform previously impossible calculations is expected to enable wonderful advances in, for example, the development of new life-saving drugs and novel energy-saving materials. Canada’s leadership in quantum computing and artificial intelligence provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our businesses to be at the vanguard of the application of these new technologies.
Unfortunately, those same powerful quantum properties have a dark side: They will also enable much of today’s “unbreakable” encryption to be hacked in mere minutes. The encryption that underpins the security of the world’s current cyberinfrastructure will likely be undermined by quantum computers relatively soon – arguably in the next 10 years, but perhaps earlier. Even now, those with malevolent intent are able to copy and store encrypted data until a quantum computer is available to decrypt it.
This is the quantum threat, and what it means in plain terms is that Canada’s – and every country’s – national security and economic prosperity will be at risk as government, communications, transportation, banking, energy and other critical infrastructure systems become vulnerable to hostile actions.
Today, cryptography not only protects our confidentiality, it allows our devices to know who we can trust when we engage in transactions on the internet. For example, we all want to be sure we are downloading a legitimate software update, not malware, and that we are transferring money to our bank, not someone pretending to be our bank.
Canada must respond pro-actively to the quantum threat, putting in place an orderly and timely transition to improved cryptography that is resistant to quantum computing attacks.
The good news is that Canada is already a global leader in both cryptography and quantum-information science and is strong in cybersecurity. We also have a significant history of collaboration across these areas, so we should be able to get our house in order relatively quickly, ahead of other countries.
The federal government recently released its National Cyber Security Strategy: Canada’s Vision for Security and Prosperity in the Digital Age. The report correctly points out that cybersecurity is not only a means of protection but an important source of innovation that will help ensure Canada’s competitiveness.
Two decades ago, the government was an early adopter of a secure infrastructure for public-sector communications, setting an example followed by many other national governments and industry leaders. This helped Canadian companies take a leadership position. Entrust, for example, became a major technology provider worldwide, thanks in part to having the Government of Canada as an early customer.
A Canadian-led worldwide solution is once again within our grasp. In fact, the window of opportunity has opened even wider as a U.S. lead in sensitive areas of information technology is no longer assured, at least partly as a result of both the Edward Snowden revelations and the unpredictability of the Trump administration.
The opportunity to both protect Canada from the quantum threat and enhance national prosperity by exporting our approach must be seized. And we need government, industry and our universities to collaborate.
The federal government should use the regulatory, procurement and funding levers at its disposal to ensure that new digital infrastructure is designed and built to be quantum-safe. Universities and the private sector have a critical role to play in sustaining Canada’s scientific leadership and commercializing this science, fostering a new generation of quantum-ready businesses. Industry needs to invest in quantum preparedness, both to protect today’s jobs and to grow tomorrow’s economy.
If we don’t capitalize soon on our scientific leadership in quantum, others will. Our best shot is to start now and use the next decade to build a vibrant quantum ecosystem, including infrastructure, talent and home-grown Canadian businesses. This will both protect us from the quantum threat and enable Canada to seize the quantum opportunity.