You will not be surprised to learn that the NSA is spending nearly $US80 million trying to build "a cryptologically useful quantum computer." The Washington Post just published details of the program, codenamed "Penetrating Hard Targets", based on documents supplied by Edward Snowden.
Yes, it's terrifying. But it's hardly surprising. A quantum computer is one of the holy grail of technological innovation right now, and scientists have been struggling to build one. Whereas regular computers work with digital systems to process information, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, as opposed to bits (ones and zeroes). Qubits can represent a one, a zero or anything in between, which gives the computer exponentially more power. That's obviously great when it comes to solving very difficult problems like cracking sophisticated encryption.
The problem is even the world's best scientists haven't figured out how to do this. It makes you wonder how or why the NSA thought that they could build their own quantum computer in secret, without the help of the packs of geniuses already trying to build one. Nevertheless, The Washington Post reports that some of the world's best physicists feel like the NSA has the best chance of succeeding. Because hey, if these guys can plant spyware on 50,000 networks around the world, steal the telephone data of countless people, tap into the databases of the biggest internet companies and even prevent encryption from improving, why shouldn't they be able to build this crazy futuristic computer? [WaPo]