James Der Derian On How Quantum Tech Will Change Our Lives

Season 1 Episode 5
James Der Derian on How Quantum Tech Will Change Our Lives

S1E5 / January 2, 2020


Google and IBM are in a race to achieve quantum supremacy — both sides claim that they are winning. But what does quantum supremacy really mean? Quantum technologies have the ability to solve complex solutions to build better materials, design more effective pharmaceutical treatments or optimize large distribution networks. Nations or corporations that can harness the power of quantum technologies will have an advantage over their competitors. The leap in technology could be so great that it could have devastating impacts on the economies that lack quantum technologies.

In this episode of Big Tech co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies at The University of Sydney and Principal Investigator at Project Q, about the impact of quantum technologies could have on peace, security, economics and society.

Dr. Shohini Ghose, Professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University provides a foundational understanding of quantum computing at the beginning of this episode.


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.


James Der Derian: 1939 you have two of the most important physicist working in this area. Einstein and Szilard, who coined a letter to Roosevelt saying, listen, there's this thing called nuclear fission, and everybody's talking about it's a peaceful applications, but if you do it right, you might be able to create this incredibly destructive weapon. And I'm paraphrasing the letter, but it got the attention of Roosevelt, and we know everything went dark understandably, because you don't want to publish something that the enemy could use. And what I want to do is start asking the important questions before rather than after quantum goes online. We saw that with the nuclear arms race. And so we're trying to ask the big questions first. How do you develop norms, possibly even ethical guidelines when quantum does go online.


David Skok: Welcome to the first Big Tech podcast of 2020. Happy new year, Taylor.

Taylor Owen: Happy new year, David.

David Skok: On this episode of the Big Tech podcast, we're diving into the quantum realm.

Taylor Owen: And not the science fiction movie kind of quantum realm, right?

David Skok: But it's so tempting to imagine the science fiction part of quantum realm. We're talking about quantum technologies, like quantum computing and communications.

Taylor Owen: So when we say quantum, what we're really talking about is quantum theory, which has been around for over a hundred years. Quantum technology is the application of this quantum theory to transform computing and communications.

David Skok: Dah, dah, dah. You've entered the Twilight zone. I think we need to step back, Taylor. Stop right there and get to the basics. What is quantum technology, or quantum computing?

Taylor Owen: Absolutely. It's a complicated topic to grasp. And I think you actually ultimately need to be a quantum physicist to really get it. So we asked Dr. Shohini Ghose, professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Here's how she describes quantum computing.

Shohini Ghose: Well, when describing quantum computing, it's useful to start with the example of flipping a coin. The result is either heads or tails, precise values, or as we say in computer language, one or zero. Because traditional computers work on electrical currents and voltages, it's either on or off, one or zero. Quantum computing works in a completely different way. It is based on quantum physics, and the realization that a quantum particle can be described in a fluid state. We call it super position, not just a one or a zero, but a combination of probabilities of being one or zero. So a quantum computer works not by switching voltages between one and zero electrical currents on and off or anything like that, but by manipulating all the possible states of a quantum particle. In the end, a quantum computer can still tell you if the result is heads or tails. But it's the process in the middle where a quantum computer can harness superposition and probabilities to compute more efficiently or do tasks that cannot even be done with traditional methods.

David Skok: So it's not about building faster computers.

Taylor Owen: Like everything quantum, it turns out the answer can be yes and no, traditional computers will still be faster at doing things like rendering video graphics and surfing the internet. Where quantum technology really shines though, is in research modeling, like chemistry, meteorology or security encryption.

David Skok: So this naturally leads down the path of fear and doomsday scenarios. Can quantum computing be used to stage cyber attacks on, I guess we could call traditional computers?

Taylor Owen: Technically, yes, absolutely. But it can also be used to protect data from those very hackers. I asked Dr. Ghose about this.

Shohini Ghose: So without getting too technical for your listeners, the idea here is that we can use quantum particles, which in that superposition state are not limited to just one and zero, to hide information from hackers, and hence create un-hackable security keys. A hacker would literally need to break the laws of quantum physics to hack the key.

Taylor Owen: An example is the banks can use these keys to secure transactions, but beyond security keys, are there other applications for communications?

Shohini Ghose: Yes. We can also think about using quantum entanglement, which is a powerful connection that can exist between two or more interacting quantum particles. Perhaps we can build an entangled quantum internet in the future for different communication tasks and even perhaps for teleporting quantum information.

