Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Crazy conspiracy theories...

*For anyone reading this, I'm not being very serious in this article (if you didn't already realise that). I'm absolutely wearing my tin-foil conspiracy theory hat - the one that keeps the aliens from reading my mind... I don't seriously think any ideas I have written here are true, I'm just playing with ideas for the hell of it and basically because I think it's funny. I do however think that The Pontiff's article that I'm referring to is important and should be discussed seriously.*
For anyone who didn't realize this before, I am by occupation a theoretical physicist who works in the field of quantum computing. Quantum computing is arguably the largest sub-branch of a relatively new field of science dubbed quantum information science.

On of my mates (and scientific colleagues), "The Quantum Pontiff", recently posted an article talking about the fact that quantum information science is largely funded by 3/4 letter defense agencies that are extremely interested in Shor's Factoring algorithm. Shor's factoring algorithm can only be performed on a quantum computer that can factor large numbers in polynomial time (this is computer-speak for "damned fast"). Factoring large numbers quickly is important because if you could do it you could probably hack most available public key cryptosystems, that is most of the cryptosystems used on the net at the moment. Anyway, in this article "The Quantum Pontiff" discussed what might happen when we actually do build a quantum computer (which, incidentally is probably many years and many millions of dollars away). Who will control it? What will it be used for? These are good questions to ask and as a community, quantum information scientists need to have this discussion.

On a lighter (or not) note, some of my old workmates and I used to have a bit of fun wondering what you would do if you had discovered an efficient CLASSICAL factoring algorithm? That is, an algorithm that can be performed using the computers that we have right now.

Well, we used to debate about this a bit. I notice actually that David Poulin (another old friend and workmate) has raised this question in the comments on the Pontiff's page. We used to talk a lot about whether you should put it up on the net, tell the government, defense agencies etc... Most of the talk actually centered around two main issues:
  1. The impact of such a discovery on the world's economy
  2. Keeping yourself and the information safe

Like I said, this debate was normally just a bored group of physicists throwing around some big ideas for a bit of a laugh.

Ok, time for a random paragraph to another not quite so related (but soon will be) topic: Regular readers will know that I'm pretty into politics. I spend a lot of time reading plogs (politics blogs) and this blog is sometimes pretty much just about politics. Often the physics part of my brain is quite divorced from the politics part of my brain. I don't know why this is, probably has something to do with taking physics and politics courses at the same time back in school. I kinda had to get good at switching my brain from the Schroedinger equation to the class struggle in short periods of time in order to pass exams.

Anyway for some reason a few weeks ago I started to use my politics brain to think about the whole "efficient classical factoring algorithm" question. Here is what I came up with:

Imagine you are person who has just discovered, or is on the verge of discovering an efficient classical algorithm for factoring, or something to hack public key cryptosystems.

Who are you? Well, to begin with it goes without saying you are a math nerd.

Who are you professionally?As most of the money in this sort of field comes from the 3/4 letter agencies you are probably either directly working for them or are getting some sort of funding from them. It's hard to find mathematicians/physicists or whoever working on cryptosystems that aren't somehow involved with the 3/4 letter agencies. Often people would prefer not to, but it's just a fact of life that it's these agencies that dole out the dough.

Do you give the agencies the information you have discovered? Almost definitely. You are probably legally (and debatably morally) obliged to give them the information before it goes public. So, you do your job, because in reality you are just some math nerd and decisions like this shouldn't be made my you because you aren't qualified to make this call on your own.

What happens next? Well, they (the agency) panic a bit. This is BIG NEWS. Big news can be dangerous. For instance, what happens if you have such an algorithm and you don't have a public key cryptosystem that is invulnerable? I'm sure the thought would go through someone's head "if we can find this, why can't someone else?". The world is full of smart math nerds, often results are proven independently and simultaneously by mathematicians all over the world. Surely any defense agency would begin to get pretty worried about how to control who has access to such an algorithm.

A good analogy would be nuclear proliferation. There is no power in having nuclear weapons if everyone else has them. All you have then is a seriously dangerous situation.

If you have the biggest stick, you want to make sure no-one else gets a stick as big as yours.

What do you do about it? Well, this is where my political head kicked in. Politics 101 tells you that if you don't want someone to see something, give them something else to look at. Is quantum computing that "something else"? In the mid 90s did someone get close to finding a way of breaking public key cryptosystems? Is the influx of money into quantum information science just a really clever way of diverting a bunch of really smart mathematicians, computer scientists and physicists away from something big?

I mean, it's pretty easy to see that quantum computing would absorb a lot of people for a long time. Everyone has always said that building a quantum computer would be really hard to do. There is a lot of interesting science to be done in the meantime, with a lot of potential for spin-offs which are also interesting. As far as basic science is concerned, quantum computing is a great way of advancing science. Maybe "they" realized that they could easily get people to work on quantum computing (because as far as science goes, it's interesting), but is it also a good way of distracting scientists from the "main game"?

By publicly announcing support for QC, and not really making any secret of the fact that you want it for Shor's algorithm are the 3/4 letter agencies really doing the scientific equivalent of pointing over someone's shoulder and yelling "hey, look at that!" ?

In politics it is always hard to hide information. It is always easy to make a lot of noise about something that isn't such a big deal...