Google professes a computing breakthrough – Can it undo the blockchain?

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Updated: 08 October 2019

When analysts and potential investors review Bitcoin and its accompanying blockchain platform, the examination of possible downsides generally boils down to one key threat – What if supercomputers accelerate in power so quickly that they can compromise the cryptographic security that is the underpinning of the blockchain? Can major breaches then allow the thieves to steal whatever is lying around, or worse yet, can criminals begin minting BTC before anyone can stop them?

So go the strange investigations that attempt to find the direst situation that could possibly occur to destroy the Bitcoin and blockchain revolution in one fell swoop. It is the typical kind of review that regulators are apt to perform or that venture capitalists do on a daily basis, when assessing new projects for potential investment. As crazy as it might sound, this “argument” was quickly raised when Google recently announced to the world that it had made an enormous breakthrough in quantum computing applications, thereby sending a scare through the entire crypto-verse.

When calmer minds prevailed, it was noted that Google’s “discovery” would take years to perfect, meaning that the blockchain had plenty of time to morph into its next generation of security safeguards. In case you did not know, the world of technology is always a bit of an arms race, where one side attempts to leapfrog the other’s innovations, but with blockchain, it is almost as if the entire Internet were under threat.

What are the facts, please? The Financial Times recently reported that Google researchers had, using their new quantum breakthrough, performed a calculation in only three minutes, when today’s most advanced supercomputer would have taken 10,000 years to complete the same task. On the one hand, Google claimed the event was a “milestone towards full-scale quantum computing”, which sounded like everything on the planet that depended upon computer encryption was now at risk, including Bitcoin.

Believe it or not, cryptographic researchers have feared this quasi-arms race for some time and have been moving to develop in lockstep their own version of “quantum-resistant blockchains”. The CTO of quantum-resistant blockchain firm QAN, Johann Polecsak, explained to “The most popular public-key algorithms are theoretically at risk of being broken by a quantum computing breakthrough. Most encrypted data intercepted and stored today could be decrypted by quantum computers in the near future.”

When queried about Google’s quantum computer, which has been called Sycamore, Polecsak opined that: “The notion of Google achieving a quantum breakthrough sounds very dramatic, but in reality, it’s hard to gauge the significance at this time. How can we be sure that Google’s quantum computer is more powerful than D-wave’s, for example, which surpassed 1,000 qubits four years ago?”

One of the problems with the “Quantum Computing” topic is that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, or over-hyped threats from the reality of the state of affairs. It was bad enough when the “geeks” took over the computing age, but now quantum-geeks threaten to take it over from those that came before? Most experts, however, profess that: “Bitcoin isn’t broken yet!”

The 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) will still be the mainstay for years to come. Chris Pacia, one informed expert, wrote on his blog as far back as 2013: “If every one of the 7 billion people on Earth had 10 computers testing 1 billion key combinations per second, it would take the entire population 77,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years to find a single 128-bit AES key.”

Pacia claims not to be a “quantum-geek”, but he still concludes that: “Quantum computing would likely double the size of a key that could be effectively brute-forced. That might cause AES-128 to fall, but AES-192 and AES-256 should still be safe.”

At the end of the day, we can take solace in another expert opinion from Sabine Hossenfelder: “I’m not very optimistic that quantum computers will have practical applications any time soon. I’m quite worried that quantum computing will go the same way as nuclear fusion: that it will remain forever promising but never quite work. Nevertheless, quantum supremacy is going to be a super exciting event.”