Tackling the Quantum Threat to Bitcoin

One of my favorite descriptions of Bitcoin comes from that great oracle of this space, Andreas Antonopoulos. He called it a “sewer rat.”

Antonopoulos’s unflattering comparison is actually an expression of respect. He means Bitcoin is a survivor; its exposure to threats has allowed it to develop strong resistance to them, akin to how exposure to germs helps people develop immune systems. It has faced multiple crises – from Mt. Gox to China’s mining ban – and after each has emerged stronger, with an expanded hashrate, enhanced economic security, growing user numbers, falling transaction costs and more efficient processing.

In many ways, the leaderless, amorphous ecosystem that drives Bitcoin forward embodies Nassim Taleb’s idea of an “anti-fragile” system (although Taleb recently became quite a prominent Bitcoin critic). It offers a good reason to believe Bitcoin will again bounce back stronger from the recent setbacks in cryptocurrency markets.

As many die-hard believers will tell you, Bitcoin’s durability is in large part a function of how hard it is to alter its protocol. As we learned from the block size wars, when a lobbying campaign by powerful interests failed to find support to increase Bitcoin’s data capacity, it takes an overwhelming consensus among both users and miners for significant code alterations to be adopted. That gives the system certainty and breeds faith in the provable scarcity it promises.

A long time coming

Quantum computing has been coming for four decades, delayed because of the highly complicated engineering challenge that sits before it can achieve, at scale, the kind of supercomputing powers it promises. That slow process is why some people, including many in the cryptocurrency industry, believe it will never come.

But recently, computer scientists have discovered uses for the field’s calculation techniques in conjunction with graphic processing units (GPU). They foresee powerful uses without having to wait for the development of an all-out quantum computer.

That has raised excitement around the possibilities posed by rapid processing of massive datasets to accelerate research into areas such as battery technology. It has also fueled concern the encryption systems upon which our digital economy depends are at risk of being broken by attackers wielding quantum tools.

So scientists are collectively working on the release of a set of open “post-quantum cryptography” standards to “quantum-proof” our computer systems. A recent article in Nature by a group of these scientists laid out a transition strategy backed by the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and its foreign counterparts.

A Biden administration memo last month outlined “key steps needed to maintain the nation’s competitive advantage in quantum information science (QIS), while mitigating the risks of quantum computers to the nation’s cyber, economic and national security.” It directed “specific actions for agencies to take as the United States begins the multi-year process of migrating vulnerable computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.”