Quantum Computing: Will It Eat Our Bitcoin?

Let’s start with what a quantum computer isn’t.  It’s not small and not able to run at any other temperature than ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.  It doesn’t run windows, mac, or even linux. 

The Bot Guy
The Bot Guy
April 25, 2022

I previously wrote about the Quantum Conundrum being the only threat that really frightens me about a future with crypto.  The existing quantum computers aren’t anything to write home about, but as with every technology, each advancement brings the potential to misuse it.

I worry Quantum computing may eventually become a force to reckon with; and, as a result, spawn a whole other level of super-powerful hacking tools that think for themselves.

But let’s be honest, there aren’t many quantum computers, and even the ones that exist are equivalent to the first mainframe computers in that they are large, cumbersome, expensive and so early in the technology that specialized teams of people are needed to build and run them.

These quantum computing beasts are still in diapers.

Moore’s Law

First, a quick computing history lesson—I promise it won’t be boring.  Gordon Earle Moore is a computing pioneer. He co-founded Intel (Nasdaq: INTC;) co-invented semiconductors (which were the technology that led to transistors), and he also coined Moore’s Law.  Today Mr. Moore sits as Chairman Emeritus for Intel.

Moore’s Law isn’t legal in nature, but rather is an observation.  Moore claimed that transistors would get exponentially smaller and less expensive to produce; thus, computing power would grow exponentially and become less expensive per computing unit.  He predicted that a computer in the 1980s would be more costly and less powerful than a computer in 1990.

This theory sounds like common sense until you realize he made this prediction in 1965, and he was able to predict the rate at which the cost for “a unit of computing” has decreased.  Time has proven this law and Moore’s exponential trajectory of computing advancements.  The complexities aren’t significant; however, he also predicted a certain point where our technology to make computers may “stall out” and make the law non-applicable.

According to the Moore’s Law Wikipedia page, in 2005, Gordon Moore said the projection “can’t continue forever,” and in 2016, Moore was interviewed and predicted that the efforts to miniaturize transistors would stall at the atomic level.  

Many companies are making significant progress by creating computer parts using subatomic building materials such as Graphene Nanoribbons.  It’s not known if the breakthroughs will translate into actual computer builds any time soon, and I don’t know if these advances will keep Moore’s law alive or not.  Many technologists, including Moore, have predicted 2025 to be the last year this test of human advancement holds true. 

The increased focus on quantum computing may throw a wrench in the calculus as I can’t imagine Moore realizing this advancement in 1965.  Although a quantum computer is costly to create, maintain, and run, the promise (once fully realized) is nearly unlimited computing power.  Once a suitable product is designed, countries and large multinational companies should have good reason to invest in this virgin quantum field.

At this point, quantum computing is still a scientific realm of discovery and not a valid form of computing. Perhaps quantum computing will save Moore’s Law and drive it into the future?

What is a Quantum Computer?

Let’s start with what a quantum computer isn’t.  It’s not small and not able to run at any other temperature than ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.  It doesn’t run windows, mac, or even linux.  It also needs many non-quantum computers to input instructions and retrieve results and looks more like a fancy cypher punk experiment than anything else.

Comparing Computing

Any type of computing is broken down into storage of data and processing that data.  In a non-quantum computer, everything is binary.  There are two potential storage values a traditional computer can write to a hard drive and two possible actions a conventional computer can take.

Computers use bits, and a bit is either 1 or 0 / On or Off / True or False / Yes or No.

Say I store my birthdate in a computer and ask the computer if I’m old enough to drink alcohol.  The computer responds “yes” or “no.” This example is just a simple illustration of data storage and processing.  These are called bits, and many bits together are called bytes (no, not “bites”).

Believe it or not, all of this allows for what we know as our computer-aided society.  This 0 or 1 concept grew from floppy disks all the way to computerized handheld phones more powerful than the Apollo space capsule that landed on the moon.

Quantum computing doesn’t use bits, and bytes like regular computers as the bits and bytes are binary and only allow for storage of one of two possibilities.  Instead, quantum computers use qubits, which strangely allow for simultaneously storing a 0 AND a 1 possibility.  Hold aside the skepticism, as this is an actual function.  Indeed, quantum computers can store or process information in many ways in the same space or at the same time— these are the promises of quantum computing.

Demystifying Qubits

Imagine that instead of a computer, we use the human mind to store and process information.  Let’s say the human mind is a “traditional computer.” After all, the brain is the oldest computer known to us.  In an attempt to understand how quantum computers work, imagine yourself contemplating going to a party.  That decision is a logical “yes” or “no.”  This example is binary because you will either go or not go— there is no maybe.  Even if you are on the fence about going all week, you will still “go “or “not go.” There is no situation where you can “go” and “not go” simultaneously.

While your brain is processing the decision to go or not, you need to think through the pros and cons.  This action may be a long process, but at any given time, your brain— the binary computer—  is adding pluses or minuses for you to make this binary decision.

“Going” or “Not Going” are two substantive processing actions in a standard computer like our brain, and each refers to many other concepts like friends and other complex social constructs.  A traditional computer would arduously loop through these variables and apply logic as it processes. Each time the ideas arise, the computer would need to refine and review them, expanding “friends” into questions: “Which friends are coming?” “Do I like them?”  “How long has it been since I’ve seen them?” “Will I see them again soon?”

Questions like these are complicated to answer quickly, and in a binary computer, you need to attack those questions in order each time you come to the concept of friends.  For example, you need to know what friends are coming before asking how long it’s been since you have seen them. Likewise, imagine if you didn’t go to the party, you might ask when you will see them again.  This is a lot of computing for a simple question.

