Quantum computing is by far the biggest revolution in computing since the 1950s, according to Luke Ibbetson, Head of Research & Development at Vodafone. The ultimate goal is for quantum computers to solve ultra-complex problems which otherwise would take many hours, weeks and even years to process on today’s classical computers.
While it’s obvious that computers today have made collecting, storing and analysing large quantities of data much easier and more accessible for many applications, quantum computing is a step change in processing power.
Rather than using the traditional 0 or 1 system of bits to process information, quantum computing uses quantum bits or qubits. Qubits have properties that allow them to also be in a combination of both 0 and 1 states at the same time (a property called superposition), and as more qubits are entangled (or connected), the possible compute space that could be explored increases exponentially.
Quantum Computer Interior at IBM Quantum Lab (Credit: IBM)
This gives quantum computing the ability to undertake far more complex processing tasks than a traditional computer. The industry is still in development phase though, as quantum computing is currently too error-prone to be viable for many practical problems. While these computing problems are being solved, the telecoms industry is exploring potential applications of the new technology.
“The quantum industry is on a journey to develop hardware and software for scalable, fault-tolerant quantum computers,” explained Luke. “We see potential quantum advantage being achieved before full fault tolerance through error mitigation, and other software techniques, applied to improving hardware.
“Combined with classical processors, we could tackle computational challenges in the telecoms industry such as the optimisation of complex systems like mobile radio and gigabit broadband networks. This would enable us to enhance network performance with pinpoint accuracy, as well as accelerate the use of machine learning and AI, which are becoming more sophisticated.”
As with most technologies, there are pros and cons, which Vodafone is examining. On the one hand quantum computing could have many societal benefits such as modelling new medicines. But on the other hand, crucially for the telecoms industry, it could inherently undermine the cryptographic principles relied on today. That is why Vodafone and IBM recently took the initiative, as the initial members of a taskforce formed by the industry-body GSMA, to help define ways to protect and secure customer data with the timely adoption of quantum-resistant solutions and policies.
In addition to the taskforce, the two companies recently announced at the IBM Quantum Summit a collaboration to explore how Vodafone can apply IBM Quantum Safe cryptography technology across its network infrastructure and systems, as well as news that Vodafone is joining the IBM Quantum Network. This gives Vodafone access via the cloud to IBM’s advanced quantum computing systems, and its industry-leading know-how. Vodafone will work with IBM to help validate and progress potential quantum use cases in telecommunications.
L-R: Ray Harishankar, IBM Fellow & Quantum Safe Lead; Luke Ibbetson, Head of Research & Development at Vodafone at the IBM Quantum Summit, November 9, 2022.
Vodafone’s work with IBM and the GSMA, as well as with specialist start-up companies, will help it prepare for the arrival of fault-tolerant quantum computers (where errors are seamlessly corrected and do not interfere with calculations). Under IBM’s expanding Quantum Network - a global community of Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, academic institutions, and research labs - Vodafone is particularly keen to better understand how to design hybrid classical/quantum solutions for its specific challenges. It is also exploring how to program different quantum computers and benefit from their unique properties, and how to leverage quantum algorithms.
As fault-tolerant quantum computers are not available yet, Vodafone is also exploring short-term benefits from an adjacent area called Quantum Inspired Optimization (QIO). Guenter Klas, Head of AI and Machine Learning Research at Vodafone, explained: “Researchers have extended a variety of classical optimisation algorithms with techniques that emulate quantum-mechanical effects. Through this, QIO algorithms can still operate on classical computers, but have a better chance to find or get closer to optimal solutions for complex problems.”
As an example, Vodafone has been exploring Quantum Inspired Optimization together with experts from KPMG using Microsoft Azure Quantum and Microsoft QIO algorithms to optimize radio access networks for a better customer experience.
Guenter continued: “Quantum Communications will also play a role in the future interconnection of quantum computers. Possibly providing a very high and inherent level of security for certain parts of future communication systems.”
