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.

In a year unlike any other, Walmart made meaningful change by placing nature and humanity at the center of our business. We invested in our workforce by hiring more than 500,000 associates, including people displaced by the pandemic. And through education, training and upskilling, we promoted more than 300,000 U.S. associates to jobs with greater responsibility and higher pay. Read more in our 2021 Environmental, Social and Governance report.

The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here from sunny Nantucket and going to be here for a little bit. Thought we would talk about the latest on COVID. Certainly, we had hoped we'd be talking less about it at this point, at least in terms of the developed world. A combination of the transmissibility of Delta variant and the extraordinary misinformation around vaccines and COVID treatment means that we are not in the position that many certainly had hoped we would be today.

The United States is the biggest problem on this front. We are awash in vaccines. Operation Warp Speed was an enormous success. The best vaccines in the world, the most effective mRNA, the United States doing everything it can to get secure doses for the entire country quick, more quickly than any other major economy in the world, and now we're having a hard time convincing people to take them. The politics around this are nasty and as divided as the country, absolutely not what you want to see in response to a health crisis.

More Show less

If your country had suffered decades of crippling corruption, wouldn't you want to prosecute those responsible? Of course you would. On Sunday, almost 98 percent of Mexicans who voted in a national referendum on this subject said, in so many words: "Yes, please prosecute the last five presidents for corruption!"

The catch is that turnout was a dismal 7 percent, meaning the plebiscite fell way short of the 40 percent turnout threshold required for its result to be binding.

More Show less

The world was recently shocked when US sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified from Tokyo 2020 after testing positive for marihuana, a banned yet non performance-enhancing substance. That's because global public opinion on pot is shifting: cannabis is now legal in more than 40 countries and almost three-quarters of US states — red ones too. And although everyone is cashing in on the green gold these days, high profits are not the only factor driving legalization. Mexico may soon become the world's largest cannabis market in part to blunt the power of drug cartels, while the famously square World Bank is now best buds with Malawi for growing the world's finest sativa. Delve into the weeds of legalization on GZERO World.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

The COVID delta variant — which first surfaced in India earlier this year — is spreading rampantly throughout every continent, and is now the most dominant strain globally. But low- and middle-income countries, particularly in regions where vaccines have been scarce, are bearing the brunt of the fallout from the more contagious strain. We take a look at the 10 countries now recording the highest number of daily COVID deaths (per 1 million people), and their corresponding vaccination rates.

China tackles delta: China is the latest country to express serious concern over the highly contagious delta variant, after recording 300 cases in 10 days. Authorities there are trying to trace some 70,000 people who may have attended a theatre in Zhangjiajie, a city in China's Hunan province, which is now thought to have been a delta hotspot. Making matters worse, a busy domestic travel season in China saw millions recently on the move to visit friends and family just as delta infections spiked in more than a dozen provinces. Authorities have enforced new travel restrictions in many places, including in central Hunan province, where more than 1.2 million people have been told to stay in their homes for three days while authorities roll out a mass testing scheme. The outbreak has reached Beijing, too, with authorities limiting entrance to the capital to "essential travelers" only. Indeed, the outbreak has raised fresh concerns about Chinese vaccines' protection against delta, because China has not provided efficacy results for the variant.

More Show less

It was a weird series of events. Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya took to Instagram to lament that her country's Olympic Committee had registered her for the 4x400 relay event at the eleventh hour (because a fellow participant had failed to pass drug screenings) despite not having trained.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

The global trend towards legalizing marijuana

GZERO World Clips
GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal