A Boy And His Quantum Computer

I just wanted to take a minute from dissertation-writing to share this:

If you aren’t astounded, you should watch it again. Those are single carbon monoxide molecules – if you laid a thousand frames of the film side-by-side, you’d have something about as wide as a human hair. You might not find this stuff as exciting as I do, but I assure you that this kind of thing is going to be big in the coming decades (single trapped atoms that is, not stop-motion animation).

Trapped particles (like the atoms in the video) can potentially form the foundation of the quantum computer. The ‘building block’ of a modern computer is a transistor – a piece of semiconducting material around 50 nanometres across; roughly 500 times bigger than an atom. Transistors store the ‘bits’ in the computer with which you are currently reading this – they can either store 0, or 1. About 8000 of these transistors store one kilobyte’s worth of information, so say about 20 to 30 million will store one MP3 track.

Research centres like IBM and scores of academic institutions are working on taking the role of the transistor and implementing it into single atoms, or qubits – using their ‘quantum states’ to store the 0 or 1. As you might imagine, it isn’t easy (a ‘bit’ of an understatement – weeeeey), but if they can achieve it it’ll provide the means to scale the size of computer chips down by at least 100x. I’ll leave it to you to think of the potential applications.

BS Detection

And so for the first skirmish in my tyrade against all things pseudoscientific. You may or may not have heard recently about a chap named Jim McCormick, the entrepeneur behind the ADE-651 ‘bomb detection device’. He was today convicted to eight years’ imprisonment for these dubious little gizmos. His company, ATSC, promoted the ADE651 from 2008 as a sort of miracle bomb detector, with an unprecedented sensing range of up to a kilometre away (three from an aircraft), and an impossibly high rate of detection (100%), being able to completely overcome all manner of concealment methods. The catch is, they didn’t work. At all. As explained by the manufacturers, they work by ‘electrostatic ion attraction’. Anyone who remembers a gram of GCSE Physics or Chemistry will realise that this is the process by which ionic bonds are made (i.e., how salt is held together). Suffice to say, it doesn’t explain the complicated process by which one would differentiate between molecules of a harmless substance, and molecules of explosives (or, for that matter, drugs, ivory and missing persons – all claims made by ATSC). Did you ever use a ‘dowsing stick’ as a child? You know, the Y-shaped sticks held by each stalk, which can magically find water? Me neither, but that’s essentially what this is, except with a five-figure price tag. It turns out, in fact, that the inspiration for the device derived from a novelty golf ball finder.

For all its hilarity as a gimmick, this story has a fairly obvious darker side. In 2008, the Iraqi Interior Ministry signed a £19 million contract with ATSC for the devices, which were subsequently given to security teams on checkpoints throughout the country. On October 25th 2009, suicide bombers smuggled two tonnes of explosive past one such checkpoint outside of Baghdad, and killed 155 people.

There are a whole host of shortfalls in rationality which I can see here. My first point of contention lies with Jim himself, along with his other cronies at ATSC. It’s fairly obvious to me that he knew that this product was quackery; as a businessman and former copper who successfully made it to his late fifties, I can’t imagine he would have got to where he was if he was the type to believe in the magic behind dowsing rods. This leaves one question: how, as a human being, could he purport this non-product to be a device which saves lives, in the full knowledge that in doing so he was actually endangering them? Peddling novelty golf devices is one thing, but an explosives detector? Further, did he think he would get away with it? He must have realised that questions would start being asked once the devices were shown not to work, and with such tragic consequences. Either he was a fool, or a deceptive liar; likely both.

Lack of rationality award number two goes to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Iraq, as we unfortunately know, is a country whose government is in the unfortunate situation of being a bit of a mess. However, this isn’t their fault – brutal dictator, questionable foreign intervention, insurgency, etc, etc – it doesn’t mean that those in charge are stupid people. But if you’re going to use the methods of science as a means to an end, you need at least a basic knowledge of how it works. Is scientific understanding in Iraq (once a cultural and scientific heart of the world) so poor that nobody thought to ask for some evidence about ATSC’s claims? And if ‘evidence’ was given by ATSC, why wasn’t it laughed out of the country, and infallible (peer-reviewed) evidence demanded instead? Major-General Jahed al-Jabiri, of the of the Ministry’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, provided a dismal insight into the situation: “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs.”

The blame-buck doesn’t stop at Jim and the Iraqi government, however. ADE651s were manufactured in Somerset. How, in one of the most developed countries in the world, was such dangerous and dubious technology allowed to exist, let alone be exported to a war-torn corner of the planet, where their deployment would ultimately play the part in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people? If a pharmaceutical company marketed sugar pills as cancer cures, they’d be shut down quicker than you can say homoeopathy. The British government did ban the export of the products in January 2010. January 2010?! Had the dowsing rods that ministers and civil servants used to find the office all broken, for over a year? There are questions which need to be answered – how did these make it to market in the first place? Once there, how did they stay on sale for over a year whilst Jim McCormick made millions off of the Iraqi, Pakistani, Lebanese and Kenyan governments?

What is perhaps the most concerning aspect of this debacle is that it isn’t the first time this has happened. In July 2008, the US Securities and Exchanges Commission charged the Texas-based company Homeland Security International with fraud for the marketing of their product, Sniffex, as an explosive detection device. Again, it was a dowsing rod. Something severely wrong is going on if products like these are being allowed to make it to market, where they are endagering lives, again and again. People like our mate Jim are seeing an opportunity to exploit developing countries with a thin veil of science, and taking it, in order to line their pockets. It would appear that many government officials, both here and abroad, need a good healthy dose of scepticism in their lives. If a device with unprecedented abilities in finding explosives appears too good to be true, it probably is. Maybe governments should be provided with some sort of miracle bullshit detection device.