If cyberwarfare is the Cold War of the new millennium, quantum computation may be the hydrogen bomb.
Researchers with Google, D-Wave (a Canadian computer hardware company), and the U.S. government are looking to quantum physics to make vastly more – capable computers. They may also find the key to making certain networks, pages, or computers nearly invincible to cyberattacks, or render certain Internet security systems completely defenseless.
Quantum computation harnesses the unique behavior of suba t o m i c p a r t i c l e s – behaviors that don’t occur anywhere else in nature above this incredibly small scale. Scientists view quantum physics as distinct from regular physics for this reason. It’s also why subatomic particles can be made to compute information differently than their bulkier macroscale counterparts.
A quantum computing breakthrough could, in turn, enable governments to break otherwise impervious encryption codes such as the “public key” cryptographic systems that protect your e-mail and bank account [see box]. Cracking the public key could render such security measures worthless. The same trick could be reversed to create essentially unbreakable encryption codes.
“There is a national security interest in not being the second country to build a large quantum computer,” says Dave Bacon, a computer scientist at Washington University.
Recently, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled what they called “the world’s most efficient single photon detector,” which is purportedly able to count individual particles of light traveling through fiberoptic cables with roughly 99% efficiency. The announcement could have ramifications for quantum computing efforts and for secure networking. A detector that could recognize if a photon forming part of a transmission were missing would be a substantial defense against information theft, say researchers.
According to the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), several research groups have built functioning multiple qubit processing systems in which two qubits were able to interact in a stable way.
Canadian company D-Wave is the industry pioneer in the building of these processors, having invested $44 million over the last five years. The biggest chips the company has feature 128 total qubits, according to D-Wave chief technical officer Geordie Rose. (Not all of qubits interact – or form an “entanglement gate” – on the chip, however.) Last December, the Google image recognition team led by Hartmut Neven demdifferentiate objects in thousands of still photographs. The demonstration was run on the D-Wave chip developed by Rose.
A number of technological hurdles remain before these chips can show their superiority to regular processors. Researchers will have to maintain and improve control over the chips’ quantum operations in more complex environments. Additional challenges will arise from trying to increase the density of the qubits used in the devices.
Rose says the net knowledge gain from quantum computing R&D is probably wider than we can imagine. “A universal quantum computer is the most powerful computer possible in our universe,” he told THE FUTURIST. “Anything better would quite literally violate the laws of physics.”
– Patrick Tucker
Sources: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. http://www.iarpa.gov.
D-Wave, personal interviews with Dave Bacon, Geordie Rose. A detailed paper on the D-Wave processor may be obtained at: http://arxiv.org/ abs/1004.1628.
Further reading: “Recent Progress in Quantum Algorithms” by Dave Bacom and Wim van Dam, Communications of the ACM.
The D-Wave processor consists of a repeating circuit stamped multiple times over a chip. The circuit contains eight qubits.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2010