David Skok: This is all so fascinating, albeit a bit difficult to wrap my head around, but this is clearly going to impact technology in the future.

Taylor Owen: Not just technology. It'll have ripple effects throughout our societies. And that's what we'll get into with our guest. Professor James Der Derian.

David Skok: James is the Michael Heinz Chair of International Security Studies and Director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. It's a long title for a very, very smart man. James joins us from Sydney. Hello.

James Der Derian: Hello. Thanks for inviting me.

David Skok: Glad to have you on the show, James. So we started off with a primer on the basics of quantum technology from Dr. Shohini Ghose, but I'm curious to get your take on how you'd describe quantum to someone.

James Der Derian: Well, usually when someone goes down the rabbit hole, they've always start with the famous quote. There's a variety of them out there. Niels Bohr, so the father of quantum mechanics, one of them, famously said, if you think you know quantum mechanics, then you don't. It's weird because it's often seemingly nonsensical, but it makes sense. It's the most tested theory now in physics, and both in the lab and through all kinds of measurements in the real world, that's been proven over and over again. So what's changed is it's moving out of the realm of the very, very small into the bigger world of quantum technology. Quantum explains behavior at the atomic and subatomic level. Now we're starting to find evidence that there's quantum effects at the molecular and even higher level, and it's being harnessed now for perhaps a big step change. The big step change is going to be mainly in quantum communication, quantum computers, and quantum sensors. And you know, it's sort of like that moment in Ant-Man. You put quantum in front of anything and suddenly it becomes magical.

David Skok: And I'm starting to regret not watching all those Marvel films now. I'd say my understanding is that it all seems magical to me, but to move past the magical stage, what will be the next important step in its development?

James Der Derian: Quantum advantage I think is the next step where you'll be able to actually tap some of these incredible advantages in optimization calculations, and development of drugs. The modeling and simulation by quantum computers is going to be superior to the classical computers. They'll be able to do it through the cloud. IBM even is made, it's very basic quantum computer from when it was five cubits now to 15 cubits available through the cloud.

Taylor Owen: Right. So that will be the model going forward. We're not going to have quantum computers on our desks. We'll just have access to quantum capacity through the devices we have now, I assume. So if that's the case, walk us through some of the uses of this technology, you mentioned in the production of drugs, or how does quantum capacity fit into that?

James Der Derian: Yeah, well I'm not talking about designer drugs. I don't want to get everybody all excited about this. We were talking about pharmaceuticals here that are going to help save lives. One of the big investments in any drug as you know, that's breakthrough drugs is testing and modeling and then application. And the thing is when you can simulate the molecular level, it means you can construct these drugs and then also test the efficacy for curing the disease, but also potential side effects. And that's going to shrink the whole development time for getting drugs out.

David Skok: And what else could quantum technology do for us?

James Der Derian: Well, when we talk about quantum advantage, what does it do better than classical computers? I mentioned modeling and simulation, which is so important for material science. You could create super strong materials by basically rearranging at the atomic level, the periodic table. It's also for creating these strong materials, but also that would be a way of creating less expensive materials. One is lithium batteries, or just holding new batteries that will be much more efficient. Modeling climate change is very important. Not only for convincing the skeptics, but for offsetting particular anomalies. I think for me, one of the reasons I got interested in it is that it's probably, one of the things that people don't understand is that before governments do anything, they model it, they simulate it. And I've always been intrigued by how models or simulations can produce new realities. Everybody thinks that modeling or just representing a potential reality or an existing reality. But something that everyone from Borges, the great Argentinian novelist, to Baudrillard have shown us that the model, when it reaches certain levels of perfection, can start to proceed and engender realities. Particularly those realities are more appealing when the map becomes more appealing than the landscape. So I'm interested in more of that sort of philosophical question of when you develop almost a fidelity between the model and the reality, what happens. Then we start to get into matrix like areas of exploration.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. I find this idea and this concept totally fascinating, that we will be able to model and simulate various versions of reality, and then create futures based on these models. I think that's a pretty astounding concept and an implication that is in many ways grounded in epistemology, right? There's a philosophic question of how are we modeling and building reality based on these kinds of simulation. But I'm wondering if this kind of modeling is already being done and what it's being used for.

James Der Derian: I guess the more real world applications, you'd have to look at who's buying what right now in terms of quantum technologies, the potential quantum technologies. Why is Amazon buying a lot of this technology and investing in the production of it. And part of that is optimization, the so-called traveling salesman problem. Like if you're trying to get from one side of the United States to the other, but you have like 12 stops, what's the optimal way to make that trip? And that's an incredibly difficult problem actually. And quantum computers are very good at that, at polynominal calculations necessary to figure that out. And that's going to increase efficiencies.

David Skok: Yes, but I mean, where does it all end? Can we get exponentially efficient?

James Der Derian: We're basically hitting the ceiling of Moore's law. We've all seen this incredible exponential growth every two years in quantum speeds, number of transistors, you can get onto a chip, and we're bumping up against the miniaturization that's possible. How many millions, billions transistors can you put onto one of these chips? Well, you get down to the nano level, nanometer level, and quantum effects start to kick in and Moore's law stops. You know, it's not a law, it's an Axiom. But nonetheless it's the case that we all know that a big chunk of the GDP of advanced countries is dependent upon that increase. Productivity will start to flatten out. So this is why I think a lot of people are investing in quantum now, because I think this is a way to redefine Moore's law, defy it even. So in some ways you could say the future of capitalist growth is dependent upon this, which some people would say it's a good thing, a bad thing.

Taylor Owen: That's an idea worth running through here for a minute. I mean, there is a fascinating connection between capitalist need for growth and Moore's law, and sort of the exponential growth and evolution of technology. And if you're saying that breaks and the only people who have access to that increased computational capacity will be those who have access to quantum capacity, what does that tell us about how politics is going to play out in this space? Is this going to happen suddenly, or are we going to see some sort of increased divide between those who have access to quantum capacity and all the growth that comes with, and the rest? Walk us through some of the political economic implications of this.

James Der Derian: I part ways with some people who see this all as linear or even exponential. I think we have to sort of work out a new cosmology for understanding some of these changes and also a new politics. When you're dealing with something, it's basically going to be a permanent revolution. It's not going to be one staged development. It's going to be a lot of people are being left behind. A lot of people are leaping forward. It's going to cut across levels of nation states, levels of class. And when you have a permanent revolution, this one thing I think Trotsky was right about it. It does come with a particular politics. You can leap over stages of development in your politics. And so we might be ushering in something new in terms of, everybody likes to link, for instance, liberal democracies to a particular form of interdependence and capitalism and trade and, well, if you could talk about quantum form of economics, what would be the politics that correspond to that? And I'm not trying to be deterministic here. I don't think it should be just one-to-one. So there's all these knock on ripple effects that no one's really investigating, that I think it's about time because we're kind of stuck in this Newtonian cosmology. We still see ourselves and states as billiard balls knocking against each other. Well, we're much more like those wave particles that are de cohering and wave slash particles that are collapsing and then reforming with every choice, every observation, and every measurement. Sorry, was that too much?

Taylor Owen: No. That's great. I'm just trying to choose my way of engaging with that. I just love how you bounce between the theoretical and the practical.

James Der Derian: Well that's part of the issue.

Taylor Owen: And that's what's so fascinating about this concept, right, is it feels like there's this theoretical and metaphorical utility of the concept that sits alongside these hard, real world practicalities.

James Der Derian: That's very important, because a lot of physicists who will will say, oh we don't have to pay attention to the theoretical, well meaning the non mathematical theories, because their view is a shut up and calculate, we know this stuff works. Let's not worry about the other kind of ontological philosophical conundrum that are posed by the uncertainty principle by super position, spooky action at a distance. These things that just don't correspond to common sense, common sense being Newtonian common sense. But my point, and this is one that's being raised by in philosophy departments increasingly like at San Diego, Oxford, New York University and elsewhere is that, do we really have to start to rethink our cosmologies, our worldviews in light of quantum mechanics, but also when it basically makes this leap from the very, very small to the very, very big, and you see a convergence happening. So there's some really exciting work being done by philosophers in this area that some people think it's a little too woo woo too far out there, but there's a lot of rigor being applied to it there.

Taylor Owen: I'd like to talk about what led you to moving into the philosophical side of quantum.

