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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Politics of Electoral Security


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Children hack voting machines in the DEF CON voting village. Image via PBS

Dr Aim Sinpeng

“You see I am changing who the winner is in this election” an 8-year-old boy tells me while he is typing away in what looks like some alien language. Then I see the screen. Bob da Builder has suddenly won the Florida state election.

My jaw dropped. This is scary. The boy is only a few years older than my son and he can hack into a US election website to change the winner and the results. Things got scarier as I learned that some of the vulnerabilities in today’s voting machines were identified over a decade ago and are still left unchanged.

“It’s really easy [to hack the election]. I bet the Russians could do it in their sleep… It’s not that secure. I think America should work on its computer security,” says another 11-year-old girl who hacked into the mock voting website in 10 minutes.

The organizers of DefCon’s Voting Machine Village felt terrified but unsurprised by how insecure America’s election infrastructure is.

Some of the vulnerabilities found by participants of the Voting Village were embarrassingly basic. As reported by the Wire, one machine had a root password of “password” and the admin password as “pasta.”

Praise and criticism swirled around the hacking of voting machines at DefCon. Supporters appreciated the lengths to which organizers had gone to expose computer vulnerabilities at the heart of America’s democracy – the voting machines. More than a hundred election officials have attended DefCon to learn, but others have condemned the white-hat hacking. They claim the environment is nothing like the real one on election day. To make matters worse, officials worry that DefCon’s hacking will discourage voters from showing up at the polls.

It’s undeniable however that the actions of DefCon’s Voting Machine Village have had a real impact on people with the power to bring about change. For a time, there was bipartisan support to fix the broken election system. The Secure Election Act was introduced in 2017, requiring election officials to have back-up ballot papers and to conduct a post-election audit. The new bill seemed reasonable, at first, to both Republican and Democrat senators. However it has now been put on ice due to fierce opposition from election officials who bitterly complained about the lack of the funds that would be required to carry out this new mandate. Worse, some early advocates of the election security bill have now backed up – believing the bill will not go far enough in improving the security and integrity of America’s elections. In essence, it’s now dead in the water.

The American public is concerned about the security of their elections. A recent poll by the Pew Research Centre showed that fewer than 50% of Americans feel confident in their election security. Nearly 70% of Americans think it’s likely the Russians and other foreign governments will try to interfere in the mid term elections happening next week.

So there seems to be public support but no political will to change when it comes to the security of American elections. But as the organizers of the Voting Village at DefCon emphasize: money talks. Resources need to be spent to improve electoral security otherwise the Secure Election Act, if given another life, would be an unfunded mandate.

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Quantum War: Recent lectures by Project Q’s James Der Derian


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SDU presoThis past week, James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) and Project Q, gave a series of presentations at the Danish War Museum, Copenhagen University (KU) and the Swedish Defence University (SDU).

In Copenhagen, Der Derian presented alongside four other international experts at the first event of a year-long series, Futures of War, hosted by the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) and supported by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Velux Foundation. Speaking in the historic Danish War Museum, formerly the national arsenal of Denmark, Der Derian reflected on the emergence of ‘quantum wars’, in which diffused post-Einsteinian states of violence co-exist with Newtonian state-on-state classical wars.

Der Derian’s presentation investigated quantum wars in metaphorical and potential as well as actual and operational contexts, in which quantum computing, communications, control and AI eventually converge on the battlefield of tomorrow.

Starting with Clausewitz’ classical definitions of war – as “a duel on a larger scale”, “a forceful act to compel others to do our will”, and “a continuation of politics by other means” – Der Derian suggested that future quantum wars are already showing their face: “What if the essence of war, diffused and networked by ubiquitous realtime media, now lies firmly in an electro-magnetic, spectral phenomenology”?

Der Derian’s presentation linked the power of local and mass-global media to the emergence of quantum effects. He posited a new networked dynamic in which quantum technologies will have the capacity to oversee, foresee and if necessary pre-empt any potential threat in order to dominate a hybrid media and battle-space. Global supremacy, albeit of a temporary nature, might result from asymmetries in the development of quantum technologies. As such, quantum war takes on an “amorphous, spectral and highly volatile quality”, writes Der Derian, in which war that is “no longer delimited by national borders or justified by imminent threats.”

Noting the power of “networked modes of observation…to actually ‘produce’ new global conflicts”, Der Derian cautions that our own attempt to understand and anticipate wars through scenarios, simulations and exercises directly impact and even help to create the futures we predict.

Within this context, the phenomenon Der Derian refers to as quantum war “is defined by acts of observing highly affective images that enable as well as delimit new conditions of violence”; this, he argues, “becomes the continuation of politics by means of a networked global media”. As such, while classical war seems to be on the decline and quantum war on the rise, both forms exist in a kind of superpositional state. War is morphing, diffusing, and quantizing through its networked planning, execution and representation.  Violence produced through this mode of war will continue to become increasingly entangled in a variety of platforms and screens at the hands of individuals and groups rather than states.

Given Der Derian’s interpretation, it is clear that our readiness for the future of war will necessitate a deeper understanding of the quantum potential. Ultimately, quantum technology will dually disrupt and interact with the mechanisms of war today to affect quantum wars tomorrow. While the face of war is shifting, Der Derian predicts that the global media will continue as a constant force in warfare. This he argues, will act as a vehicle to carry quantum war into our future.

james in war museumJames Der Derian at the Danish War Museum, Copenhagen


Der Derian gave two other presentations while in Denmark:  the first, a workshop on SDU’s new research project, “The Aesthetics of Late Modern War”;  and the second, a seminar, “Visual Diplomacy:  Then and Now”, for KU’s ERC-funded project, Diploface, which explores the relationship between diplomacy, images and digital disinformation.

From Copenhagen Der Derian travelled to Stockholm, to present a research seminar at the Swedish Defence University on “International Security: The Case for a Quantum Approach”.  He also screened a short film from his Carnegie research project, “Project Q: The Question of Quantum’.

 

 

 

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In memory of Paul Virilio (1932-2018): Post-Einsteinian analyst of war and peace


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James Der Derian

‘Is the author dead?’  To this day I am not sure why I chose this as my first question to ask of Paul Virilio.  Back in 1995 I persuaded Wired Magazine to front me funds to interview Paul Virilio in Paris.  The interview took place in what was clearly his booth at La Coupole, the art deco restaurant at the intersection of Montparnasse and Raspail where Rodin’s corpuscular sculpture of Balzac served as good company for our three-hour, four-course, two-bottle, five-question lunch.

I only managed to get in five questions because Virilio responded to each one with sentences full of concatenated clauses; paragraphs that unfolded like Eisenstein montages; and verbal essays that could not possibly be reduced to the contracted thousand-word limit.  From one course to the next he worked his best hits: the ascendance of pace over space; the logistics of perception; the aesthetics of disappearance; the technological colonization of the body; and the importance of post-Einsteinian science for the social critic; stuff then that seemed outlandish, and now all too normal.  Between bites he grilled me on the Gulf War, electoral data polling and the decline of democracy in America.

I think it was over dessert that we plunged into his idée fixe of the accident, as both disaster and diagnostic of the human condition.  I told him how an accident had first introduced me to his work, when, working as a photographer’s assistant in Paris I had ran into a friend from Montreal at the Montparnasse post office, who insisted that I go see a great photography exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts – Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.  As it turns out one accident followed on another and that same year, 1976, we both were beaten up during a manifs by a group of right-wing extremists.  His arm, my nose had been broken.  In that comparison of scars at La Coupole, lifting shirt sleeves and tilting heads, I am reminded, after all our talk of war machines, prosthetic humans, and virtual technologies, that bones break, the flesh weakens but the author lives on.

 

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The Security Threats of Quantum Computing.


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While much of the talk about the post-quantum future concerns artificial intelligence, threats posed by quantum to encryption and data security have slid under the radar. As we and others have written about before, the dramatically increased computing power provided by qubits not only facilitates more efficient problem solving, but also impressively improves an attackers chances of breaching encrypted systems; providing what this Washington Post article calls a “skeleton key”, and render the current standard of the RSA encryption algorithm practically useless against a quantum-equipped attacker. This means that current security methods will need to be upgraded almost simultaneously with the first quantum computer coming online. Starting to implement quantum-proof systems is essential for the security of all our data to be maintained, and highlights the importance that both governments and private enterprise are placing on their research projects.

The issue of about quantum and encryption will be the subject of the Q Public Forum at 6pm, February 15 2018 at the General Lecture Theatre, University of Sydney, which kicks off the the fourth annual Q Symposium, ‘QC3I’:  Quantum Computing, Communication, Control and Intelligence.

Image licences under Creative Commons – https://pixabay.com/en/computer-encrypt-encryption-1294045

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Microsoft intensifying its presence in the higher education research field


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Last July, Microsoft and The University of Sydney announced a continuous partnership with the University’s Nanoscience Laboratory to develop quantum technology based computers. It is now confirmed that the IT giant has also established a Quantum Centre at The Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. This seems to be following a trend of the implementation of research labs between the corporate world and institutions of higher education for which quantum physics and technology research has been a large recipient. Microsoft’s other experimental research sites are at Purdue University, and Delft University of Technology. There are only four labs of this kind in the world.

CharlesMarcus

Professor Charles Marcus, head of The Niels Bohr Institute’s Centre for Quantum Devices (Qdev)
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Q3 Provides Chance to Reflect on Project Q’s Progress


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While progress towards a meaningful quantum computer has yet to cascade into Moore’s law territory, this year’s Q Symposium—the third such event hosted by the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies and generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York—gave the impression that significant steps have been taken over the past two years.

By necessity, much of the writing and research of Q1 tended to treat the imminence of quantum technology speculatively. Post-Snowden secrecy combined with the oft-grandiose claims of its potential power made by those in its pursuit led many —myself included—to feel that quantum computing could be a paradigm shift for security on par with nuclear weapons. While this may ultimately prove the case, this year’s conference seemed very consciously engaged with the current reality of quantum technologies and theories, grounding its proceedings in a tone more grounded in the current quantum state of affairs.

This move could not come at a better time. With Project Q and similar efforts (i.e. Alexander Wendt’s publication of Quantum Mind and Social Science) beginning to present the ideas of a quantum social science to the broader community of security scholarship at ISA, the research and thinking around Q must strive to demonstrate the rigor and conceptual clarity necessary to allay competing criticisms of science envy and charlatanism.

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Probing the peace and security implications of quantum innovation


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Media-release-header

The impact of quantum science on peace and security will be debated by leading practitioners and researchers at the Q3 Symposium and Lecture. 

The University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) will host experts from the United States, Japan, Canada and China to address research and policy questions of the quantum age.

Over the past century, quantum mechanics has yielded new understandings of the microphysical world and resulted in a host of technological inventions associated with the modern age – from thermonuclear weapons, to computers, transistors, lasers, LEDs and mobile phones.

“The Q3 Symposium and Lecture come at a crucial moment in the quantum age,” said Professor James Der Derian, CISS Director and Michael Hintze Chair of International Security. “As new applications for quantum science edge closer to reality, we’re gathering to debate the political, ethical and philosophical implications of areas such as quantum computing, communication and consciousness.”

(more…)

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The Guardian Profiles Australian Quantum Computing Research


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Yesterday’s Guardian ran a quick profile on Michelle Simmons, director  of the UNSW’s Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology. With her teams making international headlines last year for multiple advances in silicon-based quantum computing, Simmons discusses her path towards making Sydney a world leader in quantum computing.

(Photo: Dan White/UNSW)