When large scale quantum computers become a reality, they will outperform today’s most powerful supercomputers and rapidly advance fields like artificial intelligence, drug development, finance. They will also render our current data and communications security techniques obsolete.
“Certain quantum algorithms have been proposed that will be able to break all of our security today,” says Professor Máire O’Neill, one of Europe’s leading cyber security experts and Regius Professor in Electronics and Computer Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. “We know from past experience that it takes about 15 to 20 years to properly integrate new security techniques so we can't wait until there's a breakthrough in quantum technology. We need to be working on the alternative security system now.”
Máire is one of the researchers working to develop new security approaches that can protect our electronic information from the threat of quantum computers, a field called post-quantum cryptography. She recently led a European consortium of eight academic and industry partners that looked at how lattice-based cryptography could be adapted to withstand quantum attacks. The group wanted to find out if it would be possible to plug and replace today’s security techniques with more complex ones. One of the consortium partners succeeded in developing several algorithms, three of which are now in the running to be standardised by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Máire is confident that the consortium’s algorithms will be among those standardised to protect everything from microchips to satellite communications from quantum hackers. Currently, she’s working alongside the UK Quantum Communications Hub and the National Cyber Security Center to investigate how lattice-based cryptographic algorithms can be scaled to protect more types of electronic information.
Máire has been a proponent of commercialising research for societal benefit since her undergraduate days when she did a summer placement at a local cybersecurity startup in Belfast. Now as a professor, she continues to pursue research that can be successfully translated into useful mainstream technology. She is the director of the Institute of Electronics, Communications & Information Technology (ECIT) at Queen’s, which was established to conduct high-quality research as well as promote the transfer of research to benefit society. The world-class institute has really put Belfast on the map in terms of digital innovation. It provides researchers with state-of-the-art equipment including numerous test beds for hardware security research, the latest equipment for side channel analysis, and a newly-developed cyber range lab.
But what really makes ECIT stand out in Máire’s mind compared to other UK universities is the industry-experienced engineers who work at the institute and help facilitate the commercialisation of research. “The engineers bridge the gap between what we do and economic and societal benefit from research. They develop proof-of-concept demonstrators from our research. Rather than handing an industry partner a paper and saying, ‘this is a great idea, go sell it,’ it's much more convincing to show them the idea actually working in practice on a demonstration device,” says Máire. ECIT also has a dedicated business development team who have deep domain knowledge and can help engage industry partners, as well as an innovation manager who assists students and staff who are considering starting spin outs.
The next few years will be exciting ones for Queen’s and ECIT. As part of a Belfast region city deal, ECIT will be developed and scaled into a £50M Global Innovation Institute. It will bring together security, wireless communications, and data science, as well as health science and global food security, to help solve large-scale societal problems. “One of our focus areas will be the ‘One Health’ agenda, so looking at how we can track and trace health data right through from health in soil, to animal and human for better nutrition and environment. This has the potential to bring personalised medicine or precision medicine to a whole new level,” Máire explains. The new institute will be a key part of creating a new Innovation District in Belfast. “It’s a huge investment for the city. It’s a really exciting time to be at Queen's.”
Header image courtesy of Queen's University Belfast
Prof. O’Neill is the Regius Professor in Electronics and Computer Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. She was the youngest person to be made a Professor of Engineering at Queen's and youngest person to be inducted into the Irish Academy of Engineering. She has received numerous awards, including a Blavatnik Engineering and Physical Sciences medal, a Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal, and British Female Inventor of the Year.