For anyone working with sensitive data, it is crucial to engage with quantum now. Fortunately, the ecosystem at Amsterdam Science Park, where Christian Schaffner is actively involved, offers numerous opportunities for interested researchers and entrepreneurs to get started. Christian Schaffner is professor at the University of Amsterdam, serving as co-director of QuSoft and chair of Quantum.Amsterdam. In this interview, he discusses the danger of a future where quantum attackers can break all current cryptography and the importance of a healthy research ecosystem to prevent a crisis.
You are researching quantum cryptography. What does that entail?
Quantum cryptography involves two major areas: cryptography with quantum data and post-quantum cryptography. Post-quantum cryptography is actually a bit of an odd name, but it means conventional (i.e. non-quantum) cryptography that remains secure against quantum attackers. With a large-scale quantum computer, in theory, you can break all current (public-key) cryptography. Currently, this is not possible because the quantum hardware is not capable enough, and we don’t know how long it will take until it is – maybe another ten years – but it will become a problem. And for certain use cases, it’s already a problem: if you have highly sensitive data like state secrets or medical records that need to remain secure for decades, what do you do? If you encrypt it with current encryption, an attacker might store this encrypted message, and can read it in ten years when quantum computers become available. So, alternative forms of cryptography must be used, and that’s what I’m working on with a group of people. Another part of our research is quantum cryptography: the cryptography of quantum data. How can you transmit or encrypt quantum data? This is fundamental research. In December ’21, I also became a professor and group leader of the theoretical computer science group at the Institute for Informatics at the University of Amsterdam.
How do you see the field of quantum cryptography developing?
There’s a lot happening, and much research still needs to be done. It’s also essential to build the ecosystem around it. The possibilities are there, and there’s a lot to do. The Netherlands has made a significant investment in quantum technology through the Growth Fund allocation, with €615 million from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (EZK). The goal is to create an ecosystem around the topic. We are trying to facilitate this through Quantum.Amsterdam. At the university, we conduct research, but we also provide a lot of education. That’s Amsterdam’s strength: we have QuSoft, with world-leading researchers, and a university that educates many students who can contribute to the workforce in the field. In quantum cryptography itself, we are currently working on a project called QISS: Quantum Impact on Societal Security. It’s a project from the National Science Agenda. How do you convince decision-makers in companies and government to even think about quantum? How do you get them to assess where cryptography is used and when it needs to be replaced? All bank cards need to be replaced. All smart cards will no longer be secure once quantum computers become powerful enough. Ten years is not a long time to replace all of that. It seems far off, but it really isn’t. In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to the climate crisis.
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Regarding this ecosystem, how do you see the collaboration between research and companies evolving?
For this purpose, we’ve established the Quantum Application Lab (QAL), in collaboration with other partners: CWI, UvA, the eScience Center, QuantumInspire, TNO, and SURF, with IBM as a tech partner. The idea is that companies with use cases can come to us so that our experts can work on projects to determine what it means in practice. This is interesting: we usually meet with a few experts from large R&D companies like Bosch, Toyota, and some banks, and then our partners understand what quantum can do for them. It’s a mutual learning experience.
What makes Amsterdam Science Park unique in this context?
Our unique selling point is that we have scientific expertise, experts who are world leaders in quantum algorithms and technology, and more. There’s a lot of misinformation about quantum, so our ability to provide realistic insights is a significant selling point. Plus, I can bike here (laughs). Additionally, the fact that there are many different institutes, organizations, and people here makes it attractive. There are further developments: the UvA is constructing a new quantum building. The goal is for it to be ready for use in 2027, and all quantum-related activities will be united under one roof there: research offices, a talent and learning centre, education, lab space, and test beds for the hardware side. We also have a strong experimental side, especially Florian Schreck’s lab. He is currently working on a quantum clock, the most accurate clock you can build. We are one of the five hubs of Quantumdelta.nl, which manages the Growth Fund. Those five hubs are: Delft, Eindhoven, Leiden, Twente, and Amsterdam, known as DELTA. This means that the new building will also provide space for that ecosystem, for researchers from other hubs who want to collaborate here, as well as for startups and companies. The Amsterdam Science Park’s unique selling point also comes into play here: it’s a stronghold of AI, with Max Welling and many others of my colleagues at IvI, and an attractive ICAI ecosystem surrounding it. This is significant for companies interested in that field. For example, if you’re talking about modern material design, AI and quantum are the two things you really need to consider, and you have both here. That’s a strong argument for being here and coming here. And that’s just what’s already here. The connection to AMS-IX (Amsterdam Internet Exchange) and the computing facilities also play a role, and there’s room for expansion.
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