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Why Aren’t There More Smart Americans?
by Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

As research for his latest novel, The Quantum Spy, Washington Post reporter David Ignatius spoke with some of the world’s leading experts on quantum computing, which led him to believe that we may see a working quantum computer in the next five years.

“Initially what I would hear back from technologists was, ‘it’s fascinating if it works,’ and I hear more now ‘fascinating when it works,'” Ignatius says in Episode 291 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “There’s a sense that these problems probably can be solved.”

The downside is that a quantum computer would be the cyber warfare equivalent of a nuclear bomb, which means the U.S. government is often reluctant to let foreign scientists work on the most promising research, which can slow down progress due the lack of ‘smart Americans,’ as one character in the book puts it.

“The number of American citizens who can do very high-end research who also can easily get security clearances is limited,” Ignatius says. “The ability of our schools to produce American students at a world-class level, that’s an important national challenge.”

He says that one reason the U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to science is a political culture in Washington in which too many leaders are ignorant of and hostile to basic science. Though he believes that recent events like the March for Science are a promising development.

“When adherents of the fact-based, reason-based, educated-and-proud-of-it world begin to fight back and say, ‘No, wait a minute. We’re not going to throw climate science or any other aspect of our fact-based tradition overboard,’ that’s going in the right direction,” he says.

He believes that one thing the U.S. does have going for us is that we still produce a disproportionately high number of creative and risk-taking individuals, and that it’s important not to lose that edge moving forward. “The sweet spot for us is somehow to be rigorous enough in giving people the basics, but also loose enough in letting people experiment and be creative,” he says. “But the basic math/science education, the U.S. has got to get better at it, no question about it.”

Listen to the complete interview with David Ignatius in Episode 291 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Ignatius on quantum computing:

“I got interested in a company called D-Wave, which claims that it’s already built a quantum computer. There’s a lively debate that’s been going on for a decade about whether D-Wave’s computer really is a quantum computer or is instead a ‘quantum annealer,’ using annealing technology to, in effect, solve optimization problems. … Some companies have bought D-Wave machines and are using them for optimization-type problems, and trying to tune the D-Wave computer, which has got a lot of qubits — they’re selling machines that have more than 2,000 qubits operating — to do this approach. And from what I read — and again your listeners need to say whether they think this is right or not — the evidence is growing stronger that there are quantum effects in the annealing approach.”

David Ignatius on secrecy:

“The first person who has a computer that can apply Shor’s algorithm — which posits that you can factor any number and decrypt any encryption scheme — the first person who gets that is going to be able to essentially go through every secret message — not to mention payments transaction — and for a time have mastery of that and then operate with that knowledge, so I get why people are anxious about it. But I think in the long run It’s hard — I want to say impossible — to imagine the secret of quantum computing remaining the province of one set of wizards, one country exclusively, for very long.”

David Ignatius on Futurism:

“The Futurists were a wonderful Italian movement. Many of the sculptors whose work we see in the galleries were from that period, and they were just in love with the future, with speed. There’s a famous quote in a manifesto attributed to one of these Futurist theorists: ‘A roaring automobile is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace‘ — the ‘Winged Victory’ that you see at the Louvre. I mean, what an amazing statement. It’s very techie — it could be a Wired reader. And the idea was speed, power, dynamism, that’s the art of the future, that’s the beauty of the future. And sorry, we live in a world of roaring automobiles, I want to go to the Louvre. I want to see the Victory of Samothrace.”

David Ignatius on Agents of Innocence:

“My first novel, Agents of Innocence, had a weird life as something that CIA officers often would give out to people — whether they were new recruits or people who were expressing interest — to say, ‘This is what we actually do. This is pretty much what we think our job is.’ And I’ve had people come up to me when I was traveling around the world, they kind of shuffle up to you and say, ‘I can’t say who I am, I’m not allowed to identify myself, but I just wanted to say, when I had to tell my mom and dad what I did, I gave them your book.’ And that pleases me, because it says that these people who are actually doing these jobs out in the remote reaches say, ‘You basically got it right. This is what I do.'”