Quantum computing: Here’s the world’s first non-photonic quantum key distribution

Digital security sucks, and it’s about to get much worse. The question is: can quantum computing save us?

In this episode of TechFirst I chat with Quantropi CEO James Nguyen, who has built the world’s first non-photonic quantum key distribution over the Internet. He says that quantum computing is the next foundation of computing, period. And functioning, fast cryptography will open up our ability to use it, just like the internet unlocked PCs in the 90s.

At stake? $100 trillion in annual commerce. Global national security. Safety in internet of things devices. Medical privacy. And much, much, more.

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

John Koetsier: Digital security sucks, and it’s about to get much worse. The question is: can quantum computing save us? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

So, quantum computing is almost going mainstream. Pretty much every day you hear about new breakthroughs, and you can now spin up quantum computing resources in the cloud. But that threatens to break all of our encryption, including on our financial transactions. To talk about the future of quantum security, we’re chatting with James Nguyen, co-founder and CEO of Quantropi. Welcome, James! 

James Nguyen: Hi, John. 

John Koetsier: Thank you for joining us. I really do appreciate it. You know, hit us with the hard news first. Hit us with the bad news. When is quantum computing going to penetrate all of our security? 

James Nguyen, Co-Founder and CEO at Quantropi

James Nguyen: Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag there, because you have folks like IBM and Microsoft, they believe it’s going to be in the next few years, and some people say that it’s going to be the next 10 years.

And then you have the very skeptical people that are going to say it’s like, maybe it’s never going to happen, or 20 years.

And what we say at Quantropi is that regardless that you believe it’s one year or two years or 10 years, when someone’s asking you if your organization is quantum-safe, the answer needs to be yes.

John Koetsier: Yes. Yeah. So what’s your personal  stake in that ground when you think that quantum computing will have advanced to the point at which it can break pretty much any encryption algorithm out there? 

James Nguyen: We believe that the threat is already here, right? And current protection is already broken.

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Nguyen:  And what we always tell our customers and our stakeholders is that regardless if you believe it’s going to happen now or later, right, people are stealing your information. Bad actors are stealing your information and will crack it later. You know, or someone that has a quantum computer may be already cracking and stealing your information, and won’t be telling anybody about it for obvious reasons. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, exactly. Like SolarWinds, which we just found out about thankfully, but otherwise would never have known. Who’s doing that? Are there nation states who are investing in quantum computers for the purpose of hacking or cracking? Are some of them hostile? Or is it companies or criminal organizations?

James Nguyen: My personal opinion is that countries around the world are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into quantum computing. And I think the main reason is not really for [malicious] intent, but the thing is for nations is that whoever’s going to be leaders in quantum computing will be the leaders of tomorrow. Also, for quantum computing it brings a lot of advantages, not just a big threat, right?  You know, it helps us evolutionize machine learning, optimization, medicine research — on the other hand of the good coin, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes. Did you say hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in quantum computing? Or was it hundreds of billions?

James Nguyen: It’s hundreds of billions. And then, you know, like I think the two nations that I believe are investing the most are I think it’s Russia and China, right? I think [the] U.S. with new President Biden, he’s also made cybersecurity as a core key initiative, and I can anticipate more investments going to technologies such as quantum computing.

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, and you’re saying that China and Russia are leading in that. We certainly see a lot of news about that recently.

Quantify the risk for us. Let’s say that, as you said, we’re vulnerable right now. There’s multiple versions of quantum computers that are out there today and there’s billions, hundreds of billions dollars of investment there in making them better. Quantify the risk if quantum computing penetrates all our security, if the encryption algorithms that we use just become easy to solve. 

James Nguyen: Yeah, so I probably like to compare it to our global pandemic, right? You saw trillions of dollars kind of hit the economy — many have lives lost. And if you thought the global pandemic was bad, the quantum threat I think will be maybe two times much more dangerous and costly.

The World Economic Forum already said that by 2025 this thing, we call it ‘the digital economy,’ is going to be worth a hundred trillion dollars. And, you know, everything that we operate today that’s important to us, such as our memories, our financial assets, our legacy, or even our military weapons … anything that we deal with in sets of information, right, is controlled over the internet. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Nguyen: So if you have someone that’s manipulating the internet for bad reasons, that could be very, very detrimental, you know? And not only that, like one of the main reasons why me and my co-founder, Dr. Randy Kuang, started Quantropi was we see the evolution of our species, like what Elon Musk is trying to do with Tesla and SpaceX and whatnot.

We really love quantum technologies — my co-founder comes from that space — because quantum technologies are really going to be able to help us basically evolutionize as a species, you know — get into space; do many, many things; solve many diseases through optimization for chemistry learning.

But how do you basically take advantage of this good wave without being afraid of creating the bad things that come with it?

