Distraction Free Reading

Quantum Arms Race

A lot has been said and written about the impending unleashing of quantum technology in the world. Whereas many sing paeans to the potential of the technology to better the world, many a soothsayers forebode a much grimmer reality. While the future might sound alien, it evokes, frankly, familiar feelings in the minds of those who imagine. We’ve all witnessed the world transform in front of our eyes in the past century, from this tech revolution to that, from nuclear promises of infinite power to laser-sharp visions of cameras better than the human eye; such is the oxymoronic, remarkable mundaneness of technological progress that the more the world changes, the more it remains the same. One might even be forgiven for feeling a sense of security at the thought of a world run by quantum technology. After all, the great leaps forward have all served us well and promise more.

The Building Blocks:What is Quantum Technology?

It’s important, to start with, a review of what is at stake. The first wave of quantum technologies brought us lasers, atomic clocks, transistors, nuclear devices, and medical instruments like the MRI, only to name a few. The second wave of progress is fueled by quantum computers.  What makes a Quantum computer so much more powerful than a classical one? One has to begin with understanding how a bit, the basic building block of computing differs in the two cases. The classical bit can be imagined as a coin flip, it can result in a head or tails. Put together many such loaded coins, and one can make a pretty nifty computer, showing us our cat videos or designing the software we use to check our bank balances. An inaccurate but effective analogy for a quantum bit – or ‘qubits’ – would be a spinning coin, capable of being both heads and tails at the same time, which in scientific parlance is referred to as superposition, allowing temporal multi-tasking – performing many calculations at the same time. There are many candidates for such bits- ultracold atoms, little loops made of superconducting materials, even imperfections in highly ordered materials like diamonds. This seemingly trivial variation enables quantum computers to achieve exponential speed-ups compared to their traditional counterparts, performing certain calculations that would otherwise take the time of the order of the age of the universe, in real-time,  and with much lesser computing power. Google’s quantum computer ‘Sycamore’ containing 53 ‘qubits’, which claimed quantum supremacy in October 2019, took only 200 seconds to perform a benchmark task that the researchers estimated would have taken a state-of-the-art supercomputer 10,000 years to compute. The benchmark task, explaining which is beyond the scope of the article, has an immediate application in generating certifiable random numbers, and future uses in optimization, machine learning, materials science, and chemistry. Quantum computers are also tipped to be capable of breaking the most widely used encryption, the algorithms for which have actually existed since the 1990s! Another very interesting property of quantum systems is called ‘entanglement’, famously referred to by Albert Einstein as ‘spooky action at a distance’, where two particles once entangled, either by virtue of being produced together at the same source or interacting in a controlled setting, can communicate information about changes to each other instantaneously across unlimited distances, seemingly breaking numerous laws like conservation of information and the speed of light limit on the travel of information. A group of Chinese scientists set the record for such a phenomenon between the ground and a satellite separated by 1200 km, laying a path for an eventual quantum internet. The US Department of Energy has also announced plans to develop a super-fast and unhackable quantum internet. Quantum ‘interferometers’, devices using the small scale of such interaction to precisely measure tiny distances, have made possible the discovery of gravitational waves. While most such experiments, like LIGO, are ground-based, a space-based experiment has been operational aboard the ISS for two years, where they also successfully created the fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) for the first time in space, which is allowing the study of quantum physics in micro-gravity.

Mapping the Field: Who’s come to Play?

Using such a powerful device to make faster phone apps would be like detonating nuclear fission reactors to make toast, although I wouldn’t discount either happening one day. Often, such technical brilliance is reserved for the troubles of the wealthy and the powerful- governments, private tech giants, and the military-industrial complex. Companies such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and the governments of the US, China, EU, are all funding or operating their own quantum computing divisions, and are locked in a race to develop the first large-scale, commercially viable quantum computer, which reminds us of the zeal accompanying the arms race, space race and sequencing the human genome.  And for good reason; quantum tech could be used to solve very hard problems which could create secure communication lines which would be a boon for any army or financial analysis tools which could transform economic management as we know it. Solving particle physics problems could help design fission reactors which could be our best shot against global warming. Insights into protein folding could help combat the most insidious of illnesses.

An image of a version of D-Wave’s quantum computer

Lockheed Martin bought a version of D-Wave’s quantum computer and plans to upgrade it to commercial scale. (Source: The GRC Hub)

Enough has been enunciated about how the interactions of the powers to be with quantum tech would unfold. Would the motions of the planets and constellations bother to impact the life of anyone considered less than worthy? One has to believe that one day, the cascading impacts of such transformative technologies would reach our towns, streets, even our doorsteps. Much before that though, the politics of quantum supremacy would touch one and all. We needn’t look further than our experiences with nuclear technology, the possession of which has driven numerous tyrannical regimes to strain impoverished economies to divert precious resources away from the well-being of citizens towards maintaining expensive nuclear chapters much before anyone gets to taste the fruits of clean nuclear energy. In fact, a new brand of nuclear nationalism has emerged in the third world, where school children are regaled with tales of their countries’ distinguished spot in the league of nations by virtue of these devices of mass destruction.  Just like the transition to a nuclear world involved a drawn-out tussle between the nations until a clear leader was established, one could envisage a similar wager between the powerful to emerge as the undisputed master, the bets for which are already being placed. For instance, the US government has been pouring billions of dollars every year towards artificial intelligence and quantum computing while the funding for research, in general, has steadily reduced. The National Quantum Initiative Act earmarked $1.2 billion in a 2018 law for quantum research, with more coming from private companies. The European Union similarly committed to spending EUR 1.2 billion over ten years on its Quantum Technologies Flagship. The Chinese government, meanwhile, is investing $10 billion in building the world’s largest quantum research facility in Hefei, although their overall funding is notoriously hard to calculate. As the staggering amounts pile up, simple economic sense would dictate countries to seek a return on investment in the form of dominance in the quantum sphere, with the populace soon joining in to cheer the states on.

A logo for the European Union's flagship Quantum technology venture

Quantum Flagship is the EU’s big foray into the quantum race. (Source: QTF Website)

Politics in a (Post) Quantum World

The enhanced encryption capabilities would also raise the bar for cryptography, surveillance and espionage. Regimes all across the world are already heavily invested in cultivating and maintaining an edge over their rivals at all times. The Nazis relied heavily on their advanced encryption technology, called the Enigma machine, during the Second World War, only for it all to be undone by the Allies, an eventuality which the Nazis didn’t consider and ended up costing them the war. The Cold War witnessed decades of continuous one-upmanship in surveillance of the other and the own too. The recent Hong Kong protests saw protestors topple lampposts in fear that they contained cameras with facial recognition technology to be used to identify and prosecute protestors. In more recent times, as the power dynamics of the world become increasingly unstable, and alliances shifting every day, access to secure quantum communication could become the axis around which global politics aligns itself. As regimes identify their power more and more with their encryption prowess, the common person should also start preparing themself to live in an ever-increasing security state, with the most trivial of actions under the watchful eye of the state, all while standards of living continue to rise, a golden cage if you will.

An interesting dynamic to imagine would be how the different parts of the world are impacted by the progress in quantum mechanics. The science and technology world is a much more competitive place now, compared to the World War 2 era. Nuclear technology has proliferated, third world countries like India are running very successful and efficient space programs. We’ve already stated China’s bets on quantum technology, coupled with a rapid economic rise and the creation of a network of investments across Africa and Central Asia, could cause the centre of global politics to shift eastward.

Treading the tightrope between courage and caution: The way forward

It is hard to predict what the future holds in a world where the conventional line between possible and impossible blur a little more every day. Quantum problems have been notoriously intractable, and the pace of progress has only recently picked up, so it might be too soon to start occupying oneself with a vision of a dystopian future. After all, we’ve been on the hunt for quantum computers since the 1980s, but the first commercial quantum computer was unveiled by D-wave in 2007. The pace is picking up though. According to Hartmut Neven, the director of NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab, quantum computers are gaining computational power relative to classical ones at a “doubly exponential” rate — a staggeringly fast clip, much faster than the exponential rate predicted by Moore’s Law.  It looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you’re in a different world, Neven said.  Yet, such is the tantalizing trickle of sand in the hourglass of technology, as well as global politics; it seems still until you notice it’s time for it to change sides again.  

The most productive thing might be exactly what we’re doing right now, investing time and resources to the relentless march towards realising the impossible, and trusting our future generations to be wise and responsible with the inheritance we leave behind for them, all the while ensuring exemplary conduct on our part with the techno-ethical challenges facing us today. The world’s collective horror at nuclear destruction laid the groundwork for stabilizing forces that endure even to this day, and are already instrumental in our efforts against climate change. Experts have already begun to voice the need for regulation, like a recent paper advocating softer governance methods inspired by those for nanotechnology. The wise thing would be to take inspiration from our collective experiences and our collaboration. For the more the world changes, it remains the same, and those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it.


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