Then there is Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). It is a highly secure mechanism which, if flawlessly implemented, can be used to distribute secret keys for symmetric encryption and decryption within a communications channel. Its security is derived directly from the laws of quantum physics.
Vodafone has been participating in QKD-related research and innovation together with national research partners. They demonstrated cryptographic key distribution using laser light through the air instead of confined to an optical fibre, with future applications relating to satellites.
There are other quantum technology areas which can offer opportunities for Vodafone. Quantum Random Number Generators, which generate ‘truly random’ numbers using properties of quantum physics could be used to strengthen the security for connected devices, including 5G and industrial IoT devices and their applications.
A further area is called Quantum Sensing. The interior of a quantum computer typically needs to be shielded from any environmental influences because the quantum objects used are so sensitive and prone to disturbance from outside factors like radiation or light. However, quantum sensors also use this sensitivity to achieve outstanding sensing performance, for example, for positioning systems or detecting electric and magnetic fields.
Luke explained: “We hope to be able to turn these elements of quantum computing into real customer benefits. This could be a step-up in cyber security for our customers or improved user experience on our mobile networks, fixed broadband networks, and possibly, future non-terrestrial networks.”
It is also important to mention the risks. Protecting a web browsing session, online banking or secure interaction with a health provider today, relies on the de-facto impossibility for malicious parties to crack a difficult mathematical problem. Even with classical computers at their current vast processing power, decrypting the security embedded in these online transactions would take too long to make it feasible for the crooks.
Guenter continued: “However, scientists have already proven that certain algorithms that would run on future, scalable and fault-tolerant quantum computers could solve mathematical problems within seconds. This could, in the future, break a workhorse of today’s cyber security, namely public key cryptography systems.”
Vodafone is keen to get ahead of the curve. It is working to prevent the possibility of a malicious party siphoning off encrypted information now, storing it and later decrypting it, if and when, good quantum computers are commercially available.
By working with IBM and the wider industry, Vodafone is looking to introduce new, attack-resistant cryptographic algorithms in a timely manner.
Scientist in IBM Quantum Lab (Credit: Connie Zhou for IBM)
NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an eminent US organisation with experience in standardising crypto algorithms, has announced the first four post-quantum cryptographic algorithms (for standardization by 2024) for key exchange and digital signatures in July 2022. Whilst NIST will progress with standardising those algorithms so they can be used in a variety of communication protocols like those used by a web browser, Vodafone will continue to undertake various quantum risk assessments, as it has recently done with KPMG and specialist company, EvolutionQ.
“Our goal is to assess the level of vulnerability of internal and customer-facing security mechanisms. We will then develop a migration strategy towards a new level of security that should prove its worth post the arrival of high-performance quantum computers,” explained Luke.
This field of innovation is called Post Quantum Cryptography. Working with specialist companies like SandboxAQ, Vodafone is also testing how these new quantum-safe crypto algorithms might impact communications systems like virtual private networks typically used by large companies.
More generally, Vodafone sees an opportunity to engage further with national or European quantum-focussed research and innovation initiatives before quantum computing presents real risks. By leveraging the cross-industry support afforded by the GSMA, Vodafone is already exploring many facets of quantum communication and its implications for telecommunications systems and infrastructure.
To start with Vodafone aims to tap into IBM’s skills in quantum technology through iterative prototyping led by IBM, as well as actively recruit quantum computing experts, to build a dedicated capability within its ranks.
“At Vodafone, our experts are leaving no stone unturned as we examine both the opportunities and the risks of quantum computing. Equally, it is important not to be swept away by the hype nor ignore it. This is just the start of a long journey.
New high-density control signal delivery with flex wiring in IBM quantum computers to provide a 70% increase in wire density. (Credit: Connie Zhou for IBM)
“Working with IBM, GSMA and others, we will define the requirements, identify dependencies and create the roadmap to implement quantum-safe networking. Only then will we mitigate the risks associated with future, more powerful quantum computers,” Luke summarised.
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