In all the media hype surrounding the latest advances in the most powerful computers ever conceived – quantum computers – scant attention has been paid to their most profound potential impact on humanity: the end of freedom as we know it.
Last October, the University of NSW announced they had cleared the final hurdle to build a superfast quantum computer using low-cost silicon. Google and NASA claim to have built the most powerful computer ever – the D-Wave 2X – heralding a major advance in artificial intelligence. Round the world, Wall Street and banks like Goldman Sachs are racing into quantum computing in a bid to turn atomic particles into fast cash. Airbus is using them to design jets of the future. IBM and the US intelligence research agency IARPA are building the most powerful spying machine in history.
And that's where you come in. Within a decade or so, you and every other person on the planet will be under 24-hour scrutiny, cradle-to-grave. Without knowing it, or intending to, we'll inadvertently have constructed a universal spy state. And a world in which your most private secrets are available to transnational corporations to exploit as they choose.
According to IBM research director Arvind Krishna. "Quantum computing promises to deliver exponentially more speed and power not achievable by today's most powerful computers…" but what he and other advocates of this disruptive new technology seldom mention is its sheer, blinding capacity.
What gives the quantum computer its power is the qubit. Whereas a standard computer bit can exist only in one of two states – a 0 or 1 – qubits can exist in up to 8 superimposed states, yielding exponential increases in capacity and speed. Put simply, what that means for you or me, is that every bit of data ever gathered on us can be recorded, stored, mined, sorted and retrieved by anyone with access and a 'Quputer'.
Take CCTV as an example. In 2013 Britain had one security camera for every 11 people – almost 6 million in all, according to British Security Industry Authority (BSIA). Sloppily, Australia does not record numbers but if the ratio is similar we would now have about 2.4 million. The big shortcoming of CCTV is that you need a million police constables to scan all its output for a handful of potential suspects – a monumental task, even with facial recognition software. Storages are wiped and re-recorded. Quputers will change all that: everyone will automatically be a suspect. All your vision will be permanently stored, because the capacity to do so will exist. Artificial intelligence will scan this data constantly for patterns that might identify you as a 'subject of interest' – whether to police, intelligence services or even, heaven help us, to marketers.
Then there is your electronic trail – everywhere you went with your smart phone, satnav vehicle or tablet. Every email, text, tweet, Facebook entry, computer document or key stroke you ever made will be documented in your metadata, and its content can be retrieved. Your smart TV or phone will eavesdrop on conversations in your own home. Your devices will steal the addresses, contacts and personal details of friends, family and people you correspond with or speak to – often for commercial purposes. Your bank, supermarket, stores, online marketers, credit ratings agency, travel agent, medical centre, parking meter, sporting club, fly-buys, the tax office and a swarm of others, will document almost every purchase and financial transaction you make. At work your computer will observe you for signs of laziness, discontent or inattention. To be sure, these things are already happening – but the data is currently far too voluminous to store and monitor for every individual. That requires a quputer.
If humanity has any freedoms left at the end of the 21st Century, it may be significantly down to one person, Edward Snowden, who witnessed the secretive age of universal espionage in the act of its birth – and blew the whistle. In his interview with the ABC in May 2015, Snowden said the ability to search our content and metadata is "incredibly empowering for governments, incredibly disempowering for civil society" leading to what he terms a 'turnkey tyranny' in which governments claim to follow due process but secretly increase their level of intrusion into private lives without our knowing it. "They are collecting information about everyone, in every place, regardless of whether they have done anything wrong," he warns.
Snowden was speaking of the current age of computing, not the looming age of quputing – which will vastly aggrandise the turnkey tyrants, through its speed and immense data storage and automated AI search and retrieval capacity. Defenders of the loss of public freedoms sometimes argue "As long as you do nothing wrong, you've nothing to be afraid of". With quputers, the argument is void. Everyone is subject to complete, 360-degree, lifelong AI surveillance, whether or not they have committed or planned a crime, criticised the government – or merely shown a disposition to buy certain sorts of goods.
Our data is already there, amassing round the clock in thousands of private and government databases. There is no one, central 'big brother' but rather a host of smaller databases (public, government, international and privately-owned) which can be fused and interrogated to create universal, 24/7, mass surveillance.
While this applies chiefly to the 3.2 billion humans on the internet today, the power is rapidly disseminating throughout the world with the spread of the internet and mobile devices and will be nearly universal by the 2030s – around the same time qupters come on line.
These are nothing less that the enabling technologies for a global police state. It is the dawn of the 'nanocracy' (or rule by the very small atom-scale particles used in quputers).
The assumption that governments, especially in democracies like Australia, will always be benign and 'do the right thing' by their citizens in respect of privacy or freedom is, at best, naïve. We have recently experienced a regime with strong prejudices, a disposition to distort the truth, a tendency to advantage its supporters and curtail freedoms and a taste for perpetual war. It can easily happen again. Imagine this power in the hands of religious, political or economic fanatics.
What the quputer confers is the means to scrutinise every individual and compel them to comply with whatsoever those who wield its power desire. This will seldom be done by history's crude methods of imprisonment and torture, but rather with the more refined blackmail of threatening to expose aspects of our past lives – and whose life is ever beyond reproach or free from deliberate misinterpretation? Having such power available, which government, organisation or corporation will refuse it?
The greater risk is that society not only loses its old freedoms – of speech, action, law, even of thought – but that humans evolve into a different animal. Historically, reformers, critics and dissidents usually pay a high price, from Socrates and Jesus to Galileo, Martin Luther King and Mandela. Under the nanocracy they won't have the chance. They will be quietly identified, swept up and hushed before they can cause trouble.
A race deprived of its radicals, visionaries, thinkers, explorers and innovators will be a poor sort of humanity. A stunted, lobotomised species, more like a termite mound than a society. One devoid of the ability to self-criticise and thus escape the disastrous consequences of its own actions – such as climate change, global poisoning, ecological collapse or nuclear conflict. A world-wide North Korea.
The core issue here is that, as with the atomic bomb, with quantum computers we have done the science – but have failed to do the ethics. We have blithely 'assumed' quputers will always be used for good, when the probability is that they will also be used for evil. We have not asked the hard questions about how we oversee and control the power of the nanocracy before it has silently eaten out freedom worldwide.
The question we should all ask is: is it already too late?
Julian Cribb is a Canberra science writer and author. His next book explores how humans can survive the 21st century.