What could the NSA do with a quantum computer?

After many false starts it’s a research field that is just now coming of age - when harnessed, particles can perform staggeringly powerful computation.

The news that the US National Security Agency has been spying on public emails, phone calls and internet chat logs provokes an obvious question: just how much data can the NSA cope with? That depends on whether it has a working quantum computer.

A report leaked to the Guardian suggests that the NSA can get three billion pieces of information a month from computer records alone. Much has been made of how it would take ridiculous amounts of computer time to analyse it all. But that is exactly why the NSA, GCHQ and almost every other security agency in the world have spent the past two decades with one eye on a select group of physicists who could soon make the supercomputers of today look like children’s toys.

A standard “classical” computer stores information as a series of zeroes and ones on the microchips of its circuitry. A 0 is represented by the absence of electrical charge on a component called a capacitor. The presence of charges gives a 1. By moving the charges around between components in welldefined ways, you can represent any number you want and perform any computation.

The quantum computer uses a single atom or electron, rather than a bulky electrical charge, as the 0 or 1. In fact, the particle can be 0 and 1 at the same time. In certain conditions, atoms and subatomic particles can be in two places at once, or spin clockwise and anticlockwise at the same time. That means you can use a single atom to represent two binary digits.

Then there’s entanglement, another phenomenon of the subatomic world. This allows you to link many of the doubleheaded particles to create a string of binary digits that can simultaneously represent a huge array of numbers. A string of just 250 particles is enough to encode, simultaneously, more numbers than there are atoms in the known universe. Put those particles together in the form of a computer, and they can perform a staggeringly powerful computation on all these possible numbers at once.

So far, researchers have identified two applications for quantum computing. The first is a kind of reverse multiplication known as factorisation. This allows you to discover which numbers multiply each other to create any given number. It sounds trivial, but if the bigger number is big enough, no normal computer can do this in a reasonable time. The difficulty of factorisation is the mainstay of all data security, from military intelligence to financial transactions. So, a quantum computer is a game-changer.

The second application seems even more esoteric at first glance. It is a reverse telephonebook search: given a number, it can do the equivalent of finding a name, and much more quickly than any machine we have now. It is a way of sifting through unsorted data efficiently – just what the NSA needs.

And after many false starts it’s a research field that is just now coming of age. The first working, commercial quantum computer was created by DWave Systems, a firm based in Vancouver, Canada. Its first sale, in May 2011, was to the defence company Lockheed Martin, which has links with the NSA.

A major investor in D-Wave is In-Q-Tel, the business arm of the CIA, which “delivers innovative technology solutions in support of the missions of the US intelligence community”. IQT believes its customers can benefit from the promise of quantum computing because the intelligence world faces “many complex problems that tax classical computing”, according to Robert Ames, an IQT vice-president. He made that statement in September last year. Now we know just what he meant.

A new NSA data centre in Bluffdale, Utah. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad