The Qubit Attack

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"The computational ethics module in our code just sent an ethics constraint violation message to the government," said Maricel, the head of engineering, looking very concerned.

 

"Uh, isn't it just what it's supposed to do?" said Anda. As a new engineer at the company, the inner workings of the business weren't obvious to her yet.

 

"It is. Problem is, the message claims that it's our own company that's in violation."

 

"How could this be," said Anda, "if our company is the one that computes ethical consequences of other businesses' strategies?"

 

"Well, now our software appears to have turned on itself. It decided that our operations, I quote, 'cause citizens to invest in questionable funds, leading to wipeout of trillions in retirement savings'."

 

Anda's jaw dropped. "As far as software bugs go, that's just beyond weird."

 

"Worse, this could be a malicious backdoor in the program. Someone might have planted a command there to send defamatory messages to the Government Software Council about us. This could prompt an investigation, even a shutdown of our operations. We need to find this backdoor, and quickly. Our director told the Software Council that this was just a glitch in our code, but the Council demands evidence. And if this happens again, nothing will convince them."

 

"I'll get on it," said Anda, having no idea how she would look for this needle in the haystack. 

 

* * * 

 

The morning was dawning, and Anda wasn't closer to a solution.

 

"Maricel," she called out across a heap of empty coffee cups and pizza boxes. "Instead of looking for this hypothetical backdoor in the code, can we look at the data instead? The customers' datasets? The ones that encode their business plans?"

 

"Ah," said Anda. "And looking at those datasets would destroy the superposition, thus we can't do it."

 

Darn. Yet another dead end. Suddenly it planted an idea in her mind.

 

"Maricel, do you think... do you think it might be possible for our company to have a business strategy that would wipe out trillions of retirement savings?" she asked carefully.

 

"In theory? Well, of course," said Maricel, surprised. "If we gave too high an ethical rating to a customer's business plan, and the investors trusted it, then a crash could follow that would take down the global markets with it. But what are you getting at?"

 

"I..."

 

The office door burst open. The company's director walked unsteadily to a chair and plopped on it. His eyes were red.

 

"So how are things going, you two? Not good, huh? We are down to one day to explain the glitch to the Software Council. Can you at least guarantee that our servers won't send another defamatory message about us? No? I see that's a no," he shook his head and sighed. "Our board is debating whether to shut down our servers until the cause is found and removed. But that would be company's suicide. If we can't verify our customers' business plans in a timely manner, we'll lose them all. But if we keep our servers running, another attack can happen at any time, and then we'll never convince the Software Council that this is just a glitch. So how far are you from finding it? Just be straightforward with me."

 

I might as well, Anda thought, because I don't have much to lose anymore. These may very well be the last hours of my job, if not the company itself. "Maybe there is no bug in the program, no security hole," she said.

"What?"

 

"Maybe someone, pretending to be our client, is sending us our real business plan to verify. One that does not pass our own ethical-computational constraints. That's just a hypothesis, you know. Did I hear that the company's founder was recently forced out? For all we know, he could have both the real business plan, and a motive for revenge."

 

The director's face flushed with anger. "That's a... bold speculation," he said, forcibly staying calm. "But how would he get access to our quantum repeaters, to send us the dataset? Only our customers can do it."

 

"But surely we can stop the offending dataset itself, if he tries to resend it?" asked the director. "Not let it enter our servers?"

 

Anda suppressed a bitter smile. Nothing good could come from non-technical people running a technical company. And the director didn't even have an excuse of being new here. It was Anda's turn to repeat the bad news to him that Maricel gave her earlier.

 

"We can't. The customers' data streams that go into our quantum computer are in superposition, and to look at them would mean to destroy the data. It would be as destructive to our customers as if we shut down our servers."

 

"You're kidding." The director sank into the chair.

 

This was the end of the company, that much was sure. The end that didn't come yet, but will come at any minute, without warning. Suddenly she felt sympathy for him, for all of them. All they could do was to sit and wait, helpless before those unknowable sets of qubits, any of which could at any moment bring a fatal bullet to the company.

 

"So what am I going to tell our shareholders?" the director said to no one in particular.

 

"That's easy," said Anda. "Tell them we were struck by the founder's quantum curse."

 

 

About the Author: 
I am a computer programmer and aspiring science fiction writer.

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Quantum Theories

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.