The Quantum Supremacy Serial Continues: The Mole Hunt and the Holy Grail of Computing
China’s Ministry of State Security and the Central Intelligence Agency are locked in a deadly battle of wits – from Muslim unrest in Xinjiang Province to the high-tech nerve center of US American intelligence at the National Security Agency. At stake is technological dominance in the 21st century. Each week, I will publish further installments from my spy thriller The Quantum Supremacy. ( For those who don't want to wait for installments, buy the Kindle edition. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here.)
Chapter 4: The Savant
Percival Leong made his way down Massachusetts Avenue, leaning his five and a half feet forward against the November wind, memorizing the license plates of the parked cars on his side of the street. The letters and numbers, better said, appeared in his memory without his wishing them there. He counted the number of lines in the sidewalk and noted the minutes remaining on parking meters. Two hours earlier he had been locked up in a small room with the National Security Agency interrogators at Fort Meade, answering questions while the polygraph recorded his heartbeat, blood pressure and respiration.
“Is your name Percival Leong?”
“Were you born in the Peoples Republic of China?”
“Have you taken any medication today?”
“No.” The question was superfluous; the National Security Agency inquisitors had already taken a blood sample to test for tranquilizers.
“Did you graduate from MIT?”
“Did you graduate from Queens College?”
“Have you had contact of any kind with representatives of any foreign government?”
Every week Percival took a polygraph, along with all the NSA techs who had access to ultra-sensitive information. He was the most efficient and reliable programmer in the living memory of the National Security Agency, as close to indispensable as any one person could have been. After the Iranians cracked the code that the CIA used to transmit messages to public websites and passed the information to their friends at China’s Ministry of State Security, the CIA had suffered its worst disaster since the dark days before Aldrich Ames was exposed as a Russian mole. After that debacle, it spared no effort to generate uncrackable codes. Its BATON algorithm used strings of 320 bits, which scrambled plain text so thoroughly that to decipher it, all the supercomputers in the world working together would take trillions of times all the years since the Big Bang to restore it. That meant new layers of programming on top of the legacy work of programmers who long since had left the NSA. Percival Chang read code as fluently as his interrogators could read the sports page, and dug through the sedimentary layers of proprietary code with preternatural efficiency.
Percival stopped as he always did at the Puget Coffee outlet at the corner of 20th Street, and asked as he always did for a decaffeinated soy latte. He took the beverage into the small park across the street and sat on the bench where he always sat and rocked gently as he sipped it. From a parked car across the street, two FBI agents filmed him at two thousand frames per second. Computers would examine the recording for detectable patterns in eye and finger movements, in case Percy should employ a variant of Morse code to send messages to someone using a high-powered telescope or a drone with a high-definition camera.
Percival walked to his building on the other side of Dupont Circle. A microphone in his apartment recorded the preparation of his dinner, which simply meant taking a plastic container from the refrigerator and placing it in the microwave. He ate and cleared away the microwave tray and plastic utensils. He then placed a volume of Bach partitas on the music stand of a Kawai digital piano, donned over-the-ear headphones and played, as he did every night. He didn’t have friends, but Bach was more than a friend; he was like a god and a friend at the same time, the creator of a world in which Percival could wander without fear or confusion. When he was small and learned that he was different, the Chinese doctors told his mother to let him listen to Bach. Most people heard a blur of sounds in the interplay of voices in a fugue, but Percy saw the different voices as strands of light of different colors. Before he was five he could play two of the voices of a three-part fugue and sing the third. When he played his face lit up, he swayed with the music and hummed along loudly.
Chapter 5: The Proposition
Three days later Paul found a slip of paper in the left side pocket of his blazer. He hadn’t even noticed the brush pass. Again, his iron burned the lemon-juice letters visible: “Room 1460, Silvercord Tower, Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui watch repair 0830 Wednesday.” That would be a Kowloon high-rise of a certain age crowded with small offices and workshops. He removed the battery from his Blackberry and took the rapid transit from Sheung Wan station to the Tim Sha Tsui station on the other side of the harbor and walked, checking the reflections in store windows for a tail. A watch repair stall was no worse a venue for an assignation than any in Hong Kong, he thought, and the early hour would provide a sheltering crowd. The lobby swarmed with employees waiting for the lifts, and he queued until the third one opened its doors on the ground floor. The 14th floor housed accountancies, travel agencies, a medical testing center and a handful of wholesale jewelry outlets. The sign on the door of Room 1460 simply read “Watch Repair.” He pushed the doorbell and a buzzer unlatched the door lock. A twenty-something Chinese woman stood behind a counter. Techno music blared from external speakers attached to an iPhone. She motioned him to come to the counter and put her lips against his ear and said, “Whisper.” She wore a tan track suit and sneakers, and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore no makeup. “What model of watch do you have?” she said in a loud voice. Just as loudly, Paul replied, “It’s an imitation Rolex.”
