The whole of humanity is only 20 years or so from meekly surrendering the one thing most us have craved, sought and fought for throughout our history. Our freedom.
By the 2050s every person on the planet will be under surveillance, 24/7, for the whole of their lives, their every word and act automatically recorded, stored and searchable by whomever has the power to do it. Nothing you do or say will go unnoticed by the vast banks of artificial intelligence that will be used to keep you in line – or make you a compliant victim of consumer culture.
The key instruments of oppression will be quantum computers – devices so powerful, fast, capacious and searchable they will be able to store and retrieve all the data, collected on any individual in milliseconds.
The scientists working on quantum computers sing their praises – all the wonderful things these amazing machines will be able to do for us. But so too did the first nuclear scientists in the 1920s and 30s, before they built a device that could end human existence. Quantum computing has exactly the same flaw: misused, it can eliminate human freedom as we know it, forever.
Quantum computing is far advanced, and the first devices are already with us. The University of NSW say they have cleared the final hurdle to build a superfast quantum computer using low-cost silicon. Google and NASA claim to have built the most powerful computer ever – the D-Wave 2X – heralding a major advance in artificial intelligence. Round the world, Wall Street and banks like Goldman Sachs are racing into quantum computing in a bid to turn atomic particles into fast cash. Airbus is using them to design jets of the future. IBM and the US intelligence research agency IARPA are building the most powerful spying machine in history.
According to IBM research director Arvind Krishna. “Quantum computing promises to deliver exponentially more speed and power not achievable by today’s most powerful computers…” but what he and other advocates of this disruptive new technology seldom mention is its sheer, blinding capacity – and how this can be deployed against society.
What gives the quantum computer its power is the qubit. Whereas a standard computer bit can exist only in one of two states – a 0 or 1 – qubits can exist in up to 8 superimposed states, yielding exponential increases in capacity and speed. Put simply, what that means for you or me, is that every bit of data ever gathered on us can be recorded, stored, mined, sorted and retrieved by anyone with access and a ‘Quputer’.
Our data is already there, amassing round the clock in tens of thousands of private and government databases.
Unlike the Orwellian nightmare, there is no one, central ‘Big Brother’ – but rather a host of smaller databases (public, government, international and privately-owned) which can, with the right access, be fused and interrogated to create universal, 24/7, mass surveillance or any individual, group or family.
While this applies chiefly to the 3.4 billion humans on the internet today, the power is rapidly disseminating throughout the world with the spread of the internet and mobile devices and will be nearly universal by the 2030s – around the same time the first qupters come on line.
These are nothing less that the enabling technologies for a global police state. It is the dawn of the ‘nanocracy’ (or rule via the very small subatomic particles used in quputers).
The assumption that governments, especially in democracies like Australia, will always be benign and ‘do the right thing’ by their citizens in respect of privacy or freedom is, at best, naïve if not downright foolish. We have recently experience of a regime with strong prejudices, a disposition to distort the truth, a tendency to advantage its supporters, a desire to curtail freedoms and a taste for never-ending war. It can easily happen again.
Imagine this power in the hands of religious, political or economic fanatics, not even from your own country.
Another difference from the Orwellian nightmare is that, in 1984, individuals were betrayed by their friends, family and colleagues. Under the nanocracy everyone will be betrayed by themselves, via their own words, thoughts and deeds. What the quputer confers is the power to scrutinise every individual life and force that person to comply with whatever those who control it desire. To obey them, vote for them, or buy their products. History’s crude tools of imprisonment and torture are no longer necessary: individuals can be brought to heel by the more refined technique of blackmail or threatening to expose aspects of our past lives. And whose life is ever beyond reproach or free from deliberate misinterpretation?
Having such power available, which government, organisation or corporation will refuse it?
The greatest risk is that society not only loses its old freedoms – of speech, action, law, even of thought – but that humans evolve into a different animal. One that cannot question, and therefore survive, its own mistakes.
Historically, reformers, critics, revolutionaries and dissidents from Socrates and Jesus to Galileo, Martin Luther King and Mandela paid a high personal price. Under the nanocracy they won’t stand a chance. They will be quietly identified by AI, swept up and hushed before they can cause trouble.
A race deprived of its radicals, visionaries, thinkers, explorers and innovators will be a poor sort of humanity. A stunted, lobotomised species, more like a termite mound than a society. One devoid of the ability to self-criticise and thus escape the disastrous consequences of its own mistakes – such as climate change, global poisoning, ecological collapse or nuclear conflict. A species condemned to extinction because no-one dare question those in power.
We will become a world-wide North Korea, where dissidence of any sort is a ‘crime against the state’.
The core issue here is that, as with the atomic bomb, with quantum computers we have done the science – but have failed to do the ethics. On the assurances of their inventors, we have blithely assumed they will always be used for good – when, like nuclear technology, it is likely they will also be used for evil. And there are no checks and balances on that evil.
We have not asked the hard questions about how civil society can oversee and limit the power of the nanocracy before it has silently eaten away our freedoms.
The question we must now ask is: is it already too late?