[Paleopsych] BH: Calculating the Quantum Nightmare

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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, [1]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 [2]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 [3]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
    [4]Peter Shor's explanation of his breakthrough pertinent to
    factorization; he used the term "[5]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 [6]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
    mechanical computer.

    At about the same time, other theorists such as [7]Charles H. Bennett
    at IBM and [8]Paul A. Benioff at Argonne National Laboratory began to
    toy with the idea that quantum particles might function as computer

    In 1985, physicist [9]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.

    Slow progress

    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
    used to:
     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
        classified information.
     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.


    1. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics
    2. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_computer
    3. http://www.companymanuals.com/
    4. http://www-math.mit.edu/~shor/
    5. http://www.ece.osu.edu/~berger/press/spectrumqc.pdf
    6. http://www.feynmanonline.com/
    7. http://www.research.ibm.com/people/b/bennetc/
    8. http://www.phy.anl.gov/theory/staff/pab.html
    9. http://www.qubit.org/people/david/David.html

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