David Jao

David Jao
Professor, Faculty of Mathematics
> Chief Cryptographer, EvolutionQ Inc.
> Waterloo Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic hobbled economies around the world, but Waterloo spinoff companies such as evolutionQ are working to secure Canada’s recovery.

The company’s latest venture involves firing photons at satellites in space to pioneer solutions for ultra-secure “quantum keys” that lock and unlock encrypted information. The Canadian Space Agency recently awarded evolutionQ a research grant to help bring satellite-based quantum key distribution into a future world where economic security will very much depend on computer security.

David Jao, chief cryptographer at evolutionQ and a professor in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics, says Canada needs such a system because of the numerous cyber threats ahead.

The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security recently released a cyber threat assessment report that says the number of cyber threat actors is rising, and they are becoming more sophisticated. At the same time, the pandemic has made people and businesses even more dependent on the internet and its underlying technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and 5G wireless networks.

Quantum computers are also on the horizon. Utilizing the strange rules of quantum mechanics, they will enable super-fast computations that ordinary computers would find too difficult. Although it is impossible to know exactly how quantum computers could be used, they do hold revolutionary potential such as being able to simulate new materials or pharmaceuticals, or make big leaps in artificial intelligence.

Waterloo accelerates research for a quantum future

The University of Waterloo has a Transformative Quantum Technologies program funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to accelerate research into an exciting new quantum future. But Jao says where there is promise, there is also danger. Quantum computers could break the cryptography currently being used by banks, government agencies and industries.

That’s why companies such as evolutionQ are already developing post-quantum cryptography solutions. Jao is an expert in developing post-quantum cryptography protocols that can co-exist with quantum computers. He was instrumental in inventing an “isogeny-based post-quantum cryptography” system which is currently a candidate for industry standardization.

Jao says Waterloo is widely regarded as a world-leading research centre in quantum and post-quantum cryptography. “It has what is probably the biggest concentration of quantum related researchers anywhere in the world.” That, in turn, draws even more top researchers here.

Waterloo’s ecosystem of quantum computing startups

The Institute for Quantum Computing has spawned a rich ecosystem of quantum computer-related startup companies that are “situated to take advantage of this pipeline of talented researchers working in this quantum space,” Jao says, adding that the Canadian government sees this work as a path to growing the economy.

“There are clear benefits to Canada in terms of economic growth and international competitiveness to have Canada be at the front of this game,” Jao says.

Computers are certainly a big part of our world right now and we can reasonably anticipate that quantum computers will be the next step, he says.

“If we can be at the forefront of that new frontier of knowledge and development, it's good for the country in terms of jobs and international standing, getting great people to come here and building up our economy,” Jao says.

Quantum mechanics: If you observe it you destroy it

Jao explains that the rules of quantum mechanics make particles such as photons an ultra- secure way of sharing cryptographic keys. “In order to spy on that information, you have to observe it, and in quantum mechanics, if you observe it, you destroy it.”

Satellites would be an ideal way to convey the particles that contain the information over long distances. But there are challenges, such as overcoming atmospheric scattering and configuring the detectors and transmitters to smoothly establish these secure quantum communication links.

The Canadian Space Agency project allows the researchers to send the photons and gather the data needed to develop the solutions.