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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”