The woman whispered into his ear. “My father is a computer scientist at the Ministry of State Security in Beijing. He broke the CIA encryption. I have given you one proof. Here is another,” she said, and gave him a blank slip of paper. “You will pay $100,000 US dollars in advance. Then you will get my father out of Beijing and bring him to America. You will give him a new identity and $10 million US dollars.”
“How did you get to Hong Kong?” Paul whispered back.
“I have a student visa. I study at the University of Hong Kong. I will need a new identity and resettlement, too.” She looked more Silk Road than Han, with tawny skin and well-defined features. She wasn’t beautiful, Paul thought, but intimidating. A bit of Amazon warrior princess.
“What is your father’s name?”
She told him and said, “You can look up his academic articles.”
Paul nodded. “I’ll talk to my people. How do I contact you?”
“I’ll contact you,” said the woman. “Have a beer at the Schnurrbart tomorrow – Saturday – around 8 and walk downhill from there.”
She added in a loud voice, “We don’t repair fakes. Anyway, cheaper to buy a new one.”
Chapter 6: Matters of State
Diderot Klapowicz arrived early for the meeting with the National Security Adviser. The Marine guards behind the bulletproof glass at the State Place entrance checked his CIA ID against the guest register and waved him on through the walkway to the metal detector. He passed the West Wing on the right and continued on to the marble staircase that led to the Executive Office Building’s main entrance. Built after the Civil War, the marble behemoth houses most of the White House staff. The West Wing is much smaller than it appears on television and houses the Oval Office and a rabbit-warren of rooms for the president’s key aides. It is not much larger than a suburban split-level house, with the Oval Office at the center, the modest offices of the chief of staff and a few key advisers to the side, and the Situation Room underneath. The Executive Office Building, by contrast, is profligate with space. Klapowicz could hear his footsteps echo from the marble floor to the high ceilings. He thought of the Castle in Kafka’s novel, peopled by anonymous messengers who entered and left in sealed coaches, forbidden to communicate with the inhabitants of the town below. Of course, the denizens of the Executive Office Building not only talk to the townspeople; given a chance, they will complain all day about how powerless they are and how pointless their jobs have become. Klapowicz bounded up the stairs, buoyed by a presentiment of great opportunity, privileged to sit in on a meeting with the National Security Adviser and his deputies. In place of his habitual thrift-shop attire, he wore a black suit that made him look like an attendant at a hipster funeral home. There were a dozen staffers gathered around the big table in the NSA’s office and another dozen seated on chairs around it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” began the National Security Adviser, “I have asked the Senior Director for Emerging Technologies to provide some background. For those who are as technically challenged as I am, the subject of quantum computing is intimidating, and I want to start with a simple explanation in layman’s terms.”
An elderly man at the end of the table rose and looked awry at the gathered staff people as if they were sophomores at a Physics for Poets course. He began:
“People, welcome to the Revolution. It’s rare that a man of my age can contemplate a new technology that will transform all of our lives, let alone help bring it into being, but I feel that I have that privilege. I am a scientist and can indulge in a sense of wonder. But you are men and women entrusted with securing the United States of America, and you require a sense of apprehension as well. I’m sure you have seen the film ‘The Imitation Game,’ about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. It was the great good fortune of the Free World to have the services of the two great mathematicians who created the modern computer as we know it, the Englishman Alan Turing and the Jewish-Hungarian John von Neumann. The first computers were built as weapons, to break the codes of the German High Command. The first digital computer, the Colossus, broke the codes of the Lorenz cipher machine used by the German High Command, and Alan Turing’s analog computer, the Bombe, broke the German Enigma machine.
“The computers on your desks have not changed in any fundamental way since then. They employ silicon chips containing millions of transistors rather than vacuum tubes or electro-mechanical devices, but they work in the same way. They know only two states: On or off, which we represent as a one or a zero. No matter how fast we make computers run, or how many transistors we concentrate onto chips, we are limited by the fact that the computer’s vocabulary comes down to yes or now. We write programs which amount to, If yes, move onto the next step. If no, check again. Imagine a robot searching for a needle in a haystack that can only examine one thing at a time. It picks up a long thin object and asks if it is a straw or a needle. If it is a needle, the program concludes. If it is a straw, it picks up the next object. Computers can work very fast, and if there are ten million straws in the haystack, a modern computer might be able to locate the needle in seconds. But there are some questions for which the haystack is so enormous that even the fastest computers might take thousands of years to find the needle.
“There are any number of problems in science that involve the interaction of so many different influences that the number of possibilities baffles even the fastest computers. Hydrodynamics and aerodynamics are some of them; controlling a very large number of drones that mutually interact is another; weather forecasting, notoriously inaccurate, is a third case. But let me come back to the problem of cryptography, for which the first computers were invented. The Germans used mechanical devices, rather like the old mechanical slot machines, to generate codes and a very large number of permutations they produced indeed. Even the primitive computers of Bletchley Park were able to work through these many mechanical permutations quickly enough to read the Germans’ secret messages a few hours after they were sent. But today’s codes are not based on mechanics, but on basic properties of number theory. If you take a very large number, say, of a few hundred digits, it is laborious to discover its prime factors –the numbers that multiplied together make up your large number. The fastest supercomputer in the world might take centuries to arrive at a solution. That is the basis of all modern cryptography. The digital computer will spend many human lifetimes looking for the needle in the monster haystack.
“Now we have the prospect of a new physical basis for computation, one that is many millions as time as fast as today’s fastest computers. The quantum computer’s advantage over a conventional computer is greater than the conventional computer’s advantage over an abacus. It will use entirely different physical principles and work in an entirely different way. It will solve problems that we cannot even set for ourselves using conventional computers. That is because quantum states are not a yes or no affair. Permit me a word of explanation. ‘Quantum’ is a confusing word for the physics in question. The term comes from Max Planck’s discovery that light isn’t continuous, but is emitted in packets with distinct values, or quanta. In the 1920s, a group of physicists learned that the subatomic particles that are the ultimate constituents of matter don’t behave like billiard balls. We do not know exactly where they are, but we know the probability of particles being in a particular place and traveling at a particular speed. Even more, they don’t act as individual particles but become entangled with other particles. Instead of a single particle in a single place traveling in a single direction at a single speed, we have a field of probabilities. Do not ask me to explain it. No-one has a sensible explanation of why any of this should be the case. America’s greatest quantum physicist Richard Feynman, who first proposed quantum computers, said that no-one understands quantum mechanics.
“Even if we don’t understand it, we can use quantum mechanics. Conventional computers use bits of data, which are either a yes or a no, a one or a zero. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or what we call qubits. A qubit is an electron in a magnetic field that might spin one way and might spin another. Instead of a yes or no, it is a set of probabilities. What does this mean for computational power? Let me oversimplify: In a conventional computer we add transistors, that is, yes-or-no devices, to add processing power; the more transistors, the more computations per second we can do. But computation power increases by the square of the number of qubits we add. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so forth, we have 12, 22, 32, 42, and so forth. That grows rather quickly, at 2500 we have a number many times larger than all the atoms in the known universe. But it isn’t only speed. Eric Ladizinsky, an entrepreneur who founded a company that makes quantum computer prototypes, offered a thought experiment: Suppose you have to find an X drawn on a page of one of the 50 million volumes in the Library of Congress. A conventional computer would search page by page looking for the X, and it would take a very long time. Suppose instead that you could split yourself into 50 million avatars each of whom looked through one book. That is quantum computing.
“What vistas this will open for mankind are impossible to imagine – designer drugs that optimize a cure for every individual patient, new materials made to order, genetic sequencing to isolate prospective causes of disease. Machine learning for Artificial Intelligence applications will become nearly instantaneous. And, of course, we will be able to break any code generated by existing number theory in a very short period of time. We’ve known that in theory since 1994.”
The Senior Director looked around the room and sat down.
“Questions?” the National Security Adviser asked.
A uniformed officer in the back raised his hand. “Director, what exactly is meant by quantum supremacy?”
The old man said, “It simply means a quantum computer that can solve problems that existing computers can’t solve in any reasonable period of time.”
“Who is going to decide that?” asked the National Security Adviser’s chief of staff, an elegant woman in a high-collared blouse.
“As matters stand, that would be NASA,” the senior director replied. “Google claimed last year that it had a quantum chip with 72 qubits, code-named Bristlecone, that could achieve quantum supremacy, and it signed an agreement with the space agency to analyze its results and compare it to simulations on an ordinary supercomputer. Google’s claim has been disputed. Researchers at the Chinese company Alibaba claimed that a conventional supercomputer could do as well.”
“I’ll abuse my chairman’s privilege to ask the next question: What’s holding us back?”
The Senior Director smiled. “What isn’t? Quantum relationships are very unstable. The sort of particle interactions that make up a qubit only exist a near absolute zero – that’s 460 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. That’s because particles don’t move very much at absolute zero, and we need them to be still when we add energy to move them from one state to another. Otherwise, we’d never be able to measure the change in state. At any higher temperature, there are so many little packets of energy flying around that something besides human instructions could cause a change in state. So the computer has to be surrounded by a souped-up air conditioning system, using a coolant like liquid helium. Even at absolute zero, qubits are unstable and yield high error rates. Some scientists think that building a network of interconnected cubits will help reduce errors, they aren’t there yet. A barely detectable magnetic field or stray pulse of microwave energy makes them do bit-flips” – there was some laughter – “or phase-flips that reverse the information in their states.”
Diderot called out from the back, “How would you define the term ‘quantum surprise’?”
The Senior Director frowned. “I would define it as our worst nightmare. Let’s say that China, or Russia, had achieved quantum supremacy, but kept it secret. They would be able to read our encrypt cable data for years. It wouldn’t only involve classified military communications. Every corporate secret kept in the Cloud would be at risk, as well as the personal data of Americans. We literally would be stripped bare of protection for every personal, corporate and government secret, without knowing that it was happening.”
The National Security Adviser took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I want a quantum surprise risk assessment on my desk in three weeks.”
Klapowicz and Jerzy Nowak sat in the office of D/NCS in his Langley office as the winter sun faded that afternoon. “I’ve grown grey in the service of this Agency,” D/NCS said, “and I’ve seen this happen too many times. I was born in ’61, the year that the Cubans made mincemeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Jack Kennedy fired the entire top brass on the same day – Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell and Charles Cabell. I was a teenager when Ford canned Bill Colby out in the Halloween Massacre. There’s always a trapdoor under your chair in this building. We may be looking at the worst intelligence failure in the history of this organization. And we’re running blind. We have virtually nothing left on the ground in China after the 2016 disaster, except in Xinjiang. Now we get a walk-in, the biggest defection we’ve ever had from the PRC, precisely at the moment we most need it. Anything that looks too good to be true, is too good to be true.”
“So what are we going to do with it? Nowak asked.
“We’re going to grab it, gift-wrap it and put it under the Christmas tree for the National Security Adviser. Two will get you twenty it’s tainted goods, but it just might buy us enough time to come up with something solid. Remember, if this goes bad, you boys will be right behind me picking up your unemployment checks.”
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Next week: Chapter 7 – The Bid
About the Author: David P. Goldman has written the “Spengler” column at Asia Times since 2001. His previous books include How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You. He has published extensively in major media including The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of American Affairs, The American Interest, First Things, Tablet Magazine and PJ Media. He has directed major research groups at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Cantor Fitzgerald, and received Institutional Investor Magazine’s award for research excellence. He consulted for the National Security Council during the first Reagan Administration and for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment during 2011-2013. From 2013 to 2016, he was a managing director at Reorient Group, a Hong Kong investment bank, and has published and lectured extensively about China. This is his first work of fiction.
“Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service and we’ll all give the same answer: Oswald Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” – Herbert E. Meyer, special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration.