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Why quantum computing could be a geopolitical time bomb

Why quantum computing could be a geopolitical time bomb

Late last month, Google confirmed that a special kind of rig known as a "quantum computer" had performed an amazing feat. In just a few minutes, it managed to perform a calculation that would have taken the world's most powerful supercomputers thousands of years. The race to develop these computers is in, and it's not just computer nerds who are hyped up about this – the fight for "quantum supremacy," could one day have huge geopolitical implications too.


So what the heck is quantum computing, and why does it matter? Here's a quick rundown:

What the heck is quantum computing? It's a way of computing that is immeasurably faster than what existing computers do. Traditional computers work by adding up 1s and 0s. Quantum computers are, very roughly speaking, able to make finer distinctions between the two, which allows tremendously complex calculations to be done in a fraction of the time it would take using a traditional computer.

There's still a lot of work left to do before Google, or anyone else, can create a reliable quantum computer that works outside of a narrow laboratory setting, but as this recent article by a computer scientist argues, Google's breakthrough is an important milestone on the way there.

Why it matters: the US, China, Russia, and other countries are racing to roll out national strategies, cultivate talent and pump money into quantum computing. Why? Well, quantum computers have the potential to revolutionize how scientists create new medicines or materials, which could boost health and the national economy. They might even help answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, which would be a huge win for science. But much more important than all of that is the fact that whoever can build a powerful enough quantum computer might be able to use it to CRACK ALL OF THE CODES.

Consider: In order to crack the encryption on everything from your bank account to nuclear war plans, today's most powerful supercomputers would have to crunch numbers longer than the lifespan of the known universe. But a powerful enough quantum computer might be able to crack the same code in just a few hours, giving whoever owns it access to other countries and their citizens' most sensitive secrets.

No alarms and no surprises, please: That would be a geopolitical earthquake, and at some point, maybe even soon, it's bound to happen. The big question isn't if, it's how: will it be a surprise when it happens? If so, buckle up. If one country suddenly gained an ability to crack its adversaries' codes it might be tempted to use that power to its advantage, while rivals that suddenly wake up to find their most sensitive information compromised might feel a strong temptation to lash out defensively, heightening the risk of global conflict. A quantum surprise could also have immediate destabilizing effects on the economy if people suddenly feared their money was no longer secure and sparked a run on the banking system.

Conversely, the risks of a major flare-up would be lower if governments and companies were able to give each other some measure of transparency about their quantum projects and to develop new, stronger forms of encryption that can keep pace with that progress to keep essential information secure.

But that doesn't seem to be where things are headed. Instead, technologies like artificial intelligence and 5G have already become hotly politicized by growing strategic competition between the US and China. The closer scientists get to building a working quantum computer, the greater the risk that governments will move the most cutting-edge research behind closed doors. That would heighten the risk that one country or another pops a politically destabilizing quantum surprise.

Carbon has a bad rep, but did you know it's a building block of life? As atoms evolved, carbon trapped in CO2 was freed, giving way to the creation of complex molecules that use photosynthesis to convert carbon to food. Soon after, plants, herbivores, and carnivores began populating the earth and the cycle of life began.

Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

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  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
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  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Can Europe get to the bottom of Russian opposition leader Navalny's poisoning? And if so, would it change anything?

One has got to the bottom of it, to certain extent. The evidence, there was a German laboratory confirming nerve agent, Novichok. They sent it to a French laboratory and the Swedish independent laboratory, they came to the exact same conclusions. I mean, it's dead certain. He was poisoned with an extremely poisonous nerve agent coming from the Russian state laboratories. Now, there is a discussion underway of what to do. I mean, the Russians are refusing any sort of serious discussions about it. Surprise, surprise. And we'll see what actions will be taken. There might be some sort of international investigation within the context of the OPCW, the international organization that is there, to safeguard the integrity of the international treaties to prevent chemical weapons. But we haven't seen the end of this story yet.

Watch as Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, explains what's going on in technology news:

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The deal is that Europe has told Facebook it can no longer transfer data back and forth between the United States and Europe, because it's not secure from US Intelligence agencies. Facebook has said, "If we can't transfer data back and forth, we can't operate in Europe." My instinct, this will get resolved. There's too much at stake for both sides and there are all kinds of possible compromises.

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