The Quantum Spy

I don’t often read spy thrillers, but just finished one, The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius. Ignatius is a well-known journalist at the Washington Post, specializing in international affairs and the intelligence community (and known to some as The Mainstream Media’s Chief Apologist for CIA Crimes). While the book is fiction, it’s also clearly closely based on reality. Sometimes writing this sort of “fiction” allows an author to provide their take on aspects of current events that confidentiality prevents them from writing about as “non-fiction”. Another example of this kind of writing is that of the now deceased French writer Gérard de Villiers,  who wrote a large number of spy novels informed by his connections in the intelligence community. Unlike the often pornographic de Villiers, Ignatius treats the love-making of CIA spies with beautiful Mata-Haris discreetly.

The topic of The Quantum Spy is Chinese spying on American research in quantum computing. This is very much in the news these days: after finishing the book I picked up today’s paper to read about the arrest of a Chinese-American ex-CIA agent on charges of being a mole spying for the Chinese (a central theme of the Ignatius novel is the divided loyalties of a Chinese-American CIA agent). In the same issue of the paper is a Tom Friedman opinion piece about quantum computing breakthroughs and how “China, the N.S.A., IBM, Intel and Google are now all racing — full of sweat — to build usable quantum systems” that will revolutionize our lives.

I am no expert on quantum computing, but I do have quite a bit of experience with recognizing hype, and the Friedman piece appears to be well-loaded with it. In contrast, at least in describing the the state of technology, the novel does a pretty good job of sticking to reality. Ignatius clearly spent quite a bit of time talking to those very knowledgeable about this. One part of his story is about a company closely based on D-Wave, and he explains that the technology they have is different than the true quantum computer concept that is being pursued by others. Majorana fermions and topologically protected states make an appearance in another part of the story. One character’s reading material to orient himself is Scott Aaronson’s Quantum Computing Since Democritus.

The novel portrays the US and Chinese governments as highly concerned and competitive about quantum computing technology and its security implications. I’d always naively assumed that classified research on quantum computing was carried on just by groups within the NSA or other security agencies, but Ignatius tells a different story. According to him, what happens is that groups performing unclassified government-funded quantum computing research in the open can find themselves forced to “go dark”, with their work going forward classified and no longer publicly accessible. His plot revolves around Chinese efforts to get information about such research. I have no idea whether this is complete fantasy or based in the reality of the situation.

In the novel and in real life, there are some analogies between the quantum computing story and the role nuclear physics played in the cold war between the US and Russia. Nuclear and particle physics arguably benefited a great deal for many years from governments worried about trying to get an edge in weapons technology, and to some extent the physics of quantum computing is starting to take on that same role, with (at least in the novel) the Chinese now playing the Russian role.

Just as particle physics likely got a lot of funding and public attention because of nuclear weapons, some parts of physics are now well-funded and high profile because of their connection to quantum computers. In fundamental theoretical physics, the hot topic is the idea that the old dream of replacing space and time with something more “quantum” is going to be realized as “it from qubit”, somehow using ideas from quantum computation to get an emergent quantum theory of gravitation. All my attempts to try and understand how this is supposed to work have left me rather mystified. Last week there was a Simons Foundation-funded school in Bariloche about this, with both ‘t Hooft and Maldacena lecturing on “Black holes and Quantum Information”. Perhaps these lectures will be informative and made available. This summer the IAS will host a school on From Qubits to Spacetime, maybe I’ll try again then to figure out what is going on by looking at its materials.

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10 Responses to The Quantum Spy

  1. So was it a good spy story?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Douglas Natelson,
    I’m the wrong person to ask, the few spy stories I’ve read have been because of an interest in some non-spy thriller aspect of the story. The spy thriller aspect of this one didn’t seem particularly compelling, but what do I know.

    I do go see movies of this kind, and if you wanted to feature physicists in a thriller movie, I think you could make a decent one from this book.

  3. Yatima says:

    According to him, what happens is that groups performing unclassified government-funded quantum computing research in the open can find themselves forced to “go dark”, with their work going forward classified and no longer publicly accessible.

    Just look for engineering teams (because all of this sounds far more a problem of engineering than theoretical physics) who publish a few very interesting papers then stop publishing. Look for teams in companies that have a good, solid engineering research tradition like IBM, not teams at crazed gluehead outfits like Google. A room full Chinese information retrievers would be able to list the names of Persons Of Interest by the evening.

  4. Anon says:

    Better to look here:

    http://www.lps.umd.edu

  5. Peter Woit says:

    The “fiction” book does refer specifically to some very real unclassified projects, in particular, to ones being run out of this division at IARPA

    https://www.iarpa.gov/index.php/working-with-iarpa/8-research

  6. Dave Miller says:

    The edX online consortium has just started a class by Peter Shor (whom I have seen here occasionally) and his colleague Isaac Chuang, both of MIT, on quantum computation, for anyone interested in pursuing this further.

    Both Shor and Chuang are excellent lecturers; Shor is a major figure in the field. An undergrad physics major should be able to follow the course.

    My own take is that “decoherence,” an interest that Peter Woit and I share, is the killer. The proposed solution is quantum error correction, which the course covers.

    It’s hard for me to see how quantum error-correction can overcome the extremely severe problems due to decoherence, but maybe by the end of the course I will become a believer!

  7. Tim says:

    Based on some familiarity with what’s going on in quantum computing, I believe the spying would more likely be the other way around. I believe the Chinese are currently outspending everyone else in this area.

    Canada appears to be more actively pursuing this than the US is.

  8. Art says:

    Re “arguably”: What’s the counter-argument? I didn’t realize there was disagreement about the cold war/physics symbiosis.

  9. Steve N. says:

    Dear Dr. Woit:
    From your description: “While the book is fiction, it’s also clearly closely based on reality. Sometimes writing this sort of “fiction” allows an author to provide their take on aspects of current events that confidentiality prevents them from writing about as “non-fiction”

    I believe the word for that is: roman à clef

  10. Art says:

    Anyone?

    I see there is an interview with Ignatius on the sci-fi podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, episode 291.

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