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Issue #803: December 11-17, 2022

Q: How much surge protection (joules) is recommended for computers?  What is recommended, surge protection or power conditioning?

– Jim A.
Navarre, Florida

A:  To protect any expensive device, whether it be a TV, game console, or computer, a surge protector with a rating over 2,000 joules is typically recommended.  You can find the ratings on the packaging of any given surge protector, or for more complete information, manufacturers’ websites.

Power conditioning is a whole other technology, that uses sophisticated equipment to keep the electricity supplied to your equipment at the proper voltage.  In this Geek’s opinion, unless you invest in a multi-thousands of dollars whole-house system, you’re fighting a losing battle, as the individual components you’d have to buy to protect your equipment cost about as much as just repairing or replacing the equipment if it becomes damaged.

 Q: Quantum computers have been in the news a lot lately. One of the latest announcements has been IBM’s 433-qubit Osprey quantum processor. While the progress can be good news, eventually leading to remarkable discoveries that could improve our lives, there is a bad side as well. It could create a lot of problems, allowing for rapidly cracking encrypted files, and even breaking Bitcoin. Granted, a lot of progress needs to be made to get to that point. Are you nervous about this? Can you think of any steps that computer users should be taking right now to guard against this?

– Terry W.
Niceville, Florida

A:  Yes, I can think of a few.  But I don’t think it’s time to panic quite yet.  Caution readers!  Geeky material ahead, that may include (*GASP*) math!  Proceed with caution.

To even begin to understand this, one has to have at least a working grasp of the term qubit that Terry mentioned.  This is a Quantum BIT – the quantum equivalent of a BIT (binary digit) in a so-called regular computer.  As Terry mentioned, the new IBM Osprey has 433 physical qubits.  However, researchers have calculated that it would take 317×10^6 physical qubits to break the 256-bit elliptic curve encryption of keys in the Bitcoin network within one hour.  Even given an entire day, it would require 13×10^6 physical qubits, and probably long before that, the attempt would be detected and halted.  To quote the article from which I gleaned this information: “In other words: no time soon.”  I believe as the ability to quickly or easily crack encryption begins to become a reality, newer and tougher-to-crack encryption types will be invented to stay ahead of the game.

To me, we have far more to be concerned with in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI), and computer-generated imagery (CGI).  You may have heard about a new AI called ChatGPT that recently went public.  According to OpenAI, the research team behind the effort, “We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT which interacts in a conversational way. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.”  If you remember the old Eliza application, this is a lot like it, only thoroughly modernized, and on steroids.  The ability to hold conversations with it may not sound like much until you hear what people are doing with it.  One fascinating ability it has is that it can write original poetry about any topic you choose.  That’s a level of creativity previously only found in the human brain.  There’s a lot more that I don’t have room to write about.  But most importantly, OpenAI is making this technology available to the world via an application programming interface (API) that will allow any developer to tap into this capability.  One can only guess what people will create with it.

I mentioned CGI above.  You see examples of it all the time on TV and in movies.  When you immerse yourself in such entertainment these days, it is virtually impossible to tell what is real and what’s not.  There exists right now, the technology to make videos that feature people who are no longer among the living.  It’s also possible to swap faces in existing videos.  These are often referred to as DeepFakes.  Can you imagine the mass-confusion when these become so sophisticated as to be indistinguishable from real videos?  How about a fake of a politician going on TV and confessing to crimes?  How about blackmailing someone with a fake tape of them having an affair, using drugs, or committing a murder?  To me, these are the things to worry about as technology marches forward, because there is no ability to improve an algorithm to counteract them, like we can to combat cracking encryption.

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