The NSA quantum computer ‘revelation’

Wired: The internet is abuzz over revelations that the NSA is building its own quantum computer, a machine that could crack the computer encryption codes exponentially faster than any machine available today. But this should come as no surprise.

“It’s an interesting topic,” says Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT who has followed quantum computing efforts for a good eight years. “But as far as I can see, there is no big new revelation here.”

The NSA has openly sponsored quantum computing research for close to a decade, helping to create something called the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. And nearly five years ago, the head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, predicted that the era of quantum computing was on the way — and that it would take the spy agency into new territory.

“I think we can see clearly out three to five years. Beyond that, things like a quantum computer start to bump up there,” Alexander told attendees at an Omaha Nebraska Cyberspace Symposium, saying that true quantum computing could be anywhere from three to 25 years away. “And when that hits, that’s a game changer. So things like that are there that we’re going to have to look at.”

The NSA documents leaked to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm the agency’s interest in quantum computing, though the Post reports that the agency is funding classified work at a University of Maryland laboratory called the Laboratory for Physical Sciences. We don’t know if the agency is any closer to actually completing a quantum computer than anyone else. In fact, the Post speculates that it’s probably not.

Christopher Monroe, a University of Maryland professor and a fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute, agrees there’s “nothing very interesting” in the Posts‘s documents. “I saw this story and was amused that somebody at the Post was trying a little too hard to make a story out of nothing, probably because everybody is intrigued by this fellow Snowden,” he said in an email interview. The NSA’s involvement in quantum information science, he adds, “is well known.” [Continue reading…]

If the current climate of libertarian paranoia had prevailed when the internet was in its early stages of development, no doubt there would have been much louder warnings about the dangers of networked computing and the Pentagon’s nefarious interest in its control.

Given that the interest in quantum computing extends far beyond the NSA, the NSA’s interest should be taken as a given. And as in most fields of basic research, the breakthroughs invariable require government investment. The free market pays for things that make money and the money-making potential of new technology often takes years or decades to materialize.

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