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Taking on Bitcoin's Quantum Threat

According to CoinDesk's chief content officer, it's past time for the crypto community to take on the challenge of applying supercomputing to their networks.

Andreas Antonopoulos, that great oracle of this field, has one of my favorite descriptions of Bitcoin. It was dubbed a "sewer rat" by him.

The unfavorable comparison made by Antonopoulos is essentially a declaration of admiration. He means Bitcoin is a survivor; it has developed high resilience to threats as a result of its exposure to them, similar to how germ exposure helps people grow immune systems. It has weathered numerous crises, ranging from Mt. Gox to China's mining ban, and has emerged stronger as a result, with increased hashrate, improved economic security, expanding user numbers, lower transaction prices, and more efficient processing.

In many ways, Bitcoin's leaderless, amorphous ecosystem resembles Nassim Taleb's concept of a "anti-fragile" system (although Taleb recently became quite a prominent Bitcoin critic). It gives cause to expect that Bitcoin will recover from its recent setbacks in the cryptocurrency markets.

As many ardent supporters will tell you, Bitcoin's long-term viability is largely determined by how difficult it is to change its protocol. Significant code changes require overwhelming consensus among both users and miners, as we learned during the block size debates, when a lobbying campaign by powerful groups failed to gain support to raise Bitcoin's data capacity. This gives the system confidence and encourages people to believe in the demonstrated scarcity it promises.

Still, it would be naïve to believe that Bitcoin is completely unaffected by external dangers. In reality, quantum technologies, which have received far too little attention in the past, now loom larger than ever. In this situation, Bitcoin's "hard to alter" trait may turn out to be a flaw rather than a feature.

It's been a long time coming

Quantum computing has been on the horizon for four decades, but it has been postponed due to the extremely difficult engineering barrier that must be overcome before it can realize the supercomputing capabilities it promises at scale. Because of the lengthy process, some individuals, including many in the bitcoin business, believe it will never happen.

However, computer scientists have lately realized that the field's calculating approaches can be used in conjunction with graphic processing units (GPU). They envision significant applications without needing to wait for the construction of a full-fledged quantum computer.

This has sparked interest in the potential for speedy processing of large datasets to speed up research in fields like battery technology. It has also raised concerns that attackers using quantum techniques could break the encryption mechanisms that underpin our digital economy.

As a result, a group of scientists is collaborating to develop a set of open "post-quantum cryptography" standards to "quantum-proof" modern computer systems. A group of these experts published a recent article in Nature outlining a transition strategy backed by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its international counterparts.

Last month, a Biden administration letter identified "important initiatives needed to sustain the nation's competitive advantage in quantum information science (QIS) while limiting the threats of quantum computers to the nation's cyber, economic, and national security," according to the memo. It instructed agencies to take "particular actions as the United States embarks on a multi-year process of transitioning vulnerable computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography."

One of the scientists behind this effort, Jack Hidary, CEO of Sandbox AQ, is now on a quest to persuade crypto developer groups to begin the likely lengthy process of migrating to post-quantum standards before existing blockchain protocols become obsolete.

"This process of altering all the blockchains might take four or five years, and that's part of the understanding of why we have to start this process now," he said in an interview that aired last week as part of the "Money Reimagined" podcast's special World Economic Forum edition.

Bitcoin's sewer rat toughness won't help it here. Despite the fact that its key pair method is based on Elliptic Curve cryptography (ECC), which is an enhancement over the widely used RSA system of public key cryptography, research has indicated that EEC will not be able to withstand quantum computing, according to Hidary.

That implies a third party may perform a super-fast "brute force" quantum calculation to swiftly reveal the private key you've been keeping hidden in order to unlock and transact with bitcoins on the public blockchain.

Is it better to act now, later, or never?

Will blockchain developers be willing to invest?

All that is required to upgrade the coding on a company-owned website is for the CEO or chief technology officer to issue an order to their staff to do so. However, you can't make a significant modification to a globally dispersed, decentralized, open-source protocol whose value is based on a network of users unless a large enough majority of participants agrees to the change.

We know that reaching consensus in Bitcoin is particularly difficult and time-consuming – partly because there is so much money at stake – not only because of the block size wars, but also because of how long it took for less-contentious upgrades like Taproot to be implemented.

If these computational advancements offer such a serious existential threat, one would expect quick change. People, one would think, will protect what they have invested in.

However, such an improvement necessitates far more than a few lines of code. It entails a complete reworking of the cryptographic underpinning, as well as the participation of all participants in the Bitcoin economy. To get everyone on board, there will be a lot of meetings and a lot of arguing on Twitter and IRC. Bitcoin's aversion to change could be a stumbling block.

Some people will undoubtedly be suspicious of these scientists who make threats and promises. Hidary's, for example, provides services to help blockchain developers tackle these issues. Is this patch really as critical as he claims? The battles, accusations, and conspiracy theories are making my brain throb.

The truth is that no one knows how long quantum will take to evolve and become accessible enough to pose a threat to blockchains. Can the community, however, afford to wait?


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