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

Joshua M. Jones for Emojipedia
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The emojis proposed for release in 2016 are faintly disturbing

Birds of prey, dead flowers and vomit: Emojipedia's vision for 2016. 

Since, as we're constantly being told, emojis are now the fastest growing languge in the UK, it seems only appropriate that its vocabulary should expand to include more commonly used images or ideas as its popularity increases. 

Next year, the Unicode Consortium, which decides which new codes can be added to the emoji dictionary, will approve a new round of symbols. So far, 38 suggestions have been accepted as candidates for the final selection. Emojipedia, an online emoji resource, has taken it upon itself to mock up the new symbols based on the appearance of existing emojis (though emojis are designed slightly differently by different operating systems like Apple or Android). The full list will be decided by Unicode in mid-2016. 

As it stands, the new selection is a little... well, dark. 

First, there are the faces: a Pinocchio-nosed lying face, a dribbling face, a nauseous face, an upset-looking lady and a horrible swollen clown head: 

Then there's what I like to call the "melancholy nighttime collection", including a bat, owl, fox, blackened heart and dying rose: 

Here we have a few predators, thrown in for good measure, and a stop sign:

There are a few symbols of optimism amid the doom and gloom, including a pair of crossed fingers, clinking champagne glasses and smiling cowboy, plus a groom and prince to round out the bride and princess on current release. (You can see the full list of mock-ups here). But overall, the tone is remarkably sombre. 

Perhaps as emoji become ever more popular as a method of communication, we need to accept that they must represent the world in all its darkness and nuance. Not every experience deserves a smiley face, after all. 

All mock-ups: Emojpedia.

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