James Der Derian: Well, I guess if there was an ur-moment to it, it was, I was actually at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton when we were, there was a group of us who were supposed to be doing stuff on implications of information technology for society. It was one of these big mega projects that they put together. It was 2000s before, actually, 9/11 come to think of it. But why I was there, a lot of the stuff, the theoretical breakthroughs about quantum and potential applications computing were just sort of filtering through, with John Preskill, Peter Shor and others, and I sort of played hooky from my project and attended some of these seminars and peaked my interest. And I started thinking about what would be the geo-strategic implications of this.

Taylor Owen: Right. And that is why you started Project Q?

James Der Derian: So we started Project Q just shortly after I arrived at Sydney. One of the reasons I took the job here is because Australia, but in particular Sydney, is really leading the way in a lot of the research. They have three centres of excellence funded by government. But also there's some corporate subventions. And even interesting enough, some US intelligence and military support for the various quantum research labs here. And what I want to do is gather these people and say, why don't we start asking the important questions before rather than after quantum goes online. And for me, the historical analog was 1939. You have basically two of the most important physicist working in this area. One of them skeptical, but the other very much immersed in it, was Einstein and Szilard, the Hungarian refugee who coined a letter to Roosevelt saying, listen, there's this thing called nuclear fission, and everybody's talking about its peaceful applications. But you know, if you do it bright, you might be able to create this incredibly destructive weapon. And I'm paraphrasing the letter, but it got the attention of Roosevelt. And we know after that, Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, the dropping of two nuclear devices on Japanese cities. So the question is, where are we now? What are the positive potentialities, and what are the really possible accidents or even intended consequences when the corporations and militaries get so invested in this technology and get so much into the race. The whole idea of an escalatory race where you have to maintain an advantage over your opponent.

Taylor Owen: So with Project Q, you are a part of this race. You are creating knowledge and communities and guidance for political leaders and scientists, how they should engage in this space. You're along for the ride.

James Der Derian: Yeah. That's one of the reasons why we started Project Q as well, as sort of to say, yeah, let's have a race. Let's have a research race. Let's make a collaborative. And we always invite, for instance, the Chinese quantum physicists to our Project Q events, and vice versa. I've gone to the big complex outside Shanghai as a guest and as our documentary, which is about the quantum race, is looking at is how do you, I don't know, forestall that turning into an arms race. And I don't know if it's possible, but we're certainly given a shot in that we have people talking together and you know, better jaw jaw than war war, who can influence their respective decision making bodies, particularly in China where it's more seamless. The relationship between the corporate, the military. And it's also true in the United States where DARPA and IARPA, the intelligence equivalent of the defense advanced research project have invested a lot. And my worry is that all this is being done relatively open now at on college campuses. But what happens if they make the breakthrough? Do those labs go dark? They have nondisclosure agreements about this.

David Skok: So James does going dark mean that one of those powers has figured out how to weaponize quantum and we're headed for conflict?

James Der Derian: You know, there's the metaphor that came out of a few paragraphs in an 800 page book, the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides, about the wars in 400 BC between Athens, Sparta, and to take something from then and believe that it's inevitable that the United States as a declining power will go to war with a rising power China, and then factor in quantum as one of the reasons why the US government and also intelligence agencies have to make sure that they have quantum supremacy in another sense, in the who gets to weaponizes first. Not all arms races lead to war, but it'd be nice for the quantum race did not.

Taylor Owen: How big is China's bed on this?

James Der Derian: That's a figure that you'll see wide fluctuations. I mean, people in the think tanks have hard figures, but I respect it. We invite the people from the think tanks to come to our events. But think tanks are dependent upon hyping the threat and the investment, you can't translate a 10 billion, 30 billion, you see these figures thrown around as all leading to weapons. But it is the case and some of the people we've had at Project Q have been quite open in the presentations. If you go to our site, a little bit of a product placement here, www.projectqsydney.com, you can see some of the interviews where they'll talk about these issues quite openly. Well I shouldn't say quite openly because when I went to China to visit some of them, you see how important, for instance, quantum communications is for them. And when the NSA puts a lot of money into this, as we found out from Snowden's leak, I mean it's, one project that the NSA was doing called Hard Penetrating Targets. I don't know who names the stuff, but-

Taylor Owen: Jesus Christ.

James Der Derian: Yeah. Yeah. Hard. I think that's it. Hard Penetrating Targets. This is the, yeah, we could do a little gendered analysis on that one.

Taylor Owen: No kidding.

James Der Derian: It is the case where they're actually not in this particular project, they have other quantum projects. They're looking at how universities are advancing in their research. They're really interested in encryption, and Chao-Yang Lu and his mentor who is leading the quantum effort in China, Jian-Wei Pan he says, we were heavily influenced by that NSA leak and tried to develop totally encrypted non breakable communication capabilities. And then they put up the first quantum satellite. So China did get the jump in that regard. Do you think NSA and their equivalents in China and everywhere else are working on post quantum encryption? You can be sure. You know, that's the race that's going on in the shadows.

David Skok: If I were writing a science fiction film and came to you and said, what will the world look like, what will the military look like in 20 years? And what examples of quantum technology in use would I see? Do you have any that you could imagine at this point?

James Der Derian: Well, you'll have to talk to my agent. You know, of course I'm writing that script. I can give you the bare bones. I mean I'm not the only one doing a little speculative work in this area. The Washington Foreign Correspondent, David Ignatius, has written a pretty decent novel about this, actually titled Quantum Spy, and David, I hope you're going to thank me for that product placement. He's looking at the China US race, and I actually think science fiction is ahead of the game some and giving us a taste of what's to come. I think Kim Stanley Robinson gets it pretty close to right in Red Moon, where you see quantum artificial intelligence, quantum communications being used by all sides of a conflict, both between the United States in the US, but also within China as basically a democratic revolution unfolds within China. And quantum technology plays a very important role and I'm not going to ruin it, but for those pick it up. Great book on that.

Taylor Owen: You're saying quantum artificial intelligence and quantum communication will likely be used in wars. How concerned should we be about that as we look ahead?

James Der Derian: Should we be very afraid? I've visited a lot of these labs and it's interesting when I go to Google, Microsoft or in China and Hefei and other places, they all have quantum artificial intelligence labs. NASA Ames has one, and they're kind of, that's the sort of the inner sanctum. That's where I think the most interesting, sometimes the most secretive work's being done where, what happens when you get to, when you apply some of these quantum algorithms and the quantum technology becomes available to artificial intelligence. Are we going to see something that's just a true breakthrough in the abilities to do machine learning and pattern recognition, and you can be sure all that stuff is going to be weaponized quickly, particularly with drone technologies. I'm more concerned about how it's going to create sensors that make it possible to see everything in real time. And what does that mean for stealth technologies? What does that mean for your submarine deterrence in the nuclear triad? What does it mean for stealth fighters? It's going to be harder and harder. I think that's what China's doing a lot of work on this area, because it's going to be very hard to do that kind of in and out military interventions based on stealth technologies. That's to be potential game changer in the sort of strategic front.

David Skok: In the secret halls of the militaries and companies, are there particular, you know we've talked about Google, we talked a little bit about IBM, and obviously the US and China. Are they really at the forefront of this? Are there other countries and other companies that are also working on this in the back rooms?

James Der Derian: I think anybody who's has the aspiration, you'll see different scales of it. India is a late comer to this. Interesting enough, Apple's not heavily invested as a corporation. I think they're following a pattern of letting everybody else put the big R&D money into it and then ripping it off afterwards. I think, and doing a better job of it. I think that, well when I mentioned permanent revolution, one of the key ideas that economist and then the appropriation of this idea by Trotsky and others is that as often the unlikeliest candidates that sort of make the breakthroughs because they're not as invested in the old technologies. So there's no path dependencies. They're able to make these both technological but conceptual leaps. So who knows, maybe it could be a country we're not really paying attention to. I think Australia, everybody likes talking about Australia punching above its weight. Well that's absolutely true. It's a percentage of GDP per capita. There's all kinds of ways to measure this. They've invested more government money, university money, private money. China's still leading the pack. Both corporate in terms of, Alibaba and all the other big tech firms. They're working with the government. The US got late into the sort of governmental intervention, the quantum initiative. I think it's like 1.2 billion, which sounds big, but nothing up to the Chinese level. Europe has come together and certain nodes of the European collaboration in Delft in Holland and CERN and elsewhere. So I don't know. I think that we might be as usual tunnel vision looking at the big players when someone, maybe there's a Doctor No somewhere on an island in the Caribbean who's developing the perfect quantum weapon. I don't know.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. You know, we laugh at that but that's one of the things I really came away from, from the project Q workshop, was that there's these potential vast implications of these technologies with just huge financial and geopolitical upsides if they were to be realized. But I'm just not sure we're seeing visibly anyway, the corresponding investment. Either this promise is out of whack, right? Like there isn't as much potential upside and revolutionary in these technologies as is somehow ascribed to them. Or if there is, is there just a bunch of dark money and research happening that we don't see and doesn't get talked about?

