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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“Socialism with an iPad” isn't as ludicrous as it sounds

Technology is changing the labour market faster than ever before. John McDonnell argues that it's the state's responsibility to make sure the outcome is fair for everyone. 

The speech shadow chancellor John McDonnell gave at Imperial College earlier today started fine. As my colleague George Eaton points out, McDonnell was valiantly attempting to reframe the economic debate – to show how investment, especially in technology research and infrastructure, could reinvigorate the economy in ways austerity can’t. 

But then he got to the last line. “It’s socialism,” he summed up, “but socialism with an iPad.”

The clunky slogan sailed a thousand The Thick of it references (Bat People and App Britain featured prominently), and its use as a soundbite across the media made McDonnell’s argument look out-of-touch and embarrassing. But in the context of his argument, the line isn’t as nonsensical as it sounds.

Buried in the speech were a number of important arguments about how we let technological advancement come about. It’s lazy to assume that technology is inherently democratic, and will necessarily bring about a fairer society – as things stand, it’s deepy embedded in capitalism. But it's also changing the labour market faster than ever before: automation and robotics will soon mean that most tasks can be carried out  by machine, making those who control those machines vastly more powerful than those who don’t. 

In his speech, McDonnell pointed out that automation will replace low-paid workers first:

Technological advance is forcing the pace of change. Bank of England research suggests that 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation over the next decade or so. And those most at risk from automation are the lowest-paid.

He added that technological advances, and the changes they’ll make to the labour market, must be managed by the state so that workers don't lose out. Technology contributes to the wealth gap, and could well make it worse, unless, as McDonnell says, the government “understands and accepts the strategic role it has to play in our new economy”. This sounds woolly, but it's an important point - Tory policy on issues like tax or the the Transatlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP) has been remarkably hands-off in ceding power to large corporations. 

McDonnell implied that a large and involved state is crucial in a globalised, technological world, to ensure that workers' rights don't fall through the cracks and inequalities don't widen. A large welfare state would help cushion workers in a changing economy -  tax credits, as McDonnell explained earlier, can help make up for low wages in small, start-up businesses. 

Corporations have a poor record of improving working life and helping out those unable to work, or whose skills become redundant. These safeguards will become ever-more important as technology changes the labour market forever. And it’s here, McDonnell argued, that a bit of socialism will be needed. Even if it's carrying an iPad. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.