Author: Project Q

Quantum International Relations

U.S. quantum funding spikes: Too little, too late in the race to establish dominance in quantum communications?


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By Gabriella Skoff and James Der Derian | Gif via The New York Times

As we enter a new decade, the world’s biggest competitors in science and technology continue to race ahead toward a strategic advantage in quantum technologies. National investments in quantum technologies, alongside others such as AI, are on the rise globally. It is clear from the numbers that nations are taking the development of their respective quantum industries seriously. While there has been a steady climb in national funding for quantum science and technology over the past ten years, 2020 arrived with headlines of a significant jump in the latest U.S. budget. This recent federal pivot toward investment in quantum capabilities, especially in the area of quantum communications, signifies that the U.S. is taking seriously the threat that one country in particular could reach the finish line first.

The U.S. and China lead the pack when it comes to funding the quantum race. It is generally accepted that China has taken a commanding lead in the development of secure quantum communications, while the U.S. is the front-runner in quantum computing. Recent data from Patininformatics illustrates the comparative levels of research focus through the lens of applied patents. In 2018, China had nearly twice the number of patents filed for quantum technology than the U.S., with a strong focus in the areas of quantum communications and cryptography. Since 2017, China has been actively engaged in the construction, expansion and improvement of a ground-based national quantum communications infrastructure and is heavily focused on deploying a growing net of quantum-enabled satellites for space-based quantum secure communications.

For China, this focus is no accident. As recently noted by the director of Project Q, this technological strategy was in part motivated by the 2013 leaks from former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. According to multiple sources, the information disclosed by Snowden revealing extensive and effective U.S. cyber-espionage in China proved to be a major catalyst for China’s rapid quantum communications development. The Chinese “Father of Quantum” himself, leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei, regularly mentions in interviews that the leaks motivated and accelerated his own research in quantum communications.

At the same time, data from the most recent Patinformatics report indicates that the U.S. continues to lead the world in quantum computing patent filings. The U.S.’s edge in quantum computing can be largely, if not entirely, attributed to private sector players such as IBM and Google. These U.S. companies, responsible for most quantum computing patents filed in the U.S., are blazing the trail in the development of a functional quantum computer, presenting a strong asset for the American security apparatus, so long as these companies can be kept on-side. This presents an interesting contrast to China, where quantum technological development lies at the heart of the government and is controlled directly and predominantly through top-down, state means. However, this present binary, pitting an offensive U.S. innovation apparatus against a defensive, Chinese future-proofing infrastructure is beginning to disentangle.

The question of who will “win” the quantum race has so far been deflected as “too early to say”, with a finish line that is not only further away than expected but is also proving difficult to even define. If, however, one follows the money, new signs are emerging of two countries changing leads at every furlough. In the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community produced for the U.S. Senate, China’s “multifaceted, long-term, whole-of-government approach to foreign technology acquisition and indigenous technology development” is presented as a major threat to U.S. security. Further, the report highlights: “advances in quantum computing foreshadow challenges to current methods of protecting data and transactions”—pegging the value of defensive quantum capabilities square with offensive capabilities.

Although China might well dominate the realm of defensive quantum communications, it is difficult to track the country’s efforts to mount an offensive capacity to break codes and attack databases. Nonetheless, concern has been voiced in the U.S. (in government more so than in academic circles) about the large number of Chinese students working in the sensitive area of quantum sciences at American and other western universities. There is mounting anxiety that Chinese studying in the U.S. and Australia are receiving western training in the quantum sciences only to bring the knowledge back to China to be used for adversarial military applications. This opinion is also reflected in the U.S. Threat Assessment Report: “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means”.

Critics have urged for years that the U.S. government should be far more proactive toward building out defensive quantum technological capabilities, so as not to be caught on the back foot once quantum computing comes to fruition. However, recent U.S. efforts have focused instead on achieving an episodic ‘quantum supremacy’ in computing. While this makes sense from a purely strategic or corporate perspective, the imbalance of focus has created a serious vulnerability for critical infrastructure and information systems which have not yet been secured as quantum-proof. This possibility is more real now than ever, as China has begun to focus on its quantum computing development, bolstered by top researchers (many foreign-educated) and quantum computing initiatives from powerful and well-resourced Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu.

Further, China’s $10 billion-dollar National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Hefei is currently under construction, and is set to be the world’s largest quantum research facility. According to the South China Morning Post, a “key mission” of the facility is to house the experts, laboratories and equipment required for China to “build the nation’s first supercomputer that could break an encrypted message in seconds”. If no delays arise, the facility should be completed this year. The Chinese whole-of-government approach to quantum financing and direction has so far proven to be incredibly effective and potent, demonstrating a capacity for rapid breakthroughs.

The recently released 2021 U.S. Budget for Science and Technology can be seen as a confirmation that the impact of the Chinese approach has finally registered, prompting the U.S. to take these developments seriously. The U.S. has now earmarked $25 million USD for the creation of its own national quantum internet, a stimulus which appears to be aimed at pushing the U.S. to catch up to China’s lead in quantum communications. The funds are slated by the U.S. Energy Department to be used for connecting 17 national research labs across the country in order to create a test network to explore quantum encryption and ultimately to build a secure quantum network. This is the largest amount of dedicated funding in the U.S. for quantum communications to date, following a pattern of increases in funding for quantum technologies in the U.S., which has increased fivefold over the last three years.

China’s opacity about investment and progress in quantum computing may not differ radically from other governments practicing strategic secrecy or corporations seeking to preserve proprietary interests. But if there is indeed a rapid innovation by one side or the other, the seamlessness of the military-corporate-research complex in China makes it that much easier for the country to “go dark”, leaving the U.S. and its allies with little warning of the crypto-security breach that could follow. The recent spike in governmental funding for quantum communications in the U.S. appears to signal that Washington is taking this threat seriously, but it may be too little too late for the U.S. to maintain a strategic advantage in the critical domain of quantum computing and communication. Ultimately, what sets off alarm bells inside the Beltway could well light up the Belt and the Road with celebratory fireworks.