Now imagine a quantum computer addressing this same challenge.  Rather than weighing one side then the other, the quantum computer can process both the pros and cons at the same time and traverse the externalities of all possible outcomes within the same process.  A quantum computer doesn’t need to pre-decide the outcome for the sake of a process because it can test both results simultaneously.

Quantum computers are “stateless,” meaning they process data in a way where they don’t assume an answer and test for that answer. Instead, they presume ALL the answers and test for ALL of them simultaneously.  So rather than thinking, “if I go, I will see my friends,” but “if I don’t go, I won’t see my friends,” a quantum computer combines both of those arguments. These are two separate logic strings that both represent large equations that, at any given time, could be true or false in a standard computer.  Whereas in a quantum computer, they are explored simultaneously, and far less computing time produces the same line of reasoning outcome.

The key advantage is that in a quantum computer, this is all one processing action that only needs to refer to concepts like “friends” once, thus cutting out many repetitive tasks that a traditional computer might need to do.

If that’s still confusing, don’t worry. I won’t test you on this information. Just know that quantum computers should eventually be able to do nearly everything regular computers can do but faster by orders of magnitude.

After all of this explanation, you might be wondering what a quantum computer looks like. Well, they resemble the center of the Tardis for those familiar with Dr. Who.

Console room for the Tardis in Dr. Who series 8

Console Room

The Google Quantum Chandelier

Google Quantum Chandelier

Image 2 (from this article) is a picture of Google’s quantum computer.  It’s made of many copper tubes and wires and looks extremely impressive and futuristic.  This image depicts the computer with the covering removed. When it is operational, the Google quantum computer is surrounded by a sheath filled with liquid helium for insane cooling.  The Google quantum computer has 54 Qubits, but one never worked from the start, so there are really only 53 Qubits.  This number is far from the millions of Qubits needed to crack into Bitcoin wallets.

The IBM 50-Qubit Quantum Computer

IBM 50-Qubit Quantum Computer

Image 3 (from this article) is a picture of the IBM quantum computer that has only 50 Qubits, but all are in working order as far as I know.  When not traveling to conferences, the IBM quantum computer resides in a large case pumped with a special kind of liquid Helium to maintain the temperatures needed for computation.

Why I Worry

Bitcoin, and most of the current internet, uses SHA-256 encryption to secure stored data, data in transition, and data while it’s being processed. The US National Security Agency created SHA-256 as a “one-way compression” method of coding and decoding sensitive information.  Encryption at this level works by using a key to cypher (code) a message.  ALL cryptographic keys are unique, and the decoding is impossible unless you have the exact key.

You must protect your bitcoin private key (a form of a SHA-256 key) with your life. Don’t ever share that key with anyone, and then no one but you can move your bitcoin.  Because quantum computers are stateless, I worry that once they can handle such a large workload, they will be able to compute all possibilities of private keys and with the potentially immense computing power try each key with any lock all at once.

A possible worse fear— quantum miners could immediately take over 51% of the bitcoin network.  This seizure could allow for a network takeover by an unsavory actor in the future. But it’s tough to imagine any of these events as a future worth worrying about since the current information about quantum computing is early in its progression.

OK, I realize this is an incredible long-shot risk for so many reasons. Mainly because you must cool the whole contraption to just above absolute zero to maintain operation. This isn’t the same 0 degrees as when you go outside, see your breath, and say, “It’s cold out!” This zero is Absolute Zero— a scientific term referring to −459.67 Fahrenheit (−273.15 Celsius).  Humans couldn’t survive this extreme temperature.

Also, a 50 Qubit quantum computer is as tall as a human, so it stands to reason the quantum computer with 1,000,000 Qubits might be more the size of a gymnasium.  The amount of quantum computing power needed to do destruction is so astronomical it’s hard to fathom humans being able to create that much computing power ever.  I honestly don’t think there is enough helium in the world either because, believe it or not, helium is in short supply.

If SHA-256 were to be cracked, BTC and other coins would be forced to change algorithms.  This action would cause an interruption in the Bitcoin hash rate and devalue all ASIC miners simultaneously, forcing bitcoin to limp along and instantly creating more e-waste than ever imaginable.  But it’s not like this quantum computing revolution will come overnight.

Quantum Safety

I’m not alone—many folks share this fear, but it is only found in a version of our future.  It’s not a foregone conclusion that quantum computing will ever become economical enough to pursue.  Throw skepticism aside and imagine a world where BTC is worth a million dollars each.  That would mean that the whole BTC market cap is 21 Trillion US dollars ($1,000,000 * 21,000,000).  This may give folks enough of a budget and motivation to push through the impossibilities and make a better crack at quantum computing.

Thankfully, we are still very safe from quantum computers stealing all our crypto for the foreseeable future.  SHA-256 encryption protects our bitcoin from theft, and even current supercomputers would take many hundreds of years working on the same hack to do any real damage. This article gives more details and adds a crucial caveat to help ease fears of this potential dismal future.

The article claims that the amount of Qubits needed for a quantum computer to hack our crypto wallets is in the order of millions, and the largest quantum computer now has only a couple dozen Qubits.  To top that, the existing Qubits aren’t well enough behaved for reliable, accurate calculations just yet.

However, people take this threat seriously as JP Morgan is researching a “quantum key distribution blockchain network that is resistant to quantum computing attacks.” Additionally, Xx has released “the first and only quantum-resistant and privacy-focused blockchain ecosystem,” and there’s also the Quantum Resistant Ledger.  I don’t know the specifics of any of these projects, nor do I vouch for them. I’m just noting that there is development to counter this potential long-term threat, and folks are moving towards thwarting this potentially futuristic drain.

It’s good to know that people more intelligent than me are planning for the worst because the future protection of our digital assets is just as important as current protection. 


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