Security to benefit – or suffer – as gov't innovation splash bolsters quantum research

World-leading Australian research into quantum encryption is among the key areas of focus for the government's new National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), which has singled out the commercialisation of cybersecurity research as a key area of focus for its business-development initiatives.

Announced on Monday, the NISA framework includes some $1.1 billion in funding over four years for a range of programs designed to kickstart investment in startup companies, support research and commercialisation work, and facilitate entrepreneurs' access to overseas centres of innovation.

A funding breakdown of the multi-faceted NISA program suggests the government will allocate $30m through 2019/20 to establish the Cyber Security Growth Centre, a centre of excellence focused on RD and commercialisation of cybersecurity related technologies. Quantum-computing research will be funded to the tune of $26m through 2021/22, with the stated goal of “building a silicon quantum circuit, with the potential to create new jobs and new business models.”

The pursuit of quantum-computing techniques has significant implications on information security, with organisations like Australian National University (ANU) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) contributing to world-leading work in the field. Australian researchers working in quantum computing – particularly UNSW professor Michelle Simmons and the team of quantum researchers she leads within the Centre for Quantum Computation Communication Technology (CQC2T) – were among those named as winners of the 2015 Eureka Prize.

Backing this research with clear funding commitments is the government's way of recognising the potential of the market, which will offer a generational leap in computing power as well as in the establishment of unbreakable encryption through quantum encryption key techniques.

There are early signs that the choice of quantum computing is a winner, domestically: both the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra have announced $10m investments in CQC2T, complementing the government funding and underscoring a strategic commitment to build the world's first silicon-based quantum computer in Sydney.

Yet quantum computing also has a dark side, with research techniques focusing on its ability to quickly unencrypt even complex cyphers. This possibility has led some to wonder whether broader commercialisation of quantum techniques would lead to a complete breakdown in trust on the Internet.

Also among the funding in the report is an extensive commitment to support CSIRO research arm Data61, which will receive $75m in funding through 2018/19. Data61's work with the US government in areas such as hack-proof drones has paved the way for new capabilities in securing the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), which will present tantalising and potentially massive windfalls as vendors rush to secure technology that is already intriguing hackers and raising concerns around its often insecure design.

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