James Der Derian: You know, I'm going to leave that to, the conspiracy theorists are going to be making comments on my presentation here today. I follow Walter Benjamin's line on this that in times of terror, everything is a conspiracy. Everyone must be a detective. I'm doing detective work on the assumption that there's always something hidden. I've done work on basically the military industrial media entertainment network for 30, 20 odd years now. So yeah, I think so, but the conspiracy theories are lazy though. I mean the, it's a lazy way of trying to say, Oh, there's some wizard behind the curtain pulling the leavers. It's not. We'd like to think that someone's in control, but sometimes it's an assemblage to use the delusion concept of a lot of unintended actions coming out of multiple actors who aren't aware of what everyone else is doing. And then suddenly there's this, call it what you will, a quantitative shift, a qualitative shift from all the quantitative work going on. I kind of think we're, we're getting close to that, and when people talk about convergence of the biological and the physiological and the philosophical, I think quantum is going to be important to understand that and why we're doing kind of a massive educational program along with this. And we're trying to all our deliverables involved. The multi-tiered, some are going out to industry, some to governmental, but a big chunk of it, of our investment in this, is going to a documentary that will be intelligible to the widest possible audience, and you don't want to scare the bejesus out of people, but we want to make them feel concerned enough that they'll get educated and be involved in hopefully some decisions being made about this.

Taylor Owen: So on that, I spend a lot of my time and work thinking through and working on tech governance these days. And it's remarkable I think in many areas of this conversation just how out of step our institutions of governance are from the types of problems and challenges that we're seeing in the tech space that demand governance. And I think you see this on relatively simple issues like content moderation, like creating standards around AI. I mean these are pretty simple problems compared to the types of issues that are raised potentially by quantum computing. So do you see that same disconnect in the quantum conversation, and where are the governance conversations happening in this space?

James Der Derian: Well, that's why I rely on the Canadians. You're leading the way, right? You got to show us how to do it.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, we're in trouble then.

James Der Derian: Well, this is the closest moment I get to despair, is on this very idea of regulation, or governance. The fact is that the big players don't want it. It cuts into profits. I think that data mining is incredibly profitable and this will be seen as another way to curtail Facebook or Amazon's or Google's ability to take that surplus that comes out of data mining and monetize it. There's going to be resistant to the level of big tech. I think, they know there's a backlash coming, I think, to some honorable people who are trying to make a change and a difference. But when we talk about structural forces working against it, it might require that big accident to make people realize that yeah, you have to be control of this stuff or it controls you.

David Skok: Where will that that push for regulation ultimately come from, do you think?

James Der Derian: I don't know. I'm really relying on creative thinkers. Like I know what you guys are all doing up in Canada. I really mean it. I think it's like. What you, Ron Deibert is doing, what you're attempting at McGill now and others. That's why I think the onus is on the universities, because it's not going to happen in think tanks. It's not going to happen in corporations. And I hate to say it, it's not going to happen in government. So it's going to have to be some sort of practicum that's generated out of the last quasi autonomous institution we have, the university.

David Skok: Why does this push for regulation and foresight have to come from universities, do you think?

James Der Derian: The reason why I think there's a special responsibility for universities, because there's no one else stepping up right now. Governments have become understandably too much in crisis mode dealing with what's the latest breaking event that requires their attention. There are groups within defense departments or within intelligence agencies that are supposed to be doing sort of global trends looking out over the next 15, 30 years. But they're really looking at the strategic implications. And I can tell a short anecdote. I've actually been involved in the global trends exercise long time ago with the CIA with what was going to happen in 2015. And they had assembled some of the really good creative thinkers from think tanks and intelligence agencies. But they also brought in some outliers like myself. And I think Bruce Sterling was there. He provided a scenario that science fiction writer. The interesting thing that's happened in 2000, and there was like 45, 60 of us broken up into groups, and no one presented a scenario of 18 guys getting on board civilian airliners with box cutters and taking down the twin towers and doing great harm to the US economy. With a $500,000 investment, they ended up having a trillion dollar impact, if you include the knock on effects of the Iraq war and the ISIS and everything that followed. So there are limitations to the imaginary, particularly when you're in a structured setting like that. Universities have the luxury, particularly when you're in interdisciplinary centres like what's going on at McGill, what's going on in the Monk Centre. What we're trying to achieve here at the Centre for National Security Studies is to really sort of try to look over the horizon, but to use history to use multiple disciplines and not use, not get stuck in that tunnel vision of how do we mitigate or anticipate crisis. And the other possible player, corporations, they're understandably driven by a profit. They're stakeholders, shareholders. They're not going to be too interested in looking at futures that don't correspond to that model. Finally, think tanks. Some interesting work going on, but they tend to over hype sometimes the threats, particularly if it leads to more resources coming into the think tanks. So that's why I think we fall back to the university as sort of the last, I call it the quasi autonomous because obviously there's all kinds of investments and constraints about what you can do and cannot do. But it's the best we've got right now. And why I think that it's important to do this theory informed by practice and practice held to account by theory that is the way forward on these sort of questions about what's going to happen with new technologies.

David Skok: James, going back to your university, you're taking the Project Q workshops on tour again. You've also got your documentary coming out. What do you hope Project Q will achieve with these kinds of projects and outreach?

James Der Derian: World peace. Is that too high? I've been doing this for much longer than I thought I would do. I'm a bit of a dilettante to tell you the truth. I pick up what I think to be the big global danger or the global event that we're not paying attention to, and flit around and, but I got kind of, when I went down this rabbit hole, it really has affected my identity and my worldview. So I think I'm really in this for the duration. I think that this is the long haul in the sense that we're not going to see some of these effects immediately. We're in a hype cycle, like with all new technologies, people should be aware of that. And people are going to start to poo poo the idea of quantum because it won't immediately deliver on some of its hype and its promises. This is what happened with AI. And then suddenly parallel processing and machine learning and pattern recognition did lead to a big break and we're not ready for it, a new leap. So I think you have to be careful about people getting jaded but also people treating it as a fad. It's another way of keeping your distance from it. So we're trying to make it accessible at multiple levels, entertaining people who want to get interested. And can, a lot of ways, I think, Hollywood's ahead of the zeitgeist. It's really hard not to see any movie now that involves anything with sci-fi, but it's not something you mentioned yet. Quantum gravity in Interstellar, quantum teleportation, quantum fluctuation. The whole idea of the quantum many worlds. It's hard to see a TV series where it doesn't pop up even in, spoiler alert, The Man In the High Castle. This is really a case where I think there is something happening out there, but the kind of critical consciousness of it is lagging, and it's not just simply lagging behind the technological developments. It's lagging behind something that started back at the Solvay conference in 1927 and onward that we need, I think to get up to speed as Virgilio would want us to do, but also put in some circuit breakers. Because one thing is quantum and all of these new technologies do speed up the processing powers. But it also means humans seem relatively slow and inferior. And when that happens, then you start to lose control. Humans out of the decision making loop is what militaries want to do. They want to speed up things so that network-centric warfare is taking humans out of the loop. Well that's, in my mind, the recipe for disaster.

David Skok: James, you've done a terrific job of explaining the extremely complex world of quantum technology to us today and highlighting some of its ramifications for society.

James Der Derian: Well, go to our website. It's all there. It's all there.

David Skok: I will. That's at www.projectqsydney.com. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

James Der Derian: Thanks guys.

David Skok: That was professor James Der Derian from the University of Sydney telling us about Project Q, which is exploring how quantum technology can and probably will change our lives completely over the coming decades.

David Skok: I hope you found this episode of big tech interesting. We're looking forward to having more conversations with people like James who are really on the cutting edge of the future and where technology is going.

Taylor Owen: Absolutely, and regarding quantum, there's just so many facets of how it could impact our world and our lives as the field of study continues to grow. I'd also like to thank Shohini Ghose for contributing to today's episode.

David Skok: Thanks for listening. I'm David Skok, Editor-in-Chief of The Logic.

Taylor Owen: And I'm Taylor Owen, CIGI Senior Fellow and Professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill. Bye for now.


Narrator: The Big Tech podcast is a partnership between the Centre for International Governance Innovation, CIGI, and The Logic. CIGI is a Canadian non-partisan think tank focused on international governance, economy and law. The Logic is an award winning digital publication reporting on the innovation economy. Big Tech is produced and edited by Trevor Hunsberger, and Kate Rowswell is our story producer. Visit www.bigtechpodcast.com for more information about the show.


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