Quantum Computing

Google Achieves Quantum Supremacy?


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Feature image via Inverse

By James Der Derian and Gabriella Skoff

Fittingly, the first news flash came from a Google Scholar alert, by way of a post on the NASA website: Google had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ with its 53-qubit Sycamore processor. NASA then pulled the article –  probably for lack of proper vetting – but the quantum resonance machine plus a few conspiracy theories were already off and running, including a claim from Andrew Yang that classical encryption was in dire jeopardy (as too are his hopes to win the nomination for Democratic President).

First coined in 2011 at the 25th Solvay Conference by Caltech theoretical physicist John Preskill, quantum supremacy signifies a critical step in the development of quantum computing, whereby a quantum computer is capable of outperforming a classical computer at a given task. This long-awaited moment among quantum researchers and enthusiasts would mark a major breakthrough in quantum computing that is likely to accelerate research and development of quantum computers. This could lend a significant boost, helping quantum computers to achieve their promise sooner. It might even give quantum sceptics a moment’s pause. It does not mean that all your emails are now readable by Google (though the NSA may be another story).

From the outset, the concept of quantum supremacy has carried a lot of semiotic baggage.  For some, supremacy suggests a competitive race to the finish line or to the top of the charts, as when the Supremes took Motown in the 1960s. For others, the term carries the taint of another kind of race, as when white supremacists’ chants asserted racial superiority in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.  

It is not difficult to see why the term quantum supremacy continues to mislead today. Specifically, it signifies a very narrow benchmark of performance, demonstrating that quantum computers will be vastly better at some tasks than classical computers. However, until they scale up in qubits, achieve functioning levels of error-correction and most importantly, become more competitive in cost, it is highly unlikely that quantum computers will challenge the hegemony of classical computers in the near or mid-term. The areas in which they could eventually prove exponentially superior to classical computers include optimization, simulation, sensing and yes, encryption/decryption. If and when the relative utility of quantum computers improves, we can then begin to assess what a quantum advantage will be over classical computers. 

Although the definition of quantum supremacy comes in the neutral gray of science, Preskill’s early parsing of the achievement as either ‘really, really hard’ (perhaps possible to achieve in a few decades) or ‘ridiculously hard’ (unlikely to occur even within the century) contributed an almost biblical hermeneutic to the eventuality, of a holy grail or deux ex machina that would forever change not only how we compute but also how we would soon live in a quantum age. The flurry of claims and counter-claims over the past week only added to the super-naturalisation of quantum computing. It might be worth taking a step back, to consider what we know and what we might yet find out.

When Project Q visited Google’s quantum computer team, led by physicist John Martinis of the University of California, Santa Barbara, he told us of the team’s plans to submit its prototype device to a civilian body for testing. Last November, Google reported that ‘Bristlecone’, its 72-qubit superconducting quantum device, would be connected to NASA Ames for testing of quantum supremacy against NASA’s powerful petaflop-scale Pleiades supercomputer (in the top 25 of the world).

After a few months of silence there were unconfirmed reports that Bristlecone proved too error-prone. The team decided to downshift their efforts, instead using ‘Sycamore’, a 54-qubit chip device. According to the original source, ‘Sycamore’ passed the necessary two-qubit error rate (below 0.5%) and was able to perform (minus one failed qubit) a superposition calculation of random circuits involving 250 or 260 complex numbers in three minutes and twenty seconds—one that would take today’s most advanced supercomputer, known as ‘Summit’, around 10,000 years to perform. Following the precise meaning of the term, and once peer-reviewed (likely in the next month), Google will be able to claim that Sycamore achieved quantum supremacy over Summit. Score one for deciduous trees over geological features! But stay tuned for Bristlecone (a tree which grows on summits!).

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Project Q

Project Q funding renewed as quantum supremacy is announced


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Project Q has been awarded $US400,000 to complete research into the social, strategic and ethical implications of quantum technologies. Since its inception in 2015, Project Q has received $US1.2 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to lead world-first multidisciplinary research into the risks and benefits of quantum innovation. Now heading into its third phase, Project Q’s research is more important than ever.

“When we started Project Q the quantum revolution was generally thought to be decades away. Since then we’ve seen the pace of quantum innovation accelerate exponentially,” said Professor James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies and Chief Investigator of Project Q. “Just this month news leaked that Google had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ – meaning their quantum computer surpassed the world’s most powerful supercomputers on a particular task.”

Over the past six years, Project Q has grown to become the world’s leading social sciences research project into quantum technology. Noting the novelty of the topic, as well as the traditional separation between the natural and social sciences, Professor Der Derian expressed appreciation for the foresight and support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York for a multidisciplinary investigation such as Project Q.

“One of the great achievements of Project Q is the amazing multinational network of academics, policymakers and industry experts we have brought together to inform our research,” said Der Derian. “Over 220 people have participated in the project, sharing their experience and insights, and helping us make an incredibly complex issue accessible to a broad audience.”

Project Q has made its research available to the general public through an extensive, open-source multimedia library of recorded interviews, lectures and panel discussions, featuring the biggest names in quantum physics and the social sciences.

“Our emphasis on multimedia sets Project Q apart from traditional research projects,” Professor Der Derian said. “It means that when the grant comes to an end we will have produced not only research articles, but an interactive e-book and a feature length documentary about the quantum race.”

As the third and final phase of Project Q gets underway, the project is going global. “Building on our networks within the University of Sydney, including the Sydney Nanoscience Institute and the new Sydney Quantum Academy, we are now expanding and taking Project Q on the road. We’re planning a series of boot camps, workshops and conferences in the United States, Canada, the UK and eventually Armenia, whose President is a former theoretical physicist and advocate of what he calls ‘quantum politics’.”

Whether it’s in the field of technology, politics, or international relations the quantum future is coming faster than we thought. Project Q is preparing for this exciting new world.

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Andrew Yang 2020: Growing American Faith in Techno-Realism


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Feature image via The Verge

Gabriella Skoff

The U.S. 2020 Democratic Primary is well underway, exhibiting the greatest diversity and highest number of Democratic candidates in U.S. history. From career politicians to a self-help guru to a former tech executive and everything in between—this extraordinary breadth makes for an interesting array of policy positions, on topics both expected and fringe. While technological innovation, economic growth and security have all become inextricably linked to American politics in general, the Democratic Party in particular has worked to frame itself as the harbinger of technological innovation since at least the Kennedy years. This year, Democrats and Republicans have moved closer together on technology as regulating Big Tech has become a salient challenge in government. Many Democrats in this year’s Primary are also heralding the manufacture and export of green technology as part of their solution to climate change and domestic unemployment. But one candidate in America’s 2020 Democratic line-up is talking about innovation and technology in a very serious way: Andrew Yang.

Andrew Yang is a former tech entrepreneur most well-known as a champion for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) through his flagship proposal, the Freedom Dividend. He frames his argument for the implementation of a UBI with the encroaching threat of mass job loss, as automation continues to permeate high-employment sectors like retail and the foodservice industry. With close to no political experience on his resume, nearly all of Yang’s policies rely on his knack for Silicon Valley hype and focus on the promises and threats of technology. His “human-centred capitalism” platform boasts a number of compelling and futurist tech-forward solutions, including what he refers to as the “new currency” called Digital Social Credit, which would see the creation of positive social value transformed into financial capital for the individual. Though many of Yang’s ideas may sound like sci-fi realities, he seems to view technology more reasonably as a useful tool to be harnessed in America’s path forward, making his message fall short of techno-utopianism and settle more comfortably into techno-realism.

Unsurprisingly, Yang is the only Democratic candidate to make specific mention of a quantum policy, which centres around two neat “steps”, according to Yang’s 2020 candidacy website:

First, and immediately, we need to invest in and develop new encryption standards and systems, and immediately shift to using these quantum computing-resistant standards to protect our most sensitive data. This won’t be easy or cheap, but it is necessary. Second, we must heavily invest in quantum computing technology so that we develop our own systems ahead of our geopolitical rivals.

While Yang’s quantum policy has been criticized by some for being simplistic or simply an activation of a buzzword frenzy, he remains the only candidate to have one. His policy is palatably outlined as a two-step program on his website but importantly seems to suggest Yang’s commitment to government investment in quantum technologies in order to increase both defensive and offensive U.S. quantum capacities. This stance clearly signifies Yang’s opinion that having an advantage over the rest of the world in quantum technology is a strategy that will be integral to the maintenance of American hegemony. Further, his position on foreign policy, which he characterizes as one of “restraint and judgement”, is well-suited to a quantum-enhanced security capacity that, in a modern show of military might, could demonstrate U.S. technological superiority to attack and defend without putting boots on the ground.

In these still early days of the race for Democratic candidacy, Yang’s and most other’s policies lack the proper framing and focus that will be required to get the public onside. While Yang may be wearing rose-coloured glasses when he emphasizes the power of technology to solve social ills, this angle has made him stand out from an array of incredibly diverse Democratic candidates. His current popularity ratings place him in the top ten candidates, above even well-known career politicians like Cory Booker, who have had much louder voices thus far in the Democratic debates. It is clear that there is something about Yang’s message that resonates with Americans. Though his press-time has been minimal, he has achieved some obvious success in delivering his message about the promises and perils of emerging technologies and how to harness and minimize these.

It is unlikely that Yang’s tech-forward platform will be enough to win him the nomination but the fact that it has already taken him this far should tell us something. Like most populations throughout history, Americans are concerned about the influence and the impact that emerging technologies are having on their daily lives and will continue to have on their futures. Americans seem to be interested in Yang because they want someone at the helm who has the prescience to control and channel these technologies in their best interest. At least in the U.S., however, running on a political platform focused almost exclusively on emerging technologies poses two major challenges: framing and a far-reaching, futurist vision.

First, a political message framed by tech-forward policy needs to be delivered in an accessible and pressing way. Yang’s framing of job loss due to automation is, in fact, an example of how this can be done effectively. Unemployment is a very real issue to both Democrats and Republicans and Yang’s message activates and engages both of these parties while framing the issue in terms of emerging technology. Second, in order to harness the power of tomorrow’s technology (quantum computing, for example), one needs to have sights set on the future. And not just the near future, but a future that is well beyond the purview of one presidential term of four years, or even two of eight years. This requires a bold vision that can border on futurist and risks the argument of the unknown. How can emerging technologies be channelled/regulated if we don’t even really know what they will do? The reality is that most politicians speaking about technology are either unable to grasp and communicate the topic of emerging technologies or not looking far enough into the future to really be able to create proactive policy in this area.

It is perhaps the most formidable challenge in politics, getting the general population to care about far-sighted goals, and one that has rarely been achieved outside of the force of dictatorships, whether benevolent or not. Generally, most communities (bar Silicon Valley) are not going to be receptive to the message of a platform built solely around emerging technology. In contrast, most people are concerned with matters they can relate to and issues that seem far more pressing, such as employment, infrastructure or education. Technology, of course, is increasingly an imposing factor in the conversation on these and most other topics of political debate, but it is often an intangible factor that requires a certain amount of faith. Like Church and State, Technology has become inextricably and implicitly intertwined with politics. Some, like Yang, speak about it with as much fervour and conviction. A candidate with a strong ethos of technological innovation and regulation certainly has the best chance of creating a government centred on these values. This begs the questions—is mixing technology and politics a good thing? Or, perhaps a more realistic question, like the relationship between Church and State, is it even avoidable?

