Bitcoin, the world’s biggest and best-known cryptocurrency, uses complex mathematical equations to secure its supply and transactions.
Last year, Google sent shock waves through the internet when it announced it had built a quantum computer able to solve formerly impossible mathematical calculations—with some fearing bitcoin could be at risk.
Now, researchers in China, a country hostile to bitcoin and decentralized cryptocurrencies, are claiming they’ve matched Google’s so-called “quantum supremacy,” again raising questions over bitcoin’s future in a post-quantum computer world.
“This achievement firmly established our country’s leading position in international quantum computing research,” a team of researchers in China said in a statement alongside a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, outlining how their Jiuzhang prototype quantum computer took just over three minutes to complete a task the world’s fastest traditional computer would take more than 600 million years solve—almost 100tn times faster than today’s supercomputers.
While, it’s thought the Jiuzhang machine is unable to solve the factoring problem that is crucial to decoding encrypted information, according to a quantum researcher quoted by the South China Morning Post, many see China’s development as further evidence that quantum computer research is accelerating and could soon have real-world ramifications.
“Scientists are close to useful quantum machines that can do something non-trivial,” Lu Chaoyang, a professor in charge of the experiment at USTC, told the Financial Times.
“There are still people who question whether quantum computers will be a reality,” added Richard Murray, chief executive of London-based quantum computing company ORCA. “With two systems [Google’s and China’s] having achieved this benchmark, that argument is sounding quite unlikely.”
Exactly what quantum computers will mean for bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and the internet itself is a matter of fierce debate among computer scientists.
“Quantum computers are posing a serious challenge to the security of the bitcoin blockchain,” wrote blockchain and cryptography researchers at the consultancy Deloitte. “Quantum computers might eventually become so fast that they will undermine the bitcoin transaction process. In this case the security of the bitcoin blockchain will be fundamentally broken.”
Despite the developments achieved by China and Google, this doomsday scenario is still some distance away, with Deloitte’s team suggesting the risk of quantum computers to bitcoin could be offset by a “transition to a new type of cryptography called ‘post-quantum cryptography’, which is considered to be inherently resistant to quantum attacks.”
“Quantum computing is a very special purpose machine,” technology philosopher George Gilder, who has written extensively on the intersection of technology, economic growth and prosperity, told the Mind Matters podcast last month. “You may be able to to build [a quantum computer] that can break one form of encryption but there are all sorts of ways to circumvent the threat that quantum computing poses to bitcoin and other such encryption-based technologies.”
“Don’t dump your bitcoins yet,” Dragos Ilie, a quantum computing and encryption researcher at Imperial College London, said in the aftermath of Google’s quantum computer announcement last year.
China may have taken a “leading position in international quantum computing research” but bitcoin is still safe—for now.