“Spooky action at a distance” is how Albert Einstein described one of the key principles of quantum mechanics: entanglement. Entanglement occurs when two particles become related such that they can coordinate their properties instantly even across a galaxy. Think of wormholes in space or Star Trek transporters that beam atoms to distant locations. Quantum mechanics posits other spooky things too: particles with a mysterious property called superposition, which allows them to have a value of one and zero at the same time; and particles’ ability to tunnel through barriers as if they were walking through a wall.
All of this seems crazy, but it is how things operate at the atomic level: the laws of physics are different. Einstein was so skeptical about quantum entanglement that he wrote a paper in 1935 titled “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?” He argued that it was not possible.
In this, Einstein has been proven wrong. Researchers recently accessed entangled information over a a distance of 15 miles. They are making substantial progress in harnessing the power of quantum mechanics.
Einstein was right, though, about the spookiness of all this.
Quantum mechanics is now being used to construct a new generation of computers that can solve the most complex scientific problems—and unlock every digital vault in the world. These will perform in seconds computations that would have taken conventional computers millions of years. They will enable better weather forecasting, financial analysis, logistical planning, search for Earth-like planets, and drug discovery. And they will compromise every bank record, private communication, and password on every computer in the world — because modern cryptography is based on encoding data in large combinations of numbers, and quantum computers can guess these numbers almost instantaneously.
There is a race to build quantum computers, and (as far as we know) it isn’t the NSA that is in the lead. Competing are big tech companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft; start-ups; defense contractors; and universities. One Canadian start-up says that it has already developed a first version of a quantum computer. A physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Ronald Hanson, told Scientific American that he will be able to make the building blocks of a universal quantum computer in just five years, and a fully-functional demonstration machine in a little more than a decade.
These will change the balance of power in business and cyber-warfare. They have profound national-security implications, because they are the technology equivalent of a nuclear weapon.
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