Because on the other hand, it really undermines and breaks today’s PKI encryption. And if a criminal was going to basically leverage a quantum computer for bad reasons, right, you literally can start wars. You literally can basically empty people’s bank accounts. You really could basically steal people’s identities, right?

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

James Nguyen: Everything that we believe or, you know, is important to us, it’s going to be broken. 

John Koetsier: Wow. So that kind of makes SolarWinds look like a script kiddie. Let’s talk about your solution. What have you built? You’ve got what you said is the first-in-the-world solution of its kind. What have you built and how will it protect us? 

James Nguyen: Well, we started this company three years ago, right? And there’s really two main approaches to kind of deal with this big problem called like the ‘quantum threat.’ And one approach is through a quantum key distribution. Unfortunately, that technology is really good for limited use or inside the lab. The NSA has already said this is not a viable solution, right, because there’s such high costs, a lot of site and distance limitations. The other one is post-quantum cryptography. It’s basically like a more complex algorithm. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Nguyen: The problem with this one is that it does come with some restraints, because it requires a high computing power. It’s also usually a higher latency, and the thing is like a cat and mouse game, right? So just because you have a better algorithm doesn’t mean it can’t be cracked one day.

Yeah, so what Quantropi has done is really looked at this, right, because my co-founder, Dr. Randy Kuang, has like 40 patents under his belt, written stuff that NASA uses, has tons of publications. He came from quantum key distribution working over decades at Nortel, and he said, you know, this is a great technology and the quantum mechanics of it definitely are probably secure, but unfortunately we can’t really use it in a commercial environment.

So then basically our solution, in essence, takes all the advantages of quantum key distribution and post-quantum cryptography, minus the disadvantage, and then you have Quantropi.

And why is that important? We basically put information to a quantum state that makes it uninterpretable.

What we do differently than our competitors or what you see in the market is that we’ve developed the world’s first cloud-based platform for literally digital quantum key distribution over the internet, right? We’ve also developed a long term vision that we actually can implement in the short term, that we have an application there, which is our key resets for quantum entropy expansion protocol, along with our own post-quantum cryptography algorithm for solving the pre-share key issue — I’ll call it the GPK, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

James Nguyen: Galois Public Key. And then not only that, for our friends in the telecommunications industry, we’ve developed an infrastructure layer for the kind of like a proper optic channel, right?

Where we’ve been able to prove — with a partnership with McGill — that we’re a hundred thousand times faster than existing quantum key distribution systems, as well as much more longer in distance.

So, why is this solution that Quantropi came up with important? Because not only did we come up with almost like a timeless solution, but it’s implementable today … and it’s very scalable, and it’s extremely low cost, and lightweight. 

John Koetsier: It sounds like an abstraction layer for quantum cryptography, basically, that you can call into your applications and call into your website and whatever you’re doing. Is that accurate? And it sounds like you don’t need a quantum computer yourself to take advantage of the solution. 

James Nguyen: Definitely not. This here is really for us to enable the existing infrastructure, right? So the good thing about our technology is that it works over existing infrastructure with existing devices. There’s a lot of companies right now that can develop very strong quantum entropy — or quantum random numbers — that is required for quantum cryptography.

The problem that the market has is that nobody is able to distribute this quantum entropy or these true random numbers over existing infrastructure, such as the internet.

Also, we’re able to do it at the fastest speeds, at gigabits per second, right? We don’t have any distance limitation. Also, our solution is a simulation solution within the software, right? So it’s through our software development kit, you literally can easily install it. You know, right now we have a closed beta where we’re working with Fortune 100 companies to sign onto this closed beta, right. Where they’re able to now draw on this capability to obtain quantum entropy to create quantum keys that are only known to them — so it is very secure — and then use that capability for their own applications, so either they want to create a quantum-safe VPN or a quantum-safe chat.

What we’ve done at Quantropi for our application is we came up with something called CipherSpace. And why is this CipherSpace so unique? It’s because there’s a holy grail of cybersecurity, right, where it’s even quantum-safe … and that’s called perfect secrecy. Perfect secrecy has been around for over a hundred years, since 1917, but no company has been able to enable it in a scalable and practical manner until Quantropi — or until today.

And the reason why we’re able to do this is because we can stream keys at any length and size at fast speeds, on demand, over the internet. And I’m talking about quantum keys. 

John Koetsier: So, extrapolate out for me a little bit. This is obviously something that you’re going to be targeting towards enterprise, probably government as well … probably FinTech companies. Is this something that could eventually be something that a consumer could use? 

James Nguyen: Our business model and our approach to the industry is that our target markets are cloud-native type companies and telecommunications, right. And most of these monolithic companies clients are financial institutions, governments, and other large organizations. So we’re a B2B business. And what we try to do is that we try to enable our B customers with this new capability that is going to basically really enable you to equip quantum-safe products that weren’t available or possible before.

