[Paleopsych] BH: Calculating the Quantum Nightmare
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Mon Sep 13 22:16:24 UTC 2004
Calculating the Quantum Nightmare
We must awaken to the threat of a quantum computer getting into malicious
By Stephen Page
Special to Betterhumans
9/13/2004 1:31 PM
Computing the risk: "I have developed a fear of what a quantum
computer could do in the hands of evildoers with wealth and
resources," says Stephen Page. "We must start building safeguards now"
I was born in Los Alamos in 1949 shortly after my father, a physicist
from the University of Michigan, took a job at the Los Alamos
Scientific Laboratory (now the Los Alamos National Laboratory, or
LANL). He had been hired to work on the hydrogen bomb and to find ways
to reduce the size of the bombs started on the Manhattan Project. His
hiring and his job proved to be timely, as the Cold War began in 1949
when the Communist Soviet Union took on an expansionist policy and
occupied much of Europe. In the late summer of 1949, they detonated
their first fission-based atomic bomb. Fears of mass destruction,
"doomsday," pervaded the country and world. The Cold War swung into
full force and did not end until the breakup of the Soviet Union in
As I began researching my father and his life, for writing memoirs for
the family, I quickly found that little existed about him because of
his "classified" status. This meant that he could tell no one about
his life work, not even his wife and best friends. While this made my
research difficult, I found out some detail when I examined the places
he worked and the resume he used to obtain a job at TRW Space &
Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, California. After speaking to my
sister and some of my father's friends, I discovered his favorite life
work focused on subjects such as nuclear bombs, quantum mechanics,
cryptography, computers, astronomy and life on other planets. While at
TRW, his main functions included the programming of the navigation
systems for the early missiles, rockets and space shuttles. This
continued up until 1976, when he retired. He died in 1981 from acute
leukemia, a cancer possibly contracted from his work with plutonium at
Los Alamos. His friends laughed when they said the scientists used to
play football with raw plutonium. Little did they know.
While I understood the other topics, quantum mechanics was new to me.
I delved deep into this subject. As I read physics book after physics
book, a familiar theme popped up. In reviewing my father's
transcripts, I noticed a concentration of courses in physics,
computers, quantum theory and quantum mechanics. This information put
me on the trail of the quantum computer. At first, I did not
understand the physics behind a quantum computer but after reading
many articles and books, I developed a basic understanding.
As a writer of six nonfiction books about setting up policy and
procedures systems (i.e., doing things right the first time), I
decided that I should write a novel about quantum computers and
dedicate it to my father. The boring storyline presents the book as
"the construction of a quantum computer and the terrorists who are
after it." The exciting storyline presents the book as "a high-ranking
politician who turns to espionage and hands over a commercial quantum
computer to terrorists to avenge the CIA's cold-blooded killing of his
I titled the book The Quantum Killer. I derived this title from
Peter Shor's explanation of his breakthrough pertinent to
factorization; he used the term "killer app" to refer to the
factorization algorithm. My quantum killer title refers to a quantum
computer so powerful that it could help mankind to advance in many
sciences but at the same time be capable of killing any application by
crippling it, accessing it or destroying it.
The book is science fiction now, but within 10 to 50 years, when a
quantum computer will likely be real and available commercially, it
may appear to be nonfiction. While in awe of its projected features, I
have developed a fear of what a quantum computer could do in the hands
of evildoers with wealth and resources. What worries me the most is
that there seems to be a lack of articles and books on the risks of a
quantum computer. Some scientists say that a quantum computer will be
prohibitively expensive and that terrorists couldn't afford one. But
we have seen the kind of resources that present-day terrorists can
muster. Are we taking the threat seriously?
The furor starts
Physicists and computer scientists first explored the idea of a
computational device based on quantum mechanics in the 1970s and early
1980s. The real furor began in 1981 when brainy physicist Richard
Feynman suggested that quantum phenomena could perform calculations.
He also explained how a machine would be able to act as a simulator
for quantum physics. In other words, a physicist would have the
ability to carry out experiments in quantum physics inside a quantum
At about the same time, other theorists such as Charles H. Bennett
at IBM and Paul A. Benioff at Argonne National Laboratory began to
toy with the idea that quantum particles might function as computer
In 1985, physicist David Deutsch at the University of Oxford
realized that Feynman's assertion could eventually lead to a general
purpose quantum computer. He published a crucial theoretical paper
showing that any physical process, in principle, could be modeled
perfectly by a quantum computer. Thus, a quantum computer would have
capabilities far beyond those of any traditional classical computer.
The real icebreaker came in 1994 when Peter Shor at AT&T Labs outlined
how a quantum computer could factor a huge number exponentially faster
than a classical computer. This factoring algorithm became a killer
app because any application based on encryption (such as those for
national security, banking transactions, stock trades, secure Websites
and vital governmental installations) could be compromised in seconds
or minutes. With this breakthrough, quantum computing transformed from
a mere academic curiosity directly into a national and world interest.
Governments, corporations and research institutions have now committed
billions of dollars to the research and construction of a quantum
computer capable of performing calculations a billion times faster
than a classical computer.
With the resources being thrown at quantum computers, we're left to
wonder why they have barely left the drawing board in about 30 years.
But we only think this because when it comes to computational
advances, we're spoiled. We're used to fast computer progress so we
naturally think the same holds for "just" another computer.
With each blink of the eye, there is a new, faster processor or hard
drive with more data storage. But for all their computational might,
computers as we know them will eventually bump up against the laws of
physics. Technology marches forward and components get smaller. If the
current rate of miniaturization continues, computer experts predict
that within a decade or two, transistors will dwindle to the size of
an atom. And at those dimensions, well-behaved, predictable classical
behavior goes out the window, and the slippery, untenable nature of
quantum mechanics takes over.
Unlike classical computers, quantum computers won't fall apart because
of the laws of physics at the atomic scale. Rather, they exploit them.
In the quantum world, rather than being entities with sharply defined
positions and motions, particles are described by spread out
wave-functions, seemingly existing in many places at once. Made of
quantum particles, quantum computers exploit this property for
built-in parallelism, because quantum calculations can be performed on
particles (or quantum bits--qubits) that coexist in multiple states
Quantum computers are still more science fiction than fact, however.
Even the most optimistic of experts predict a decade or more before
anyone builds one that actually computes anything. The field of
quantum information processing has made numerous promising
advancements since its conception, including the building of two-,
three- and seven-qubit quantum computers capable of some simple
arithmetic and data sorting. But scientists believe that a fully
featured quantum computer must use at least 200 qubits. "What is the
problem?" you ask. Progress is slow because there are a few
potentially large obstacles that must be resolved before a
breakthrough of single-digit qubit computers can lead to double- and
triple-digit qubit quantum computers.
The formidable obstacles include error correction, decoherence and
hardware architecture. Error correction is rather self-explanatory,
but what errors need correction? The answer lies primarily with those
errors that arise as a direct result of decoherence, or the tendency
of a quantum computer to decay from a given quantum state into an
incoherent state as it interacts, or entangles, with the state of the
environment. These interactions between the environment and qubits are
unavoidable, and induce the breakdown of information stored in the
quantum computer, and thus errors in computation. A Catch-22 scenario.
Before any quantum computer will be capable of solving hard problems,
researchers must devise a way to maintain decoherence and other
potential sources of error at an acceptable level. Thanks to the
theory (and now reality) of quantum error correction, first proposed
in 1995 by Peter Shor and continually developed since, small-scale
quantum computers have been built and the prospects of large quantum
computers are looking up.
Currently, research is underway to discover methods for battling the
destructive effects of decoherence, to develop optimal hardware
architecture for designing and building a quantum computer and to
further uncover quantum algorithms to utilize the immense computing
power available in these devices. The future of quantum computer
hardware architecture is likely to be very different from what we know
today, however, current research has helped to provide insight into
what obstacles the future will hold for these devices. Research
suggests it is only a matter of time before we have devices large
enough to test Shor's and other quantum algorithms. Quantum
computation has its origins in highly specialized fields of
theoretical physics, but its future undoubtedly lies in the profound
effect it will have on the lives of all mankind. To answer the
question of why progress is slow, it is because quantum computers lie
at a pioneering stage and face numerous difficulties inherent within
quantum physics. When research breaks through the obstacles, the
building of a quantum computer will be a free-for-all.
Benefits and risks
To understand the benefits of quantum computing, let's look at some of
its potential capabilities. In theory, a quantum computer could be
1. Factor large integers in a time that is exponentially faster than
any known classical algorithm.
2. Run simulations of quantum mechanics.
3. Crack encrypted secret messages in seconds that classical
computers cannot crack in a million years.
4. Create unbreakable encryption systems to protect national security
systems, financial transactions, secure Internet transactions and
other systems based on current encryption schemes.
5. Advance cryptography to a point where messages can be sent and
retrieved without encryption and without eavesdropping.
6. Search large and unsorted databases that had previously been
virtually impenetrable using classical computers.
7. Improve pharmaceutical research because a quantum computer can
sift through many chemical substances and interactions in seconds.
8. Create fraud-proof digital signatures.
9. Predict weather patterns and identify causes of global warming.
10. Improve the precision of atomic clocks and precisely pinpoint the
location of the 7,000-plus satellites floating above Earth each
11. Optimize spacecraft design.
12. Enhance space network communication scheduling.
13. Develop highly efficient algorithms for several related
application domains such as scheduling, planning, pattern
recognition and data compression.
Along with such fantastic benefits, however, there are big risks. The
consequences of a fully featured quantum computer getting into the
hands of terrorists, criminals, hackers or other evildoers could be
devastating and cause world anarchy. In malicious hands, quantum
computers could be used to:
1. Cripple national security, defenses, the Internet, email systems
and other systems based on encryption schemes.
2. Decode secret messages sent out by government employees in seconds
versus the millions of years it would take a classical computer.
3. Break many of the cryptographic systems (e.g., RSA, DSS, LUC,
Diffie-Helman) used to protect secure Web pages, encrypted mail
and many other types of data.
4. Access bank accounts, credit card transactions, stock trades and
5. Break cryptographic systems such as public key ciphers or other
systems used to protect secure Web pages and email on the
The risks are devastating and the possible consequences disastrous.
Just the ability to crack any secret code or access any bank file
sends shivers up my spine. Given the potential benefits and risks,
quantum computing research must become a priority for the governments
of free nations around the world. We must start building safeguards
now, not when it's too late. In 1969, the US government flexed its
muscles and sent men to the Moon to assure dominance in the space
race. We need more muscle flexing now to create safeguards, standards
and laws to prevent people from using quantum computers to wreak
Stephen Page is an author of six nonfiction books on quality and
process improvement. He works full-time at Nationwide Insurance in
Columbus, Ohio as a process management specialist. He has an MBA from
UCLA in management and is certified in project management, software
engineering, records management and forms management. He is published
in numerous journals and Websites. He is available for questions and
can be reached at spage at columbus.rr.com. Look for his book The
Quantum Killer in 2005. You can also log on to
http://www.thequantumkiller.com and sign the guestbook.
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