TelcoFuturism - Part 3
This is the third blog post in a series on “TelcoFuturism” – which focuses on the intersection points between the telecom industry, areas of advanced technology, such as drones, AI, AR/VR and robotics, plus societal changes such as climate change & shifting demographics. Disruptive Analysis looks at these adjacent technologies through the lens of what’s really happening in networking, opportunities challenges that could emerge and the tough practicalities and complexities telcos face, rather than accepting the general hype and rose-tinted views common among some forecasters.
Background: Early days, but some amazing innovation
Quantum technology is a broad new area of science and innovation 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, where a given particle can be simultaneously be a 1 and a 0. There are various other quantum effects as well.
It is possible to implement sets of "qubits" (quantum bits) for a system that can be used for massively-parallel computation, or "entanglement" where pairs of particles remain spookily connected at a distance – and used for applications such as cryptography.
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 emerging in future decades. Often people in this sector compare quantum systems with "classical" alternatives – a reference to the underlying eras of physics. There will be a lot of hybrid quantum/classical systems - including being integrated on the same chip.
Overall, it's early days for quantum technology. Although a few quantum instruments such as atomic clocks have existed for many years, the current wave of quantum computing and communications is just starting. And although there are already some existing quantum solutions, they are definitely not "universal" computers, in that the way we think of PCs, servers or cloud today. They are tailored for very specific use-cases, a bit like the earliest days of computers for code-breaking during WW2.
Cooler stuff is 5-10 years away depending on your level of optimism – although Google recently announced the first instance of a quantum computer solving a real-world problem faster than a classical system. Although somewhat controversial, this is claimed to be the first instance of “quantum supremacy” compared to classical processors.
There's also some interesting stuff being done around quantum-based accelerometers, gravity sensors and other applications.
Many of the opportunities (& threats) from quantum are "several layers up". For example, it should result in being 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, particularly as there are variables, uncertainties & practicalities at each stage.
Quantum computing is the centrepiece & will impact telcos too
There are numerous academic projects and various early commercial examples of quantum computing, using a variety of techniques. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Intel are prominent players, as well as various startups. It is reasonable to assume that Chinese and various other nations’ researchers are also deeply engaged.
This blog isn’t the venue to discuss the architectural differences, but in general they use an array of qubits which (in essence) enable massively-parallel calculations. A 10-qubit system allows 2^10 = 1024 different scenarios to be considered simultaneously. A 50-qubit system would represent as many quantum states as there are atoms making up the planet Earth.
A lot of the current work on quantum computing is oriented towards creating better ways to do machine learning - essentially the ability to absorb many, many different things "in parallel" rather than sequentially. Similar problems occur around solving optimisation problems like the “travelling salesman” – what is the most efficient ways to visit multiple points on a map
Beyond AI/ML, in many important tasks which involve optimisation or pattern-recognition - quantum solutions should help. This has applications across the board, from finance to healthcare (eg drug-design) to telecoms – for instance in optimising network designs.
There's lots of complexity in getting quantum engineering to work for computing - components often need to be cryogenically cooled to near absolute-zero temperatures, and 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. Most real-world quantum computing will likely be provided as a cloud service, with APIs for developers to write to. We’re not going to have quantum-powered phones or PCs, at least in the next decade or two.
The dark side – quantum decryption
There is a problem here, though. 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". Essentially, the ones which rely on mathematical problems, like working out which prime numbers are the factors for other, larger numbers, are vulnerable to quantum computing. Given that network functions and services are often heavily reliant on encryption (eg SIM cards, or VPNs), the telecoms industry needs to pay close attention.
This means that there might be a "Y2Q" problem digging out where the old and vulnerable algorithms might be, buried inside other systems and software. This might be a "big deal", but there is also debate among experts about whether some of the risks claimed might actually be scaremongering or limited in scope.
One issue is that this problem will affect anything encrypted now that people might worry about being decrypted in 10 or 20 years’ time. If your secrets need to be long-lived, now is the time to start thinking about the implications.
Appropriately enough, encryption has “both sides of the coin” when it comes to quantum technology. As well as the risks, there is also a new set of opportunities from quantum key distribution (QKD); indeed, this is already being commercialised as part of advanced networking technologies.
QKD allows cryptographic keys to be shared securely, by using the properties of entanglement to ensure that they aren’t intercepted by a “man in the middle”. Basically, quantum states are changed when someone observes or measures them.
South Korean operator SKT demonstrated a quantum-based secure key-distribution system in 2017, for instance – and various other telcos have also been working on similar applications. At the moment these are mostly fibre-based, although some are using free-space optics.
Implications for telecoms
Unpacking the long-term impact on telecoms is still quite tough, but some early signs are encouraging – although one particular aspect (quantum decryption) is more of a threat, while QKD should be an important component of tomorrow’s ultra-secure networks for business and government.
Another important development is the potential 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 cellular networks and devices and financial transactions which need accurate time-stamps. This could also help with the timing-sync needed for indoor networks (where there is no GPS reception), without the need to try to provide ultra-accurate time signals over IP infrastructure.
One thing to note: despite the use of terms like “quantum teleportation”, we're not getting some sort of magical mass-market "quantum broadband". 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. The relativistic upper limit of data moving at the speed of light still applies.
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.
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. There are a few options around RAN optimisation, NFV/SDN and network-planning that might be a good fit.
Overall, a fascinating topic - and one which governments, academia and industry are 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. Over time, it will definitely intersect with the telecoms industry as well – although we shouldn’t expect to see “quantum edge computing” devices in our networks any time soon.
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