So we hope that by doing that, we’re going to enable a whole new ecosystem of end user application and devices that are quantum-safe and let those guys, you know, for example, let the Tesla of the world create these quantum-safe cars. Let JP Morgan create these quantum-safe financial products. But we’ll enable them — with our core technology capabilities, and other suite of technologies — so that they can basically be the leaders and continue to be dominant in their space.

John Koetsier: You’re Intel Inside, essentially. You’re the technology underneath that gets eventually distributed out to consumers, but they may not even know how the security works or what it’s for.

Now talk a little bit about how people can know that your technology is as good as you’re saying that it is — that it is uncrackable. I mean, because we hear about every day supposedly ‘secure’ systems being hacked, being cracked, people getting into them encryptions being broken, those sorts of things. How have you tested it? And how can people know that your security is at the level that you’re talking about? 

James Nguyen: That’s a very good question. And as a startup, that’s definitely one of our main challenges. How we approach that is, you know, it’s not a race, right? We’re not trying to basically become the standard tomorrow, right? We believe that with these key success drivers and these futures and benefits, that people are automatically going to want to use our solutions.

What we’ve done is — apart from really getting our patents granted, right, so we have two of our core patents granted already with another 10-plus pending — we also have several publications [that] have been accepted at the IEEE Qch 2020 where we were kind of mentioned along [with] other companies, such as IBM, Microsoft, and Honeywell. We’ve extended the university partnerships and continue to collaborate with other university labs, as well as industry collaborations with Fortune 100 companies … all in the cloud and telco quantum communication space.

So we’re going really around three streams, right? So you have the academic validation. You have the business validation. And with all our use cases and proof of concepts, we consider that our technology validation. So people, like, they may not understand the theory, but they actually see it in work. We can give you a demo. We actually give you CipherSpace right now, and we can show how we can distribute this quantum entropy 90 bits per second.

We’ve shown that today, we have to have a PoC for an integrator for our government. And we also have several other PoCs with Fortune 100 companies.

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. Maybe someday in the future there’ll be a hack contest as well — hack into Quantropi, win a billion dollars, ’cause you can’t do it — or something like that.

I won’t put words in your mouth there, but maybe at a high level, give us an understanding of how the technology works. What’s working on the back end? How are you generating the keys? Do you own a quantum computer or are you running on a quantum cloud? What are you doing? 

James Nguyen: Yeah, like, so I want to use this opportunity to really give a shout out to a partner, give them a bit of some press there, because they’ve been a great partner — there’s a company in Australia called QuintessenceLabs. The reason why we chose them is we wanted their piece of box into our appliance. We believe that their appliance was our preferred product, because we compared many other ones and they were the ones that did gigabits per second.

And there’s a key reason why we chose that. Our technology doesn’t have any top limit on how fast we do these key distribution rates, right? So we, in order to market ourselves the best that we could, we said, let’s go to the market with the guys that can do it at the fastest bit rate … and that was QuintessenceLabs. We’re not in the hardware business, and we’re not going to pretend we’re experts in the hardware business.

We also chose this box because we understand in cybersecurity and in this industry, their level two box is NIS compliant, FIPS certified. So we got all that kind of like out of the way, right? And then, so that helps us with our, you know, explaining less to the client that, hey, we actually have a valid source that’s been tested, that it’s passed all the certification and the test suites. And then we’ve done our own too, for our own technology, for our software, right? So that there helps the customers say, hey, you know what? That makes sense. And then having a really good end-to-end diagram backed with theory and science on how this — if you want to get kind of deep into the weeds — how this works. Then we usually lock you into a room with our co-founder, our quantum physicists, and our PhDs, and let you kind of like whiteboard it out.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Name of the company was again…? 

James Nguyen: Yeah, so the name of the company was QuintessenceLabs.  

John Koetsier: QuintessenceLabs, excellent. So, they make a box that’s a quantum computer in a box pretty much, that — do you access that on the cloud? Do you have them in your own site? Do you ship them out to customers? 

James Nguyen: Yeah, so that box is stored in a secure location.

John Koetsier: Okay.

James Nguyen:  And then we’ve basically built adapters and built our technology into it, because our solution is software. And our technology allows you to take now the quantum entropy that that box generates, right, and then through keep our technology distributes that quantum entropy to a customer — a B2B client.

John Koetsier: Yep. 

James Nguyen: That customer also has their own quantum gate technology by keep, right? And the reason why that’s important is that’s so when they generate their own quantum keys, we have no idea what they generate. So, I’ll use an analogy. So right now you have these plastic keys and locks to be used for security, right, to be quantum-safe—

John Koetsier: Toys! Toys that everybody has right now. 

James Nguyen: Perfect example, yeah, toys, right, Fisher-Price. So now, to be quantum-safe, you need these iron keys and lock, right? So what Quantropi has done, is Quantropi says, hey, you know what? We found this appliance that can really flow within this liquified iron.

Now Quantropi is the only guy that has the diamond hands that’s able to bring this liquified iron to the customer, right, at the fastest speeds. Now the customer has basically their own foundry and molds that they’ll make their own quantum-safe iron locks and keys out of. They use that capability now to do that for all their end customers and devices, right? And using our technology, we do have the fastest speed, low-latency, lightweight, ’cause our coal footprint is only 2.46 KB. So this is—

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Nguyen: Perfect for IoT, 5G—

John Koetsier: Tiny!

James Nguyen: 6G. Yeah, critical infrastructure. 

John Koetsier: That’s important because, I mean, critical infrastructure is under attack — we’ve seen that. Just today the news came out in Florida, a water treatment plant in a city was hacked. There was a remote access that was open on a computer that governed the mixing of various things being put into the water, including something — I forget, it’s essentially lye and it prevents the pipes from rusting and it also is safe at low levels, and the hacker turned it up to like 10,000 times safe levels. And it was caught before anything happened, but that infrastructure is under attack. So that’s super interesting.

One other detail on that box. You say it’s a box, and most quantum computers are like the size of a fridge or something like that. Is that what we’re talking about here? Or is this a really small one?

James Nguyen: This box is literally the size of two physical large pizza boxes, right? 

John Koetsier: Okay, wow! 

James Nguyen: Yeah, so—

John Koetsier: Very small quantum computer. Nice! 

James Nguyen: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a— it’s not a quantu— it’s a quantum random number generator. In their box they actually have a key management system as well as a hardware security module.

So a hardware security module is where you store your keys in so that it’s safe, right? And the key management system allows you to call on and then distribute keys. We’re not in the business of that, right, but our goals in the near future, is to eventually build adapters on our platform that can work with other KMS, work on different other cloud platforms and whatnot.

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. So you mentioned you’re in a closed beta right now. When will you be out of that? When will you launch? When will people be able to come to you and just order on your website or call and talk to a salesperson ?

James Nguyen: We’re anticipating sometime this year, by the end of this year. But it may be sooner because there’s a lot of news coming out that, you know, that basically encryption is broken. We’re actually seeing a lot more traction this year, right?

Like, we’ve been lucky during a global pandemic to be recommended by the National Research Council of Canada to be a nominee for the Science Startup Breakthrough of The Year award for Falling Walls. Falling Walls, that’s kind of like the Olympics for science, right? So out of like, 111 plus countries, 1,000 plus applicants, we were top 25. And so we’re lucky in a sense that we’ve been getting global exposure for these big conferences such as IEEE and whatnot. And right now these big companies are, hey, hey — we just got actually, basically mentioned in The Quantum Daily as one of 19 companies kind of to watch out for in this space.

So we’re getting a lot of traction, and right now with a small team, we’re trying to chew on as much as we can. 

John Koetsier: Yes. Excellent. Well, hey, TechFirst is about technology that’s changing the world and innovators who are shaping the future. A couple of questions for you on that. How will quantum computing change our world? 

 James Nguyen: Quantum computing right now, for example, you have folks like D-Wave, they’re focusing on optimization and annealing computing around calculations, right? I think one key thing is around like medicine research and chemistry. Also like, looking at robotics, right? So biotech, like I said earlier. Anything that we’re trying to achieve is going to help us achieve it faster. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

James Nguyen: But the thing is, you know, there’s a lot of hype in quantum computing, right? We’re still in the infant stages, but we will get there. That’s what we do good as a human species, right? We make things happen, we don’t give up, we continue to evolve. You know, but at the same time, we continue to destroy things, right? So that’s what we’re trying to do at Quantropi, is make sure that quantum computing doesn’t destroy things. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. That reminds me of D-Wave, they’re using their quantum computers to help find new treatments for COVID and other things like that. I guess one more thing there is, what about your contribution? If you look — I don’t know, five years, 10 years out, what do you hope your impact will be?

James Nguyen: Well, I think our impact, like I said to some of my friends, is that whatever the PC was in the late seventies and early eighties is what quantum computing is going to be to us in the next decade or so, right? And whatever the internet was to the PC, I believe is what Quantropi’s impact is going to be to quantum computing. Because I can’t see how anybody will continue to advance quantum computing without a way to make sure that you can harness that power in a safe and responsible manner. 

John Koetsier: That is not a small vision, my friend. Very, very interesting. James, thank you for taking this time. I really do appreciate it.

James Nguyen: Thank you, John. I appreciate the opportunity. 

John Koetsier: For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier, I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at JohnKoetsier.com, and the story at Forbes will come out shortly thereafter. Plus, the full video is always available on my YouTube channel. Thank you for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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