Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!


More News in Quantum Computing!

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationRecently, a team of researchers at the University of Rochester conducted an experiment where they managed to suspend a nano-sized diamond in free space with a laser. The purpose of the experiment was to measure the amount of light emitted from the diamond, but had the added bonus of demonstrating applications that could be useful in the field of quantum computing.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, quantum computing differs from conventional computing since it does not rely on sending information via a series of particles (electrons) through one-way channels. Instead, quantum computing relies on the process of beaming the states of particles (i.e. a photons quantum properties) from one location to the next.

nanodiamondSince this process occurs faster than the speed of light (as no movement takes place) and qubits (quantum bits) have the ability to be in more than one state simultaneously, computations done using this model would be exponentially faster. But despite many advancements made in recent years, the field remains largely theoretical and elusive.

To conduct their experiment, the researchers focused a laser into a 25 cm (10 inch) chamber and then sprayed an aerosol containing dissolved nanodiamonds inside. These nanodiamonds were attracted to the laser in a technique known as “laser trapping”, until a single particle was isolated and made to levitate. Once the tiny gem was levitating in free space, the researchers used another laser to make defects within the diamond emit light at given frequencies.

nanodiamond1This process is known as photoluminescence – a form light emission that is caused by defects in the tiny diamond that allows for the absorptions of photons. When the system is excited, it changes the spin; and when the it relaxes after the change, other photons are emitted. This occurs because nitrogen atoms replace some of the carbon atoms in the diamond. Once the nitrogen is nested in the diamond’s atomic structure, it is possible to excite electrons with a laser.

According to the researchers, this photoluminescence process has the potential to excite the system and cause what is known as Bohr spin quantum jumps, which are changes in spin configuration of the internal defect. This occurs because nitrogen atoms replace some of the carbon atoms in the diamond. Once the nitrogen is nested in the diamond’s atomic structure, it is possible to excite electrons with a laser.

????????????????????In addition, the potential also exists to turn the nanodiamond into an optomechanical resonator. According to Nick Vamivakas, an assistant professor of optics at the University of Rochester, these are structures in which the vibrations of the system can be controlled by light. Optomechanical resonators have the potential to be used as incredibly precise sensors, which could lead to uses in microchips.

In addition, these resonator systems have the potential to create Schrödinger Cat states, which are typically not found in microscopic objects. As anyone who’ familiar with Futurama or Big Bang Theory may recall, this refers to the thought experiment where a cat is inside a box with poison, and until someone opens the box and determines its whereabouts, the cat could be considered simultaneously both alive and dead.

^Being able to stimulate matter so that it can exist in more than one state at any given time is not only revolutionary, it is a clear step towards the creation of machines that exploit this principle to perform computations. According to Nick Vamivakas, an assistant professor of optics at the University of Rochester, explained:

Cat or cat-like states contradict our everyday experiences since we do not see common things in quantum states. The question is: where is this boundary between microscopic and macroscopic? By generating quantum states of larger and larger objects, we can hone in on a boundary … if there is one.

Naturally, the Rochester team is still a long way from achieving their big breakthrough, and Vamivakas himself admits that he does not know how far away a quantum computing truly is. In terms of this latest experiment, the team still needs to cool the crystal better, which they are hoping can be achieved with a few technical improvements. And then they hope to find a better way of running the experiment than spraying nanodiamond dust into a tube.

In the meantime, check out this video of the experiment. It promises to be “illuminating” (sorry!):


Big News in Quantum Computing!

^For many years, scientists have looked at the field of quantum machinery as the next big wave in computing. Whereas conventional computing involves sending information via a series of particles (electrons), quantum computing relies on the process of beaming the states of these particles from one location to the next. This process, which occurs faster than the speed of light since no movement takes place, would make computers exponentially faster and more efficient, and lead to an explosion in machine intelligence. And while the technology has yet to be realized, every day brings us one step closer…

One important step happened earlier this month with the installment of the D-Wave Two over at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab (QAIL) at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, NASA has announced that this is precisely what they intend to pursue. Not surprisingly, the ARC is only the second lab in the world to have a quantum computer.  The only other lab to possess the 512-qubit, cryogenically cooled machine is the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which upgraded to a D-Wave Two in 2011.

D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip
D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip

And while there are still some who question the categorization of the a D-Wave Two as a true quantum computer, most critics have acquiesced since many of its components function in accordance with the basic principle. And NASA, Google, and the people at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) even ran some tests to confirm that the quantum computer offered a speed boost over conventional supercomputers — and it passed.

The new lab, which will be situated at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Center, will be operated by NASA, Google, and the USRA. NASA and Google will each get 40% of the system’s computing time, with the remaining 20% being divvied up by the USRA to researchers at various American universities. NASA and Google will primarily use the quantum computer to advance a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, which is tasked with developing algorithms that optimize themselves with experience.

nasa-ames-research-center-partyAs for what specific machine learning tasks NASA and Google actually have in mind, we can only guess. But it’s a fair bet that NASA will be interested in optimizing flight paths to other planets, or devising a safer/better/faster landing procedure for the next Mars rover. As for Google, the smart money says they will be using their time to develop complex AI algorithms for their self-driving cars, as well optimizing their search engines, and Google+.

But in the end, its the long-range possibilities that offer the most excitement here. With NASA and Google now firmly in command of a quantum processor, some of best and brightest minds in the world will now be working to forward the field of artificial intelligence, space flight, and high-tech. It will be quite exciting to see what they produce…

photon_laserAnother important step took place back in March, when researchers at Yale University announced that they had developed a new way to change the quantum state of photons, the elementary particles researchers hope to use for quantum memory. This is good news, because it effectively demonstrated that true quantum computing – the kind that utilizes qubits for all of its processes – has continually eluded scientists and researchers in recent years.

