November 9, 2005 2:18 PM PST

Feds mull regulation of quantum computers

WASHINGTON--Quantum computers don't exist outside the laboratory. But the U.S. government appears to be exploring whether it should be illegal to ship them overseas.

A federal advisory committee met Wednesday to hear an IBM presentation about just how advanced quantum computers have become--with an eye toward evaluating when the technology might be practical enough to merit government regulation.

"I like to say we're back in 1947 at the time transistors were invented," David DiVincenzo, an IBM researcher who focuses on quantum computing, told the committee.

Only rough prototypes of quantum computers presently exist. But if a large-scale model can be built, in theory it could break codes used to scramble information on the Internet, in banking, and within federal agencies.

A certain class of encryption algorithms relies for security on the near-impossibility of factoring large numbers quickly. But quantum computers, at least on paper, can do that calculation millions of times faster than a conventional microprocessor.

"It's clear there are promising avenues for doing this," DiVincenzo said of quantum computing research. "There's lots and lots of work done at the basic research level and a sense of progress in the community."

The technology industry has been long bedeviled by federal export regulations, which were born during the Cold War and renewed by executive order. And although the highly regulatory approach of the mid-'90s has been relaxed, the export of "high-performance" computers is still subject to several rules, as is encryption software.

It's not clear what steps the federal government might take next, and no proposals were advanced during the meeting. The charter of the panel, called the Information Systems Technical Advisory Committee, calls for the panel to "advise" the Commerce Department on export regulations and what technology is presently available.

A practical quantum computer may still be far off, but the use of quantum physics already appears in some commercially-available technology. An approach known as quantum cryptography provides encryption that is theoretically impossible to crack--and, at the moment, carries a hefty price tag.

The federal advisory committee didn't address quantum cryptography in its open session. A closed session was scheduled for Thursday.

 

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