Quantum International Relations

Where is the Middle East in the Quantum Race?


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Gabriella Skoff

The quantum race, like the space race before it, is a technological marathon with major implications for international relations. This defining quality sets the stage upon which the race is run, presenting competitors with an opportunity to demonstrate their economic and technological prowess to the rest of the world. Perhaps even more so than in the case of the space race, the winner of the quantum race will establish the winner’s name as a world leader in the Digital Age by gaining an unparalleled, strategic security advantage. With such high stakes, countries across the globe are investing in building their quantum capacities, if not to win the race, then at least to not be left behind. While China and the U.S. are currently frontrunners, countries from Europe to Latin America are joining the race, rapidly investing in quantum technology research and development. And yet, a region that has for so long dominated discussions about international relations and security appears to be missing in the line-up. Where is the Middle East in the quantum race?

For most nations in the Middle East, quantum investment is simply not a major priority. There is a complex set of reasons, unique to each country, for why this is the case. Many countries in the region have been plagued by war and instability over the last decade—producing both a deficit of government funds and an inadequate environment for exploration and innovation to occur. As with the space race, the countries that have risen to the top of the quantum food chain have done so upon the backdrop of relative stability, growth and wealth. Several countries in the region, however, have begun to emerge as quantum competitors with increasing capacity and focus: Israel, the Gulf countries, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

These countries share some of the conditions required for the establishment of international technological partnerships, investment and a privileged focus on innovation. The ambitions and specialities of their growing quantum programs, however, differ notably in relation to their specific geopolitical situations. Israel, a country known for its heavily U.S.-funded defence and arms expertise, is investing in quantum technologies largely for security applications. The Gulf counties, well-known for their economic reliance on oil production, are distinctly invested in the areas of innovation and capacity-building, especially in the UAE where there is a growing focus on quantum applications in the energy industry. Iran’s quantum efforts, largely directed through well-established and internationally connected knowledge institutions, are also heavily influenced by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal).

While scant information is available about these countries’ nascent quantum efforts, their momentum is growing, slowly but surely. From a geopolitical perspective, the ability to compete on the global stage with quantum technology research and development would be a critical advantage for any nation in the Middle East.

ISRAEL

The quantum race began in earnest in the early 2000’s, making Israel a late-comer to the game. Just last year, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the country’s entrance into the quantum race with an investment of NIS 100 million in a quantum technology research fund (approximately USD 28.2 million equivalent). According to The Jerusalem Post, the ongoing project is a collaboration between the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (MAFAT), the Higher Education Committee and the Israel Science Foundation. The project’s aim is to support Israel’s intelligence-gathering capacity, and as such will likely focus on the areas of quantum communications and computing. This month, Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) announced plans to pursue joint quantum research and development programs with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and U.S. Defense Forces, along with other high-tech industry players both in Israel and abroad.

Significantly, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II and the vast majority of this funding, quoted at $134.7 billion total, goes directly to Israel’s defense programs. As such, Israel’s ability to support scientific research and development (R&D) with military funding has come to resemble the American system, where the Department of Defense (DoD) is one of the biggest funders of national scientific research and development. This has manifested as vast amounts of military investment in Israel’s high-technology sector. According to the OECD, the country’s gross domestic spending on R&D since 2015 has been the highest in the world. As a result, the science and technology sector in Israel is one of the most well-developed and profitable in the world.

Historically, Israel has prioritised the development of home-grown technological expertise and innovation through industry and its higher education system. The immense amount of military and defense funding coupled with highly-skilled immigration booms and an extremely economically and socially invested network of Jewish populations living abroad have enabled Israel to build a thriving, national high-technology industry. Geographically surrounded by Muslim-majority countries in a radically contentious area, Israel has maintained its space in the Middle East essentially through establishing its presence as a highly militarized nation with vital support from powerful friends. Within this context and motivated by a lack of natural resources, Israel became the leader in high technology military exports that it is today.

Given this context and history, Israel’s recent pivot in focus toward quantum technologies is no surprise. The country’s keen focus on security and defense applications currently dominates the scope of their quantum R&D programs, but civilian applications are promised as the next phase of development.

THE GULF NATIONS

While Israel may eventually corner the market in quantum computing and communications for military applications, the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have entered the race with a different aim. This year the Gulf nations launched quantum computing research groups in their respective countries with the goal of creating an ecosystem for capacity-building and ultimately, knowledge production, in quantum technologies. Already an authority in technological research in the Middle East and a rising star in research output worldwide, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science is well-positioned to become a regional leader in the quantum computing space. Further, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco presents existing experience with supercomputer systems, a considerable advantage in the quantum race.

Recently, the UAE has turned its focus toward forming vital partnerships with global tech giants and has been rewarded by agreements with some of the biggest names in quantum computing, D-Wave and Microsoft. Last year, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) announced its participation in the Microsoft Quantum Computing Programme to develop quantum-based solutions for energy-optimization. Notably, DEWA is the first organisation outside of the U.S. to participate in the program. This suggests the UAE is taking a forward-looking approach to shift its economy and applying quantum innovation in the sustainable energy sector—a strategic pivot for a country where 30% of the GDP is directly based on oil and gas output. Last year as well, the UAE Minister for artificial intelligence enacted a partnership with Canadian quantum computing company, D-Wave, to bring the region its first quantum computer, which will be housed at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

Broadly, these advancements are couched by the motive to ensure the ongoing production of innovation through knowledge development, a trend that is currently sweeping the Arab states. The pressing need to begin diversifying the economies of these oil-producing nations has also contributed to investment in new quantum programs. However, the Gulf countries lack the population sizes and national research budgets to compete with the rest of the world in the quantum race. For this reason, the Gulf countries are looking toward public-private partnerships as a way to develop their quantum computing sectors further, bringing vital knowledge and facilities to the region.

These recent developments appear to be at least in part a response to a widely-referenced 2019 World Government Summit report authored in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) by Simone Vernacchia. The report seems to have stoked a fire, urging the Gulf countries to begin investing in quantum technologies:

If they do not, they risk missing out on the many advantages that will be on offer across every sector, and they will face an increasing threat if they fail to plan for the next generation of cyber-security…. Building up knowledge and specific skills in the field, along with preparing defensive post-quantum computing cyber-strategies, can be considered urgent priorities.

The report makes clear the risks of missing the moment to join the quantum race but also points to a number of regional opportunities for quantum innovation within the existing oil production industry, national security apparatus and diversification into new industries. It is clear from the establishment of these early partnerships between the UAE, D-Wave and Microsoft, that the report’s warnings are not being taken lightly. Rather, the advice is being heeded as essential to ensuring the supremacy of the region’s economy and continued security.

IRAN

A regional competitor to the UAE, Iran is also vying for a place in the quantum race and hoping to take the lead in quantum technological facilities and know-how in the Middle East. The country has had sights set on quantum research as a game-changing industry since around 2015 with the signing of the JCPOA. The JCPOA deal stipulates that in exchange for Iran limiting its uranium-enrichment activities, sanctions against the country imposed by six of the world’s biggest powers will be lifted. The agreement also opened a door for Iran to collaborate with Euratom, the European atomic energy community working in high technology development for nuclear power. Given the tumultuous U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, Iran’s recent quantum efforts have focused on collaboration with European countries and the continued development of its own national capacities.

Although several sources from 2017 state that Iran has entered talks with European nations to collaborate on quantum technology it is unclear whether or not any agreements have been actualised. The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) appears to be the main authority involved in negotiations to build the country’s quantum industry. While European collaboration is a nebulous topic, it appears that the AEOI has been busy at work, proclaiming the two recent victories of creating Iran’s first laboratory equipped with quantum technology research facilities and running its first photon entanglement experiment.

Iran also boasts some of the most well-developed quantum information science programs in the region. As such, the quantum literacy of Iran’s scientists and engineers is higher than in many countries that lack such long-standing research specialisations. The Islamic Republic’s two leading quantum research groups, the Sharif University quantum information group and the Quantronics Lab at the Iran University of Science & Technology are internationally renowned and well-equipped. These advantages were achieved either despite international sanctions, or in the more likely case, after they were lifted through the JCPOA. Last year, the first National Conference on Quantum Technology was held in Tehran and the International Iran Conference on Quantum Information, led by the Sharif group, is now in its sixth year. These conferences serve to bring international knowledge of the latest quantum developments to the region, helping to put Iran on the map as a contender in the quantum race.

It is still early days for the Middle East in the quantum race. The growing quantum programs in the Gulf nations, Israel, and Iran have only been formally created within the past three years and as such their outputs and impacts remain minimal. Nevertheless, these countries, which have been lucky enough to prosper in relatively stable economic and political circumstances, have seized the valuable opportunity to participate in and even to help build what is promised as the next technological revolution. While only time can tell exactly how the quantum race will pan out, this regional competition will undoubtedly open up possibilities to shift existing power dynamics not just between these quantum-empowered Middle Eastern countries, but also on an international scale.

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Could Quantum Computing Help Curb AI’s Carbon Footprint?


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Feature image via MIT Technology Review.

Gabriella Skoff

For the first time, the environmental impact of training AI in natural language processing (NLP) has been quantified, and the results are jarring. The lifecycle of training an NLP deep learning algorithm has been calculated in a new paper to produce the equivalent of 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide—nearly five times as much as the lifetime emissions of the average American car, including the manufacturing process. The paper brings new life to a parallel aptly drawn by Karen Ho in her article on the research for the MIT Technology Review: The comparison of data to oil now extends beyond its value in today’s society to also encompass the massive costs it weighs on the natural environment as an industry practice. The team of researchers found that the highest scoring deep learning models for NLP tasks were the most “computationally-hungry”; far more energy is demanded to train them due to their voracious appetite for data, the essential resource needed to create better AI. Data crunching is a space in which quantum computing is expected to lend a critical advantage to deep learning. Could it also help to curb AI’s carbon footprint?

The environmental impact of data is not often discussed, due in part to its lack of visibility. Fossil fuel plants can dominate the skyline, the plumes of smoke billowing above them have come to symbolise a problematic issue for many. Documentaries have taught many of us that even cows have a surprisingly large impact on climate change due to their production of methane gas. Data centres, however, are far less ubiquitous polluters, though their impact is substantial. The global ICT system is estimated to require about 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. To put that into context, that’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation. Given that the majority of the world’s energy is still produced by fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to climate change, this represents a serious challenge that few seem to be talking about.

As computers become more powerful, their power-usage too increases. Supercomputers are known to be incredibly gluttonous when it comes to energy consumption. In 2013, China’s Tianhe-2, a supercomputer with a generating capacity of 33.9 petaflops, was one of the most energy-intensive computers in the world, using 17.8 megawatts of power. Tianhe-2’s electricity consumption is about the same amount of energy required to power an entire town of around 36,000 people. While supercomputers today are used for anything from climate modelling to designing new nuclear weapons, many of the next generation of supercomputers are being tailor-made to train AI.

The U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Summit supercomputer is the first supercomputer to be specifically built for AI applications. Summit is capable at peak performance of 200 petaflops, establishing the U.S.’s ascent to top-player in the supercomputing world, a place only recently taken from China. The U.S. aims to reach the next milestone, building a supercomputer capable of an exaflop (a billion billion calculations per second) by 2023. The numbers speak for themselves. A future reliance on these supercomputers to train AI will result in exponentially greater energy usage, by a factor that in today’s stubbornly reliant fossil fuel society would have a severely negative impact on climate change. While there are some looking toward other power alternatives for training AI, perhaps quantum computers, which require far less power than supercomputers, could support a more energy-efficient transition for AI training.

Currently, quantum computers still use more power than classical computers because of their extreme cooling requirements. Most quantum computers use cryogenic refrigerators to operate, which are immensely energy-inefficient. As such, the vast majority of a quantum computer’s energy usage is pulled directly to the cooling infrastructure required in order to operate it. However, the advantage of this refrigeration technique is critical in quantum computing: Operating at temperatures near absolute zero enables quantum processing to be superconducting. This allows them to process information using almost no power and generating almost no heat, resulting in an energy requirement of only a fraction of that of a classical computer. According to the ONLR, “quantum computers could reduce energy usage by more than 20 orders of magnitude to conventional [super]computers”.

Quantum is expected to lend an essential boost to AI and could be used for more effective training in deep learning tasks such as NLP in the future. While the operating costs on the environment of quantum computers may be high due to their cooling requirements, novel cooling techniques are being explored, which could one-day present potential solutions for quantum’s power problem. As the AI industry continues to grow exponentially, it is imperative that its environmental impact be considered in order to direct a more responsible development of the sector. Even with the high level of operational energy usage factored in, quantum computers present a distinct energy efficient advantage over supercomputers and could be used to help curb the carbon footprint of training tomorrow’s AI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quantum Computing, Quantum Research

Saving Schrödinger’s Cat: Researchers Discover an Early Warning Signal for Quantum Jumps


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Feature image via Science X.

Gabriella Skoff

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment that has become well known as a symbol for the “weirdness” and unpredictability of the phenomenon of quantum superposition. The eponymous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 involves a cat, a vial of poison, a radioactive substance and a sealed box. The experiment dictates that if an atom of the radioactive substance decays then it will trigger the release of the poison, killing the cat; however, that may or may not happen. One can only find out if this has occurred, and therefore if the cat is alive or dead, by opening the box to observe the state of being of the cat. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, until the observer peeks inside the box, the cat is actually both dead and alive. It is only when the state of the cat is observed, therefore, that the quantum superposition collapses into one or the other states and the cat is found to be either dead or alive.

Based on Niels Bohr’s 1913 proposal of quantum jumps, it was thought that the process of the cat collapsing into a theoretically dead or alive state upon observation was both instantaneous and unpredictable. However, new experimental research performed by a team of Yale researchers and published last week in Nature journal, suggests otherwise. Dr Zlatko Minev and his team’s findings conclude that a quantum jump does not actually exhibit the random, abruptness that defines the fate of Schrödinger’s cat. Rather, their research suggests, “the evolution of each [quantum] jump is continuous, coherent and deterministic”.

Within the context of Schrödinger’s cat paradox, these findings imply that the continued-life/death of the cat is simply the final stage of a process rather than an instant occurrence without foreshadowing. Further, the Yale team has detected “an advance warning signal” which indicates that a jump is about to occur. This seems to signify that we can not only detect when a quantum jump will occur but that we can also potentially reverse it during the transition. These new findings not only impact our theoretical ability to potentially save Schrödinger’s cat from its proverbial death but also have a fundamental impact in applied quantum computing.

The conundrum of a quantum jump has long presented a challenge in the applied field of quantum computing, where a jump in qubits manifest as an error in calculations. Researchers are hopeful that these new findings could potentially facilitate major advances in understanding and controlling quantum information. They anticipate that this new discovery will help to develop an early warning system that can predict when a jump, and therefore a computational error, is about to occur in order to catch it before it happens and reverse its course. While it would be a wonderful conclusion that Schrödinger’s dear cat could be saved, the real value of this research lies in its applied context: the potential to develop an advanced monitoring, detection and correction function for quantum systems, which could help bring us one step closer to a quantum advantage.

 

 

Quantum International Relations

Grand Theories & Wendt’s World


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Feature image via Project Q. Alexander Wendt is a “walking, talking waveform function. And so are you!”

Gabriella Skoff

Quantum mechanics is an unwieldy field to wrap the mind around, to say the least. Quantum phenomena are regularly referred to in headlines as “weird”, even notoriously dubbed as “spooky” by Einstein himself. It is no wonder, then, that the effort to apply quantum theory to the social sciences can often lead to murky associations lacking in lucidity. Yet the divide between the hard sciences and the soft sciences is also blurry. After all, do social phenomena not take place in a world that is ultimately physical? With great clarity and simplicity rarely found in the world of quantum, Grand Theories, a new podcast series that “explores lesser-known ideas that try to explain really big things about the world we live in”, dives into the world of the quantum social sciences.

The podcast’s second episode entitled Quantum Social Sciences and A Holographic Society investigates the recent work of political scientist Alexander Wendt, unpacking some of the complexities and implications of what the podcast calls “Wendt’s Quantum Society”. In this episode, Grand Theories creator and narrator Mark argues to Wendt’s point that perhaps quantum physics can provide a better framework for understanding our social world than classical physics can. This is due in part, he argues, to quantum’s ability to account for randomness and subjectivity. No one would argue that human life is characterized exclusively by the type of cold, hard rationality that is a hallmark feature of dominant economics and international relations thinking like utility maximization and game theory.

