Quantum Computing – An arms race of the 21st century

In physics, quantum physics, science, Uncategorized on March 9, 2011 at 00:21

Across the world physicists and computer scientists are taking part in government funded projects to realize the first working quantum computer, possibly unleashing computers so powerful they can communicate across space and time, or crack all conventional computer encryption in a heartbeat or two. Making your secure internet traffic totally exposed, as well as providing the one that has the technology, with supreme information security. Leaving us with the question about who is going to be the next information superpower?

One government agency that is heavily involved in the funding and development of Quantum Computers is the shadowy american DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Their web-page states:

“DARPA’s mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research bridging the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use”.

It is the agency that the american government turns to when the going gets tough or the study is just so weird that no-one will touch it. DARPA is no small fish in the world of technology. It kick-started the american space-program, developed Stealth technology and gave us GPS, as well as making what was to become the Internet. During the past few years, DARPA has issued several funding opportunities to the best scientists in the field of quantum computing, and results are as always, classified. And they will probably continue to be just that for many years to come.

But like all defense agencies, there is a catch. All efforts will in the end sum up to helping the state kill it`s enemies more effectively. The 2010 US defense budget amounted to 664 billion dollars, which means that they probably have some dollars left over to spend on scientists starved for funding in the years to come.

Nick Turse, a graduate student writing about war-crimes, lists a few inventions in his article about DARPA :

The projects are often some of the most lethal ever conceived. Over the years, DARPA research has led to a plethora of products designed to maim and kill, among them the: M-16 rifle, Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones, stealth fighters and bombers, surface-to-surface artillery rocket systems, Tomahawk cruise missiles, B-52 bomber upgrades, Titan missiles, Javelin portable “fire and forget” guided missiles and cannon-launched Copperhead guided projectiles, to name but a few”

China is one country that has ambitions to stay in the race for quantum military technologies. Especially in the field of quantum entanglement have they made considerable progress. Albert Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance,” because it seems to defy both time and space. In theory this technology makes it very hard to tap into communications without destroying the message and thereby making the eavesdropping official. In terms of intelligence and military uses, these kinds of technologies are wet dreams for global powers like USA and China, and they will most likely not give in before they are realized. The government files intercepted and cracked by Wikileaks last year would have been nigh impossible if these technologies had been operational.

There are also many civilian projects going on at Universities in many countries, like Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford or the Centre for Quantum Computing at Cambridge, both in the UK. Civilian efforts have a hard time matching the funding resources that states like America possess, and cannot do research with the same intensity. They are however a peek-hole into technologies and powers to look out for in the future.

The most common way to secure internet traffic today, is the RSA encryption algorithm. Most people that shop or send emails over the internet have used this method to secure the information sent, often automatically and without the user having to press any buttons. It operates by using a specific key or pattern that codes the information in a specific manner, for example by reducing every word with 5 letters to 3 letters and substituting the letters with numbers in a given sequence. The receiver has the same key and only needs to reverse the encoding sequence, and he/she has the original message securely on the computer. If one were to break the most advanced RSA encryptions today, it would take about 1,500 years on a desktop computer, or a couple of years with hundreds of the most powerful computers in the world. Not practical in other terms.

Working quantum computers have been built, but not big enough to take on any real challenges like decrypting secret messages just yet. But when the technology is completely operational it will completely trash classical computers, and make computer security an entirely different ball-game. Scientists have predicted a wait of about 10-20 years before we have a quantum computer for civilian use.

Computers are basically calculators, they turn all kinds of information into numbers and can then manipulate the information by changing their numeral values in a predetermined way. The letters on this page has various numeral values imbedded in the software on our computers. Ordinary computers calculate these numbers in a linear way. They take one value and adds it together with another. 1+2=3 is a simple example of this, the classical computer takes two separate numbers and adds them together producing an answer. Here we basically have five pieces of information, including the + and the = signs. The Quantum computer basically operate using the exact same principles, apart from the fact that the latter uses single molecules instead of the tiny little electrical switches that ordinary computers use.

The molecules that Quantum technology uses have two properties that makes them beat any classical computer in terms of power and speed. The first is that the molecules can be in a state of Superposition, being in two places at the same time. The other is quantum entanglement, that connects these superpositions together so that what happens to the first, also happens to the second, instantly and with no computation needed to operate the entanglement. This means that we can make the molecule “carry” both numbers at the same time because of the fact that it can be in two places at the same time, each position reflecting one value. The quantum computer can feed both the 1 and 2 into the calculator at the same time, making it vastly more powerful than an ordinary computer.

What makes it so extremely powerful is the power of the square. Two quantum bits (qbits) can operate 4 values at the same time, three operates 8 and so on. Before 50 qubits you have trillions of values at the same time.

The most modern commercial computers today have about 600-700 million electrical switches it can use to calculate numbers with. In comparison one gram of hydrogen gas, has 6,022 000 000 000 000 000 000 00 0 atoms in it. One gram..

Imagine computers capable of calculating how virus is going to evolve in the future, simulations of global warming and weather forecasts would be much much more detailed. Medical, Social and Physical sciences would gain a very powerful tool in having new levels of resolution in data for research.

Seth Lloyd, a leading scientist in the field of quantum computing at MIT, said that if we some day could turn all the molecules in the computer that you are typing on, into information processing bits, it would be much much more powerful than the human brain in terms of raw computing power, potentially being capable of computing tasks so immense that a classical computer the size of the Universe could not repeat it. The technology is however hard to harness, atoms and molecules are not very cooperative and tend to whizz away at the smallest touch. The technology is widely regarded as being the next step in computing, who is able to control it first, remains to see.


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