Years ago, our friend and your guest this week, Ray Kurzweil, wrote his most famous book, The Singularity is Near, where he postulated a world where computers have become so powerful as to be able to replicate the capacity of the human brain. Ray predicted that we would hit that milestone sometime this decade but what he didn’t predict was how. The question now before us is, was he talking about my Intel-based PC getting wickedly more powerful or are we talking about something altogether different?
That question is front and center with the recent revelation that the NSA is working on an entirely new type of computing device, a “quantum supercomputer” that would be powerful enough to break every known encryption algorithm in mere seconds. How can that be? Well, a quantum computer uses an entirely different way of thinking compared to the traditional computing model that we’ve grown up with that turns bits on and off to do its work. A quantum computer works in quantum space, something too complicated to explain in the time that we have but suffice it to say that it is geometrically more capable than the computers of today.
Quantum computing is not a new concept and actually goes back several decades but the practical application of the theoretical concept was thought to be years away. NSA begs to differ. Funded by their $80 million project called “Penetrating Hard Targets,” NSA believes that a quantum computer will let it gain access to everything that they can’t get to now.
Despite the scary prospects of the NSA using one, a working quantum computer would be a huge leap forward for humanity, allowing us to test theories of the universe and expand human capabilities to extents unknown. The problem with building a quantum computer are huge; the biggest issue is that for it to function, the computer must be disconnected from the rest of the world so it has to be housed in a special room that allows nothing else to enter. Not light, not sound, not a smidge of the electromagnetic spectrum. Tough to do if you want to interact with the thing!
At the end of the day, I think Ray is dead-on with his prediction about how the power of computing will create a new human renaissance in learning and applications. The question is: will the NSA get there first?