Mark explores Wendt’s ideas on quantum social theory by first elucidating some tricky quantum physical theories that underpin Wendt’s 2015 book, Quantum mind and social science: unifying physical and social ontology. He tackles concepts like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the observers effect and entanglement with great clarity, employing a refreshingly accessible tone for non-expert audiences. Through Mark’s analysis of these quantum theories, it becomes clear where Wendt draws parallels in order to interpret our social world through quantum physics. Mark refers to “Wendt’s World” as “…an undetermined, probabilistic place with a thick sense of interconnectedness”. This characterization reflects across Wendt’s quantum-social theories discussed in the podcast, including human decision making, consciousness, entanglement, and perhaps Wendt’s most bizarre-sounding conceptualisation, that society is a hologram which physically exists in the minds of the people that make it up.

This blending of the physical and the social, as theorized by Wendt, is unique and rarely expounded upon in mainstream social science. Yet, the way in which Mark explores these ideas in his podcast shines light upon not just the potential applicability of this merger but also on the important implications that an understanding of a quantum social world might have. While Wendt’s work does not explicitly include a call to action, Mark takes his interpretation one step further to argue that ultimately, Wendt’s theories imply that by virtue of being a part of society we have the power to change the things that we are not happy with. This interpretation of a world ruled by both emotions and rationality, empathy and conflict, suggests that human beings are not only capable of collaboration, but actually inherently drawn toward it. Perhaps there is potentiality for an understanding of our social world through this frame to impact social challenges from climate change action to the de-escalation of wars, should we choose to use “Wendt’s World” as our dominant global lens.

Watch Alexander Wendt’s full lecture on “The Quantum Mind and Social Science.”

Quantum Computing

Honeywell Enters the Quantum Race


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Feature image via the University of Oxford Department of Physics

Gabriella Skoff

The quantum race has thus far been dominated by names you have probably heard of: Microsoft, Intel, Google, Rigetti and IBM. A newcomer to the game, Honeywell International Inc., is a company perhaps better known for the manufacturing of aircraft engines than quantum computers. Rather surreptitiously, however, Honeywell has been hard at work developing what is known as trapped-ion computing technology for at least five years now. Unlike some of the other quantum computing contenders, Honeywell stayed more or less out of the quantum headlines until March, when the company officially entered the quantum playing field with a series of announcements on the development of its quantum capabilities. The strategic addition of quantum computing to Honeywell’s portfolio is the result of CEO Darius Adamczyk’s background in computer engineering and a forward-looking approach, which values the quantum computing sector as a worthy investment for the future of the business.

Adamczyk has expressed confidence in the progressive development of a Honeywell quantum computer, stating that he expects it to begin generating revenue as early as the end of this year. According to their website, Honeywell’s quantum efforts have resulted in their ion-trap technology demonstrating “record-breaking high fidelity quantum operations” of 99.997 percent, placing it in the lead just ahead of its main trapped ion competitor, IonQ, which boasts 99.97 single-qubit fidelities. These numbers appear to be promising, but Honeywell cannot yet claim superiority until it is able to report results for two-qubit fidelity, a better measurement of the technology’s accuracy over time. Still, these impressive results do place Honeywell as a top contender, directly in competition with IonQ, the only other quantum computing entrant to employ an ion trapping approach.

So, how did a company like Honeywell suddenly become such a major contender in the quantum race? According to Next Platform, Honeywell’s quantum journey actually began in 2014, as a participant in an Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) program on trapped ion research. With this early experimental work under Honeywell’s belt, the company continued to build on its experience in this domain. Further, Honeywell’s existing areas of expertise in vacuum systems, lasers and optics and microelectronics fabrication, among other fields, galvanized its ability to become a well-placed contender in trapped ion quantum computing. Simply put by the company’s President of Quantum Solutions, Tim Uttley, who leads a team of 100 physicists, engineers and technicians at Honeywell: “If you put all those things together, you can build a quantum computer”.

But what exactly is trapped ion quantum computing, and what does this mean in the context of the quantum race? Ion trap is only one of half a dozen diverse quantum computing approaches, including the more well-known superconducting, as well as neutral atom, annealing, silicon spin, topological and photonics. Apart from these approaches to quantum computing being so different, and therefore extremely difficult to compare, is still early days to say which will become the dominant method that will lead to quantum superiority. The ion trap approach, which manipulates charged atoms using lasers in a vacuum, is known for its capacity to reduce noisy interference—a main source of error formation in quantum computing. This approach is thus promising due to its potential to help mitigate the prevalence of one of quantum’s biggest challenges. Honeywell and IonQ, a company backed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, are so far the only real competitors to use this technology.

Honeywell’s trapped ion technology could give the more mature superconducting approach a run for its money and present an alternative for solid-state quantum computing. Likewise, the company’s proven track record with control-system hardware could certainly give it an advantage over the more specialised IonQ. While it is simply too early to tell if these potentially advantageous factors will play a role in Honeywell’s quantum success, this new entrant to the world of quantum computing adds complexity and diversity to a well-saturated quantum field. In the quantum race competition may be fierce, but as more contenders like Honeywell enter, the field continues to diversify and develop in interesting ways.

Quantum Applications, Quantum Computing, Quantum International Relations

Quantum Policy Priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament


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Feature image from Quintessence Labs

Gabriella Skoff

Ahead of this weekend’s Australian election, Project Q presents our top four quantum related policy priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament.

The Australian government has been invested in the long-term development of quantum computing since 2000. A 2016 investment boost, to the tune of $70 million AUD over five years from business, academia and the Turnbull government, has helped solidify Australia’s position as a real competitor in what has been dubbed the “quantum race”. By relying heavily on support from the private sector and brain-power from NSW knowledge institutions like the University of Sydney’s Nano Institute and UNSW’s Centre for Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), Australia has become recognized as a world leader in silicon-based quantum computing research. But while financial support for quantum computing has been strong, a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes benefits and minimizes harms from these technologies is not at pace.

