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May 20, 2022updated 11 May 2022 2:26pm

CEO Chat: Q&A with David Williams of Arqit

The CEO of Arqit explains why there's a rush to update your security despite the quantum revolution potentially being years away

By Eric Johansson

David Williams is the founder, chairman and CEO of Arqit, the quantum encryption company. The venture is betting on two things to happen in the near future. The first is that quantum computers will finally become a reality. The second is that when they do, businesses will find themselves woefully unprepared to protect against super-modern computer’s processing power.

However, while the Arqit CEO clearly wants to sell its quantum computing-safe encryption technology, one has to wonder if there really is such a panic to update businesses software. After all, quantum computers have been predicted to be just around the corner for decades.

This, however, the Arqit CEO argues, would be an potentially catastrophic stance to make. As he tells Verdict in our latest installment of our CEO Chat series, “quantum computers don’t have to be operational for there to be a threat.”

The Arqit CEO is not alone in betting on the advent of quantum computers. Oxford Qantum Circuits, PQ Shield, Terra Quantum, Atom Computing, Suzhou Star Scintillation Nanotechnology are just some of the other startups jumping on this trend.

But why should corporate chieftains be concerned about the technology? Simply because the new breed of computers could smash through their firewalls within milliseconds.

“Theoretically, quantum computing can complete in seconds tasks that would take classical computers thousands or even millions of years,” analysts wrote in a recent GlobalData thematic research report. “Quantum computers are machines that use the properties of quantum physics to store data and perform computations. Use cases stretch from improved weather forecasting to cracking the codes used to encrypt all internet messaging.”

The Arqit CEO tells Verdict as we discuss the oncoming quantum revolution, and his journey with the startup so far, in the latest installment of our CEO Chat interviews.

Eric Johansson: Tell us a bit about yourself. What did you do before founding the company?

David Williams: Before I founded Arqit, I was an entrepreneur in the telecoms industry for 15 years. Prior to this I was an investment banker with CIBC and Chase Manhattan, financing international telecoms businesses. As a student, I studied Economics and Politics at the University of Leeds. I was honoured to receive the Queens Award for Export in 2015 and Quoted Company Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2006.

Where did the idea come from?

In my previous work in telecoms, I became aware of the problems of keeping data safe. We became very aware of the threats to encryption that were looming, and took the view that quantum computers were likely to reach ‘universal’ stage by around 2027, at which point all of the world’s PKI (legacy encryption) systems are definitively compromised.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about quantum computers technology?

That the quantum threat is years away, so they don’t need to worry. The main concern here is that quantum computers don’t have to be operational for there to be a threat. ‘Harvest now, decrypt later’ attacks mean malicious actors are harvesting large quantities of encrypted data today, which can then be decrypted once quantum computers are developed.

People have been talking about quantum computers for decades, but they have so far failed to materialise. Why is it so important that people get post-quantum security now?

In addition to ‘harvest now, decrypt later’, there are many reasons why quantum security is important now. When the first viable quantum computer goes live, the threat surface covers everything we do globally across the internet – from banking and payment services, personal and professional communications, and the defence of nation states.

What one piece of advice would you offer to other CEOs?

To innovate at the bleeding edge of any technology you need a strong, diverse group of people who bring very different mindsets and contributions to bear.

What’s the most surprising thing about your job?

I’ve been leading start-ups for 20 years now so I’m not easily surprised.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?

Performing my own music on stage felt quite strange, but it wasn’t a bad rehearsal for leading a company.

What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?

Our market has very definitively acknowledged the need for stronger, simpler encryption.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

The quality of refereeing at Brighton football matches.

GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.