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.

We pay little attention to the waves of the sea, yet they are the greatest unused source of renewable energy in the world. Meet ISWEC and Power Buoy, two interesting new technologies used to harness this energy. Learn more about the extraordinary power of waves in this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series, where we investigate interesting facts and trends about energy.

Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

More Show less

Vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens before the rest of the world, has been effective for rich nations like the United States and Israel. But leaving behind so much of the global population isn't just a humanitarian issue. It could prolong the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization's Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, who argues that what the global vaccination effort most urgently lacks are doses, not dollars. In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, she calls for a large increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and suggests we may be seeing alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

More Show less

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

More Show less

In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal