Derrick Broze, ContributorIn a recent speech, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency discussed the controversial topic of geoengineering, leading some activists to ask whether the agency is actively and deliberately modifying the weather.In late June, John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting about threats to global security. Director Brennan mentioned a number of threats to stability before di [...]
Alex Pietrowski, StaffThe business model for bringing lucrative new pharmaceutical drugs to market includes very robust marketing budgets, and 9 out of 10 pharmaceutical companies spend more on advertising than they do on research. And why not? Americans spend an average of $1000 per person, per year onpharmaceutical drugs, and the effort to capture these dollars is leading more companies to fast track or even fabricate the research involved in bringing a new drug to market [...]
IBM scientists say they have made two critical advances in an industrywide effort to build a practical quantum computer, shaving years off the time expected to have a working system.
"This is critical," said Jay Gambetta, IBM's manager of theory of quantum computing. "The field has got a lot more competitive. You could say the [quantum computing] race is just starting to begin… This is a small step on the journey but it's an important one."
Gambetta told Computerworld that IBM's scientists have created a square quantum bit circuit design, which could be scaled to much larger dimensions. This new two-dimensional design also helped the researchers figure out a way to detect and measure errors. Quantum computing is a fragile process and can be easily thrown off by vibrations, light and temperature variations. Computer scientists doubt they'll ever get the error rate down to that in a classical computer.
Because of the complexity and sensitivity of quantum computing, scientists need to be able to detect errors, figure out where and why they're happening and prevent them from recurring.
IBM says its advancement takes the first step in that process. "It tells us what errors are happening," Gambetta said. "As you make the square [circuit design] bigger, you'll get more information so you can see where the error was and you can correct for it. We're showing now that we have the ability to detect, and we're working toward the next step, which would allow you to see where and why the problem is happening so you can stop it from happening."
Quantum computing is widely thought to be the next great step in the field of computing, potentially surpassing classical supercomputers in large-scale, complex calculations.
Quantum computing would be used to cull big data, searching for patterns. It's hoped that these computers will take on questions that would lead to finding cures for cancer or discovering distant planets – jobs that might take today's supercomputers hundreds of years to calculate.
IBM's announcement is significant in the worlds of both computing and physics, where quantum theory first found a foothold.
Quantum computing, still a rather mysterious technology, combines both computing and quantum mechanics, which is one of the most complex, and baffling, areas of physics. This branch of physics evolved out of an effort to explain things that traditional physics is unable to.
With quantum mechanics, something can be in two states at the same time. It can be simultaneously positive and negative, which isn't possible in the world as we commonly know it.
For instance, each bit, also known as a qubit, in a quantum machine can be a one and a zero at the same time. When a qubit is built, it can't be predicted whether it will be a one or a zero. A qubit has the possibility of being positive in one calculation and negative in another. Each qubit changes based on its interaction with other qubits.
Because of all of these possibilities, quantum computers don't work like classical computers, which are linear in their calculations. A classical computer performs one step and then another. A quantum machine can calculate all of the possibilities at one time, dramatically speeding up the calculation.
However, that speed will be irrelevant if users can't be sure that the calculations are accurate.
That's where IBM's advances come into play.
"This is absolutely key," said Jim Tully, an analyst with Gartner. "You do the computation but then you need to read the results and know they're accurate. If you can't do that, it's kind of meaningless. Without being able to detect errors, they have no way of knowing if the calculations have any validity."
If scientists can first detect and then correct these errors, it's a major step in the right direction to building a working quantum computing system capable of doing enormous calculations.
"Quantum computing is a hard concept for most to understand, but it holds great promise," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "If we can tame it, it can compute certain problems orders of magnitude more quickly than existing computers. The more organizations that are working on unlocking the potential of quantum computing, the better. It means that we'll see something real that much sooner."
However, there's still debate over whether a quantum computer already exists.
A year ago, D-Wave Systems Inc. announced that it had built a quantum system, and that NASA, Google and Lockheed Martin had been testing them.
Many in the computer and physics communities doubt that D-Wave has built a real quantum computer. Vern Brownell, CEO of the company, avows that they have.
"I think that quantum computing shows promise, but it's going to be quite a while before we see systems for sale," said Olds. IBM's Gambetta declined to speculate on whether D-Wave has built a quantum computing but said the industry is still years away from building a viable quantum system.
"Quantum computing could be potentially transformative, enabling us to solve problems that are impossible or impractical to solve today," said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, in a statement.
IBM's research was published in Wednesday's issue of the journal Nature Communications.
Excerpt from space.com by Mike Wall Is it time to take the search for intelligent aliens to the next level? For more than half a century, scientists have been scanning the heavens for signals generated by intelligent alien life. They haven't found anything conclusive yet, so some researchers are advocating adding an element called "active SETI" (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) — not just listening, but also beaming out transmissions of our own designed to catch aliens' eyes.
Active SETI "may just be the approach that lets us make contact with life beyond Earth," Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, said earlier this month during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Jose.
Vakoch envisions using big radio dishes such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to blast powerful, information-laden transmissions at nearby stars, in a series of relatively cheap, small-scale projects.
"Whenever any of the planetary radar folks are doing their asteroid studies, and they have an extra half an hour before or after, there's always a target star readily available that they can shift to without a lot of extra slough time," he said.
The content of any potential active SETI message is a subject of considerable debate. If it were up to astronomer Seth Shostak, Vakoch's SETI Institute colleague, we'd beam the entire Internet out into space.
"It's like sending a lot of hieroglyphics to the 19th century — they [aliens] can figure it out based on the redundancy," Shostak said during the AAAS discussion. "So, I think in terms of messages, we should send everything."
While active SETI could help make humanity's presence known to extrasolar civilizations, the strategy could also aid the more traditional "passive" search for alien intelligence, Shostak added. "If you're going to run SETI experiments, where you're trying to listen for a putative alien broadcast, it may be very instructive to have to construct a transmitting project," he said. "Because now, you walk a mile in the Klingons' shoes, assuming they have them."
Cause for concern?
But active SETI is a controversial topic. Humanity has been a truly technological civilization for only a few generations; we're less than 60 years removed from launching our first satellite to Earth orbit, for example. So the chances are that any extraterrestrials who pick up our signals would be far more advanced than we are.
This likelihood makes some researchers nervous, including famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach," Hawking said in 2010 on an episode of "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking," a TV show that aired on the Discovery Channel. "If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?"
Astrophysicist and science fiction author David Brin voiced similar concerns during the AAAS event, saying there's no reason to assume that intelligent aliens would be altruistic.
"This is an area in which discussion is called for," Brin said. "What are the motivations of species that they might carry with them into their advanced forms, that might color their cultures?"
Brin stressed that active SETI shouldn't be done in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion by small groups of astronomers.
"This is something that should be discussed worldwide, and it should involve our peers in many other specialties, such as history," he said. "The historians would tell us, 'Well, gee, we have some examples of first-contact scenarios between advanced technological civilizations and not-so-advanced technological civilizations.' Gee, how did all of those turn out? Even when they were handled with goodwill, there was still pain."
Out there already
Vakoch and Shostak agreed that international discussion and cooperation are desirable. But Shostak said that achieving any kind of consensus on the topic of active SETI may be difficult. For example, what if polling reveals that 60 percent of people on Earth are in favor of the strategy, while 40 percent are opposed?
"Do we then have license to go ahead and transmit?" Shostak said. "That's the problem, I think, with this whole 'let's have some international discussion' [idea], because I don't know what the decision metric is."
Vakoch and Shostak also said that active SETI isn't as big a leap as it may seem at first glance: Our civilization has been beaming signals out into the universe unintentionally for a century, since the radio was invented.
"The reality is that any civilization that has the ability to travel between the stars can already pick up our accidental radio and TV leakage," Vakoch said. "A civilization just 200 to 300 years more advanced than we are could pick up our leakage radiation at a distance of several hundred light-years. So there are no increased dangers of an alien invasion through active SETI."
But Brin disputed this assertion, saying the so-called "barn door excuse" is a myth.
"It is very difficult for advanced civilizations to have picked us up at our noisiest in the 1980s, when we had all these military radars and these big television antennas," he said.
Shostak countered that a fear of alien invasion, if taken too far, could hamper humanity's expansion throughout the solar system, an effort that will probably require the use of high-powered transmissions between farflung outposts.
"Do you want to hamstring all that activity — not for the weekend, not just shut down the radars next week, or active SETI this year, but shut down humanity forever?" Shostak said. "That's a price I'm not willing to pay."
So the discussion and debate continues — and may continue for quite some time.
"This is the only really important scientific field without any subject matter," Brin said. "It's an area in which opinion rules, and everybody has a very fierce opinion."