Why Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking Both Missed the Quantum Boat

Cortana. Siri. Google Now. They’re today’s most popular manifestations of artificial intelligence. They’re all available to us, the masses of humanity who use iPhones, Windows phones, Android phones, tablets and yes, even desktop PC’s.

Ask any one of those mobile personal assistant apps for the location of the nearest Starbucks, or how many ounces are in a 750ml bottle of wine – or anything else you want to know. They’ll do their best to give you the answer. They’re the artificial intelligence you can put in your pocket or purse. They augment the 2.5 petabytes of storage your brain already gives you. So what could be wrong with that?

Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla is worried about artificial intelligence. He read Nick Bostrom’s book, “Superintelligence” then tweeted “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” He wasn’t alone. Stephen Hawking remarked that “artificial intelligence software could be a real danger in the not too distant future. It could design improvements to itself and outsmart us all.”

But there’s a far more potent, dangerous technology than AI. It’s waiting just around the corner; waiting for scientists and engineers to bring it to fruition.

Quantum computing.

Quantum computers operate on the bizarre, non-intuitive principles of quantum mechanics, where a photon can be polarized in two different directions at the same time. It’s as if you said, “Watch me, I’m going to drive North and South at the same time.” You can’t do it, but photons and other particles can do all kinds of strange, mysterious things at the quantum level that normal logic can’t explain.

A “bit” in a conventional computer takes on a value of zero or one. A bit in a quantum computer, called a “qubit,” can take on both values at the same time, as well as zero and one. Strangely, that weird behavior will allow a quantum computer to solve ultra-complex problems at incredible speed. And what’s wrong with that?

For starters, the unimaginable power of a quantum system could destroy our entire online ecosystem. All financial institutions, online retailers and everyone who uses a web browser rely on cryptography to secure information flowing through the Internet. That cryptography uses very large prime numbers to create secure transactions. Traditional computers would require thousands of years to crack those crypto codes. A quantum system could break the codes billions of times faster, rendering the Internet and all the traffic it carries subject to hacks, cracks and compromise. The entire domestic and worldwide banking industry could fall to bad players using a quantum system. You’d find yourself at the post office buying stamps to pay your bills by mail because you could no longer pay bills online. You’d stand in the grocery store checkout line writing a check because credit and debit cards rely on the encryption too. Your life would change.

Yes, quantum computers could be used to solve intractable problems like protein folding, which could lead to cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and others. But equally, they could be used for far more sinister reasons – by political leaders to throw an election or by military strategists looking to apply quantum systems to the principals of war. Indeed, when quantum computing becomes available “in the cloud,” criminals could harness it to support international crime, slavery, forced prostitution and drug trafficking or terrorists might use this new level of ‘quantum power’ to plan their next attack.

Were Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking wrong about AI? No, not really. It’s just that they both missed the boat identifying the real risk, the real danger. It’s not AI and it’s not even quantum computing. The danger lies in how we humans will use those technologies. The real danger lies in the persistently sad and aggressive predilections of humanity to co-opt the latest tech to do something harmful.

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