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

Show Hide image

Beesic Instinct: Labour wants to protect the bees from Brexit

Leaving the EU could weaken protections, which is a shame because politicans have a lot to learn from hive behaviour

No more bumbling around from Labour: the Party is now firmly pro-Bee. Their new manifesto says they would ban the controversial pesticides, known as neonicotinoids or “neonics”, from the UK:

The pledge is not just great news for bees, whose nervous systems are attacked by the chemicals, but for admirers of bees' elegant political decision making too. In fact, if our politics was more bee-like perhaps it would bug us less.

Bees, it turns out, are skilled in the political arts. When honey bees have to move to a new hive they send “scouts" to check out the options - a cosy crevice in your shed perhaps. The scouts then relay their findings to their comrades with a “waggle dance” up the honeycomb walls. Their sequence of steps indicates a site’s location, and if their opinion of your shed is not so hot, they’ll only bother to repeat their dance a couple of times. If they love it, they can dance a few hundred.

The longer a bee dances, the larger her audience grows. Her fellow scout bees can then follow the directions and visit the venue themselves. On their return, they perform their opinion for others. Eventually a hive should end up with a critical mass of the creatures all dancing for the same place. At that point, the entire hive takes flight to its new, democratically elected, home. Talk about waxing lyrical. 

Now just think about what such a system could do for British politics? Leaving aside the joyful prospect of our Right-Honourables jigging their way through parliament, would bees be vague about what kind of EU relationship they were choosing? No way. Would they have been swayed by dodgy facts? Nope. 

But, wait, what’s that I hear you say? – it’s not real democracy if only the scout bees get a vote! Fair point. But in that respect, neither is our own: just take 16 year-olds or foreign nationals. 

Plus the sad truth is that leaving the EU is putting the UK's capacity for strong, scientific decision making in doubt - not least over which pesticides are safe to use.

At present, The European Food Saftey Authority evaluates the safety of the substances proposed in new “plant protection products” and shares the results among the member states. In 2013, its findings led the European Commission to restrict the use of three key neonictides which the EFSA warned posed a “high acute risk” to honey bee health. This science has recently been reviewed by the EFSA and may see the restrictions extended to a complete ban

In the event of Brexit, the UK will have to decide on whether or not to maintain, extend or reduce EU rulings on pesticides. Labour's call for prohbiition is in line with calls from seventeen of the UK’s leading environment and conservation groups (the Green Party already pledged to ban neonoictinoids in their 2015 campaign). But while the Conservative government says it will take a "risk based" approach to the matter, it is under pressure from pesticide and farming groups to relax present regulation. In 2013 it also voted against the EU’s partial ban.

The even wider question, however, is how Britain will conduct scientific reviews and licensing in future. Dave Timms, senior policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, is concerned about what our future relationship to the EFSA's review process will be: "You've got so many chemicals coming up for review all the time that member states take it in turn to be rapporteurs - and that process of sharing the science, sharing the effort, could be lost if we leave."

Even Defra has highlighted the problem of repatriating such decisions to the UK: "some areas (such as chemicals or ozone-depleting substances) might present more challenges than others because they are currently delivered by EU agencies, systems or resources,” it said in evidence presented for a recent government report.

The need for decisions based on shared and transparent scientific evidence has thus arguably never been greater. Otherwise we risk a situation in which, as Dr Elli Leadbeater of Royal Holloway told the NS, “evolution seems to have found a better solution than we have.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496