To break it down, today’s computers are restricted in that they store information as bits – where each bit holds either a “1″ or a “0.” But a quantum computer is built around qubits (quantum bits) that can store a 1, a 0 or any combination of both at the same time. And while the qubits would make up the equivalent of a processor in a quantum computer, some sort of quantum Random Access Memory (RAM) is also needed.

Photon_follow8Gerhard Kirchmair, one of Yale researchers, explained in a recent interview with Nature magazine that photons are a good choice for this because they can retain a quantum state for a long time over a long distance. But you’ll want to change the quantum information stored in the photons from time to time. What the Yale team has developed is essentially a way to temporarily make the photons used for memory “writeable,” and then switch them back into a more stable state.

To do this, Kirchmair and his associates took advantage of what’s known as a “Kerr medium”, a law that states how certain mediums will refract light in a different ways depending on the amount shined on it. This is different from normal material materials that refract light and any other form of electromagnetic field the same regardless of how much they are exposed to.

Higgs-bosonThus, by exposing photons to a microwave field in a Kerr medium, they were able to manipulate the quantum states of photons, making them the perfect means for quantum memory storage. At the same time, they knew that storing these memory photons in a Kerr medium would prove unstable, so they added a vacuum filled aluminum resonator to act as a coupler. When the resonator is decoupled, the photons are stable. When resonator is coupled, the photons are “writeable”, allowing a user to input information and store it effectively.

This is not the first or only instance of researchers finding ways to toy with the state of photons, but it is currently the most stable and effective. And coupled with other efforts, such as the development of photonic transistors and other such components, or new ways to create photons seemingly out of thin air, we could be just a few years away from the first full and bona fide quantum processor!


Big News in Quantum Science!

Welcome all to my 800th post! Woot woot! I couldn’t possibly think of anything to special to write about to mark the occasion, as I seem to acknowledge far too many of these occasions. So instead I thought I’d wait for a much bigger milestone which is on the way and simply do a regular article. Hope you enjoy it, it is the 800th one I’ve written 😉

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C2012 saw quite a few technical developments and firsts being made; so many in fact that I had to dedicate two full posts to them! However, one story which didn’t make many news cycles, but may prove to be no less significant, was the  advances made in the field of quantum science. In fact, the strides made in this field during the past year were the first indication that a global, quantum internet might actually be possible.

For some time now, scientists and researchers have been toying with the concept of machinery that relies on quantum mechanics. Basically, the idea revolves around “quantum teleportation”, a process where quantum states of matter, rather than matter itself, are beamed from one location to another. Currently, this involves using a high-powered laser to fire entangled photons from one location to the next. When the photons at the receiving end take on the properties of the photon sent, a quantum teleportation has occurred, a process which is faster than the speed of light since matter is not actually moving, only its properties.

quantum-teleportation-star-trails-canary-islands-1-640x353Two years ago, scientists set the record for the longest teleportation by beaming a photon some 16 km. However, last year, a team of international researchers was able to beam the properties of a photon from their lab in La Palma to another lab in Tenerife, some 143 km away. Not only was this a new record, it was significant because 143 km happens to be just far enough to reach low Earth orbit satellites, thus proving that a world-spanning quantum network could be built.

Shortly thereafter, China struck back with its own advance, conducting the first teleportation of quantum states between two rubidium atoms. Naturally, atoms are several orders larger than a quantum qubit, which qualifies them as “macroscopic objects” – i.e. visible to the naked eye. This in turn has led many to believe that large quantities of information could be teleported from one location to the next using this technique in the near future.

And then came another breakthrough from England, where researchers managed to transmit qubits and binary data down the same piece of optic fiber, which laid the groundwork for a conventional internet that runs via optic cable instead of satellites, and which could be protected using quantum cryptography, a secured means of information transfer which remains (in theory) unbreakable.

quantum_compAnd finally, the companies of IBM and the University of Southern California (USC) reported big advances in the field of quantum computing during 2012. The year began with IBM announcing that it had created a 3-qubit computer chip (video below) capable of performing controlled logic functions. USC could only manage a 2-qubit chip — but it was fashioned out of diamond (pictured at left). Both advances strongly point to a future where your PC could be either completely quantum-based, or where you have a few quantum chips to aid with specific tasks.

As it stands, quantum computing, networking, and cryptography remain in the research and development phase. IBM’s current estimates place the completion of a fully-working quantum computer at roughly ten to fifteen years away. And as it stands, the machinery needed to conduct any of these processes remains large, bulky and very expensive. But miniaturization and a drop in prices are too things you can always count on in the tech world!

^So really, we may be looking at a worldwide, quantum internet by 2025 or 2030. We’re talking about a world in which information transfers faster than the speed of light, all connections are secure, and computing happens at unheard of speeds. Sounds impressive, but the real effect of this “quantum revolution” will be the exponential rate at which progress increases. With worldwide information sharing and computing happening so much faster, we can expect further advances in every field to take less time, and breakthroughs happening on a regular basis.

Yes, this technology could very well be the harbinger of what John von Neumann called the “Technological Singularity”. I know some of you might be feeling nervous at the moment, but somewhere, Ray Kurzweil is doing a happy dance! Just a few more decades before he and others like him can start downloading their brains or getting those long-awaited cybernetic enhancements!