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Honeywell’s former quantum unit announces its first commercial product—and it’s totally random

December 7, 2021, 5:01 AM UTC

One big fear about quantum computers is that they will eventually—no one knows exactly when—be powerful enough to break the most commonly used forms of digital encryption.

While this data privacy Armageddon is still unrealized, many believe it’s already motivating some of today’s most damaging cyberattacks. The idea is that hackers, particularly those employed by governments, are harvesting encrypted information now in hopes they will be able to decode it later with the help of a quantum computer.

Now Quantinuum, the company newly formed by the merger of Honeywell’s quantum computing division with a U.K. company called Cambridge Quantum Computing, is offering a defense based on the idea of using quantum computers themselves to guard against the cybersecurity threat the technology poses. The company’s Cambridge Quantum subsidiary has announced it will begin offering customers encryption keys created using random numbers generated by Quantinuum’s own quantum machines.

It’s calling its random number generation service Quantum Origin.

Many encryption systems depend on the generation of random numbers. But most existing random number generators offer only an approximation of randomness—if an attacker knows the algorithm used to generate them, they can be easily reverse-engineered. Some companies use natural phenomena from classic physics, such as fluid dynamics, that are difficult to predict to create random numbers. But these processes aren’t actually random either. An attacker who knows which natural phenomenon is being used and understands some of the underlying patterns can more easily crack the encryption.

This vulnerability can often be exploited today, even without the attacker needing to use a quantum computer. Many speculate that a lack of true randomness may be one way the National Security Agency has broken the encryption on a lot of digital communication, as was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

In contrast, random numbers produced using principles from quantum physics—such as observing the spin of a subatomic particle that is in a quantum state—guarantees true randomness. There is no way to predict what the spin of the particle will be, for instance, before the instant at which the particle is observed. These random numbers can be used in both existing encryption services, such as RSA and AES, as well as in new cryptographic schemes, such as those being considered by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that are believed to offer a more robust defense against quantum computers.

Cambridge Quantum said it will use Quantinuum’s System H1 quantum computer, originally developed by Honeywell, to create random numbers for encryption keys. This computer uses a technology known as trapped ions to create its qubits, the processing units of a quantum computer. The system has 10 qubits, but because trapped ions can be kept in quantum state for longer, they can perform some calculations more accurately than quantum computers from rivals, such as IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing, that have more qubits but use superconducting materials to form them.

Cambridge Quantum said it will make its encryption keys available to customers through a cloud service, which is launching today. This is the first commercial product the company, which is still 54% owned by Honeywell, has announced since the merger was completed last week.

Duncan Jones, the head of cybersecurity at Cambridge Quantum Computing, said the company would price its encryption keys on a per key per month basis, with the cost of each key decreasing based on the number of keys a customer has purchased. He noted that existing cloud-service companies generally charge about $1 per key per month for keys that don’t carry a guarantee of randomness, but he did not say how much Cambridge Quantum will charge.

Quantinuum said that businesses that have already used its encryption keys in pilot projects are Fujitsu, which is integrating them into a wide area communications network product, and Axiom Space, which is building a commercial space station and has used Quantum Origin encryption keys in a pilot of a secure space-to-Earth communication link.  

Quantinuum is not the only company to say it is using principles from quantum physics to generate random numbers for encryption. Others doing so include Quintessence Labs, ID Quantique, and Quside Technologies. But the Quantinuum is the first company to use a general purpose quantum computer to generate its random numbers, and it says it should be able to generate these numbers far faster, and at less cost, than other companies.

Random number generation also represents one of the first useful commercial applications of today’s quantum computers, which so far are too underpowered and error-prone to accomplish many of the far-out feats that technologists predict they will one day accomplish, including cracking existing encryption systems. Other potential use cases that futurists are excited about include developing exotic new materials, more energy-efficient chemical catalysts, and the better pricing of financial risk. But all these too remain out of reach—for the moment.

Quantum computers use the principles of quantum mechanics to perform their calculations. In traditional computers, information is represented by a binary system called bits, which can be either a 0 or 1. But in a quantum computer, the qubits can represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. In a classical computer, the state of each bit is also independent of all the other bits in the processor. In a quantum processor, the qubits are yoked together by a quantum property called entanglement, enabling them to act on one another. These two properties allow a quantum computer to, in theory, process exponentially more information much faster than a traditional computer.

Correction, Dec. 7: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect figure for the ownership stake Honeywell still retains in Quantinuum. It is 54%, not 40%.

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