Monday, January 6, 2014

The NSA's Quantum Computing Dreams Lie in 19th Century Tech

Kids inside a Faraday cage at the 2011 Maker Faire. Image via Wikimedia
You can't make this stuff up folks. Thanks to Edward Snowden's seemingly endless cache of juicy confidential NSA documents, we now know the government covertly siphons off data from the underwater cables that carry internet traffic, goes undercover as goblin and elves in fantasy video games, and hacks into the devices sold by its country's own tech industry—to name a just few of the agency's clandestine surveillance operations. Now, Snowden's latest leak reveals how NSA scientists are working in conductive metal cage-like rooms to build a quantum computer that can crack every encryption code ever.

Internal documents published yesterday by the Washington Post detail the NSA's dream of building a quantum computer that can calculate information leaps and bounds faster than today's silicon chip machines, making it very useful for—among many other things—breaking even the most complex cryptographic locks.A traditional computer stores data in binary bits—a series of 1s and 0s. But a quantum computer uses quantum bits—qubits—that exist as 1s and 0s simultaneously and in various combinations, which is much more powerful. The tricky part is those qubits are temperamental as hell, and must be handled in extremely precise environments. So, to try and build the computer of the future, the NSA is leaning on some tried-and-true technology from the past.

According to the leaked documents, the agency carries out many of its quantum theory research in metal boxes that block out electromagnetic energy that could mess with the qubits. They’re called Faraday cages and were invented by Michael Faraday back in 1836. The idea is to control electricity to get just the right amount, but not too much. It’s a simple concept that enables many of the everyday conveniences we take for granted nowadays, like microwave ovens, not getting electrocuted when lightning strikes a plane, and elevators—that's why your cell phone signal cuts out between floors.

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