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Friday, September 16, 2016

TelcoFuturism - the impact of Quantum Technology

The other day, I was invited to the Cambridge Wireless conference on quantum computing and communications (link). Fascinating and brain-melting domain, that has profound implications for many other areas of technology (and telecom). Even though I have a physics degree, I can't claim to be able to keep up with all the maths and concepts that are discussed - but I took away a few real-world implications of what seems to be occurring.

Quantum technology is a pretty broad area, that relates to the weird properties exhibited by individual atoms or photons (light). If you've heard of Schrodinger's Cat, then you'll know how strange some of the concepts can be - especially a "qubit" (quantum bit) that can simultaneously be a 1 or 0, or "entanglement" where pairs of particles remain spookily connected at a distance.

These properties can be used to create computers, communications systems, sensors, clocks and various other applications. In a way, quantum tech is a "foundational" idea similar to semiconductors (which are themselves based on quantum mechanical principles): there will be many, many applications. 

Terminology alert: often people in this sector compare quantum computers versus "classical" alternatives. 


Some quick highlights and comments:
  • It's early days. Although there are some existing quantum solutions, they are not "universal" computers, but tailored for particular use-cases. Cooler stuff is 5-10 years away depending on your level of optimism (and stealth)


  • There were a lot of telecom people in the room - although that's partly a function of Cambridge Wireless's community (link). 
  • Many of the opportunities (& threats) from quantum are "several layers up". For example, we should be able to make more accurate clocks, which means better timestamping, which means more accurate transactions or positioning, which means better ways to create networks... It's pretty hard to extrapolate through all the layers to work out what the "real world" impacts might be, as there are variables & uncertainties & practicalities at each stage. Same thing for quantum improving AI systems.
  • There will be a lot of hybrid quantum/classical systems - including being integrated on the same chip.
  • Some crypto & PKI systems are going to be compromised by quantum-enabled decryption. It makes mincemeat of some algorithms, but others are much more "quantum-proof". There might be a "Y2Q" problem digging out where the old and vulnerable ones might be, buried inside other systems and software. This might be a "big deal", but there was also debate among experts about whether some of the risks claimed might actually be scaremongering or limited in scope. I think there will be a big ramp-up in "quantum compliance consulting" though - if enough people can understand it.
  • Quantum tech also enables totally-secure* networks to be built, using quantum key distribution (QKD). There's a bunch of tests and prototypes working around the world. At the moment these are mostly fibre-based, although some are using free-space optics. (*I'm not a cryptanalyst. Or a quantum wizard. My understanding is that secure here means non-interceptible or perfect interception-detection, but as always with security there are other weak links in the chain when humans are involved).
  • We're not getting some sort of magical massmarket "quantum broadband" any time soon, fibre or (definitely) mobile. There might be quantum-related components in networks for timing or security, but the actual physics of shipping-around of bits through air and fibre isn't likely to change.
  • One caveat - if I understand correctly (and it's possible I don't) some quantum applications might make it more appropriate either to use dedicated individual fibres, or to use frequency multiplexing (separate colours essentially) rather than networks with other forms of multiplexing. One of my "to do's" is to get my head around what quantum-level transport really means for the way we build IP networks - and whether it's only ultra-secure point-to-point connections that are impacted, rather than general "routed" ones. At the moment it seems the main use is parallel QKD streams to secure the main "media" stream. I've found some stuff on early concepts of quantum routing (link) and quantum-aware SDN (link) but if anyone has a view on the commercial impact of this, I'm all ears. 

  • A lot of the current work on quantum computing seems oriented towards creating better ways to do machine learning - essentially the ability to absorb many, many different things "in parallel" rather than sequentially. Beyond AI/ML, many important tasks involve optimisation or pattern-recognition - quantum solutions should help. This has applications across the board, from finance to healthcare to telecoms, although there weren't many suggested use-cases in BSS/OSS or network design at the event. I suspect there could be a variety of interesting options & will think more about this over coming months. (Let me know if you'd like to discuss it)


  • There's lots of complexity in getting quantum engineering to work for computing - components often need to be cryogenically cooled, there's all manner of software design and error-correction and control issues, maybe some engineering of microwave systems to link bits together and so on. This is Big Science. It's not going to be in the iPhone 9. (Although some of the sensing and clock stuff seems to be "smaller")

  • There's some cool stuff being done around quanutum-based accelerometers, gravity sensors etc. One of the biggest drivers is the desire to create a GPS-type positioning system that doesn't rely on signals from satellites - which can be jammed, blocked or even destroyed. Currently GPS is turning into a bit of a "single point of failure" for the entire planet - especially including cellular networks and devices and financial transactions which need times-stamps.


  • Someone else has beaten me to the term QCaaS (link) so I'll have to settle with QDN "Quantum Defined Networking". You heard it here first....
  • There are various implied links with IoT (sensors) and blockchain (crypto). I'll keep an eye on those for future work.
Overall, a fascinating topic - and one which the UK government, academia and industry is pumping a ton of cash into. It's perhaps not as sexy as some other futurist obsessions like AI, genetic engineering or blockchain - but it's potentially just as transformative, not least by helping accelerate the progress of all of the others.

For the telecoms industry, there's relatively little to be worried about yet - although getting older network and IT systems' crypto checked over seems important given the timelines to replace legacy equipment. Given the rising desire to exploit PKI and identity in telecoms and IoT as a long-term business, the 10-year horizon for "sci-fi" possibilities is a bit uncomfortable, especially if new breakthroughs are made. And that's before second-guessing how much extra progress has been made by intelligence communities, and how fast Messrs Snowden and Assange get to hear about it. 

We might see quantum tech appearing first in clocks used in networks, or specific optimisation problems solved with early computers from the likes of D-Wave. In my mind there's a few options around NFV/SDN and network-planning that might be a fit, for instance. There's also some cool possible opportunity around super-secure communications and non-GPS navigation. But good news if you're a serious telco quantum doom-monger, don't worry about the prospect of Netflix quantum-entangling videos direct to peoples' TVs and smartphones just yet.

If you're interested in learning more about Disruptive Analysis' work on "TelcoFuturism" please get in touch at information AT disruptive-analysis dot com. My introduction to the concept is here (link) and I've also written about AI/machine learning (link) and Blockchain (link). I gave my first keynote presentation on TelcoFuturism a few months ago (link) and will be progressively ramping this up - get in touch if you need a speaker.

1 comment:

Pete Cladingbowl said...

Interesting summary Dean, thanks. As we are increasingly seeing quantum mechanics as a "normal" part of biology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_biology it makes the use of it in other areas seem "normal" also.