While Australia is not alone in this position, it is at risk of falling behind. Global quantum competitors are rapidly formalizing proactive policies, in hopes of securing a position on the world stage with this technological development. In the U.S., the government is beginning to think systematically about quantum technology development and enacting policy to match this approach. China, meanwhile, has wasted no time in the coordination and execution of its national quantum policy. The E.U. has also advanced its quantum policy approach and represents the only region to do so with equity and ethics as the backbone of these policies. Whichever party is victorious on Saturday, the 46th Australian Parliament will be presented with the challenge – and the opportunity – to introduce progressive tech policies that will not only boost industry and research, but will protect citizens and pave the way for other countries to follow suit.

For Australia to remain competitive in the quantum race and be prepared for the new reality that will form in the wake of its fulfilment, the 46th Australian Parliament should prioritize the following to create a comprehensive quantum policy:

Security

The coming age of quantum computing will result in a drastic transformation of cyber-security needs. Whether or not Australia wins the quantum race, whoever wins tomorrow’s election will need to address the reality that with the realization of a fully functioning quantum computer will come the ability to hack any system. The Australian Department of Defence is already investing in quantum cryptography, supporting Canberra-based quantum cybersecurity firm Quintessence Labs (QLabs) with AU$528,000 in funding for the further development of quantum key distribution (QKD) technology. This was the largest of eight Defence Department Innovation Hub grants in 2017. It is clear this need has already been recognized by the government in relation to national defence. What is not clear, is how the Australian government will support the keepers of Australians’ most sensitive data—including healthcare services, banks and businesses—to adapt to these new challenges. A lack of quantum cryptography preparedness across even these non-military sectors could result in dire security consequences for Australia.

The Australian Government should consider emulating the forward-looking policy approach stipulated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC stresses the importance of equipping both military and non-military service providers with a plan toward implementing future, quantum-encrypted capabilities. The report urges: “Cryptography is indeed important for applications such as preventing interception of classified information, providing governmental services, protecting critical infrastructure, and in the military field. Banks and financial institutions, data centres providers, and players in the health sector can also be potential users. A home-grown industry mastering a technique that potentially guarantees future-proof communications security can hence be seen as an issue of national security.”

Chinese Collaboration

Chinese investment and influence plays an important economic and cultural role in Australia. This is a relationship that most parties have vowed to protect, enshrining it in trade and regional-relations policy. In the quantum race, however, there are concerns that Chinese collaboration on Australian quantum projects could present a national security risk. According to the aforementioned JRC report, this challenge has been identified and is being addressed by the European Commission through their quantum technologies flagship initiative.

The depth and scale of this issue has also been reported by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in their report, Picking Flowers, Making Honey. The title of the report is derived from a description by the People’s Liberation Army of Chinese-Western collaboration (especially in the Five Eyes countries), as “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China”. The report details how the PLA strategically deploys military researchers to universities in Western countries, obscuring their affiliation, and then brings them back to China so they can use the knowledge and information gleaned from their collaborations to further China’s own national technology development efforts. ASPI reports that this practice essentially aids Chinese military development, especially in the emerging field of quantum computing.

While it remains unclear whether or not the Australian government and domestic research institutions are informed of this practice, no action against this strategic transfer of knowledge has so far been taken. In fact, “Among universities in Five Eyes countries, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has published the most peer-reviewed literature in collaboration with PLA scientists.”. This information should concern the incoming Australian government, as UNSW is one of the leaders in Australian quantum computing development. If Australia seeks to remain a leader in quantum computing, this is an issue that must be tackled, albeit with a delicate approach that will not impact negatively on the many positive effects of Chinese interests in Australia. According to the ASPI report, many of those who participate in this practice presented with false records, a challenge that could be tackled simply with a higher level of scrutiny over the visa application process for incoming researchers collaborating on high-value projects.

Focus on the Development of Promising Environmental and Renewable Energy Applications

Climate change is a big-ticket item in the upcoming election, and one that may play a decisive role in inducing government change. Regardless, all parties have stated a commitment to investing in renewable energy. Quantum research outside of communication and computing presents promising potential for renewables. However, quantum applications in this space require an increased level of attention and support in order to develop. The Australian government should be investing in a far broader spectrum of emerging quantum applications, such as quantum dots, which could revolutionize the solar energy industry, and quantum tunnelling, which could help to capture and transfer wasted energy. These will be the green energies of tomorrow, presenting Australia with the unique opportunity to be a global leader in this space.

Quantum Business

Already, Australia has grown and attracted a number of powerful tech start-ups and international funding, bolstering its position as a hub for quantum research. There is momentum building to make Sydney the destination for quantum investment and to cement Australia’s place as the Silicon Valley of quantum development in the Southern hemisphere. Further focus on supporting the growth and development of this ecosystem could create a competitive advantage for Australia, boosting business investment and drawing the brightest minds from all over the world to solve quantum’s biggest challenges.

This, in turn, could allow the Australian quantum industry to broaden the scope of its focus, expanding to the areas of research and development mentioned above. Government investment in building the desirability of Australia as a world-class quantum destination would not only help to attract critical private sector investment but could also serve to attract the talent that is now sorely needed.

All contenders on Saturday’s ballot claim varying levels of commitment to prioritizing issues that the coming age of quantum computing will impact, such as cyber-security, defence, innovation and science, business, energy and environment, healthcare and regional relations. Yet no party on the election ballot has explicitly mentioned a dedicated policy for the further development and adoption of quantum technologies. Australia now has the chance to produce an agile national quantum policy that could complement and support some of the most important policy agendas already being pursued. It is clear that quantum technologies will carry a number of social and economic benefits, which will require the keen attention of government representatives in order to realize their potential. As demonstrated by the actions of Australia’s global competitors in quantum development, this can be done in a number of ways. We recommend a human-centric approach that weighs the threats and benefits of quantum development with a critical eye and seeks to not only maximize the benefit of these technologies for all Australians, but also presents an example for other countries to follow suit.