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Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto: ‘The universal constructor could revolutionise civilisation’ | Physics

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Chiara Marletto is a research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her research is in theoretical physics – especially quantum computation, thermodynamics and information theory. Her broader interests include theoretical biology, epistemology and Italian literature. The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals attempts to forward a new foundational basis for physics. It is her first non-academic book.

You argue for a radically different approach to physics, which you call the science of can and can’t. What does that mean?
It’s a new mode of explanation. Since Newton, traditional physics has been using laws of motion, describing how objects move in space and time – what happens to an apple if you set it in motion in this or that way. With one exception: thermodynamics. The laws of thermodynamics prescribe the impossibility of perpetual motion; by doing so, they put powerful constraints on all laws of motion – those known and those yet to be known. Constructor theory follows the same logic, but it extends to a much broader context. We express all fundamental laws as constraints about what transformations are possible and impossible. This apparently simple switch is very powerful. For example, it can capture entities that traditional laws of motion cannot handle exactly: information, the physics of life, and even the mind.

For much of the past century a debate has raged in physics about how to reconcile quantum theory and general relativity. Is your book a step towards an answer to that question?
The science of can and can’t is at a deeper level than general relativity and quantum theory. It was proposed by quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch to expand on the quantum theory of computation. Like the latter, it consists of deeper physical principles – guidelines for consistently putting together different laws of motion, such as quantum theory and general relativity, while still preserving their respective core features. So it provides key new tools to help with that question. And that’s good. It’s like with Covid: you want to try all possible ways to solve the problem.

Many scientists have explored complex theories, like string theory, as a means of bridging these two apparently irreconcilable worlds. Why don’t you mention that kind of theoretical physics?
My research isn’t into finding a candidate to merge general relativity and quantum theory, so those proposals didn’t fit the focus of the book. I think one difficulty with them is that they find it hard to provide testable predictions. The science of can and can’t is helpful here, because it provides new paths to testable predictions, even in domains relevant to quantum gravity.

You talk about the “counterfactual” in the book. What do you mean by that term?
The way I think about counterfactuals is specific to physics. Counterfactual statements refer to what is possible or what is impossible, as opposed to what happens. Take Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: it’s impossible to build a perfect measurer of both position and velocity for an electron. It’s not about the fact that a perfect measurer will not happen given a particular initial condition; Heisenberg says that it can’t happen at all, no matter what the initial condition. That’s a much stronger requirement.

Would you say your book was as much about the philosophy of science as it is an argument for a particular kind of physics?
It has lots of philosophy in it. I would say the best physics arguments are very philosophical. But the book is primarily about physics.

You argue against reductionism, the idea that everything in the universe can be reduced to the dynamics of elementary particles. Is there any danger of the supernatural creeping into an anti-reductionist conception of things?
I think there’s this misconception that the only way to remove the supernatural from our explanations is to reduce everything to microscopic dynamical laws and initial conditions. That is simply one possible level of explanation. But there are other things that are also explainable in scientific terms, without appealing to the supernatural, but they can’t be reduced to that level of explanation. An example is the laws of computation: they aren’t microscopic laws of motion, but they are compatible with them. They’re not saying that computers are magic: they are physical laws that capture some phenomena in nature, at a different explanatory level. If you stick solely to microscopic laws, you will miss those regularities in nature that allow for classical and quantum computers.

What is the relationship between quantum computing and quantum theory? Which is leading the other?
Quantum theory came first, historically. But in the 80s, some scientists realised that the perplexing aspects of quantum theory actually made a lot more sense in relation to computation theory. It turned out that by studying the properties of the universal quantum computer – a theoretical development of the Turing machine – we could actually understand quantum theory much better. So I regard the theory of quantum computation as more fundamental because it captures the (counterfactual) foundations of quantum theory.

Chiara Marletto at Oxford science dept
Marletto outside the University of Oxford physics department. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

What do you imagine might be the practical applications of the science of can and can’t?
The most spectacular application is the universal constructor, a machine that can be programmed to perform not just all possible computations, but all physical transformations that are allowed by the laws of physics. It’s an all-powerful 3D printer. There could be an era, far in the future, where the universal constructor is part of our lives as computers are now; this could revolutionise our civilisation.

You’re talking about extraordinary computational power. Are you anxious about where such power might lead as we enter the age of artificial intelligence?
Yes, I think as a scientist you do have these worries. But I place great value in the knowledge that humanity can create, and what I’m hoping is that as we make progress in science, our society can also make progress to look out for potential problems that might come out of new science applications, and solve them.

How far away are we from quantum computers becoming reliable working computers?
Closer than ever, but we don’t know how far. The initial goal of building the universal quantum Turing machine has been subdivided into smaller goals of building special purpose quantum computers that can address specific tasks, one at a time – cryptography is an example. These quantum technologies are already here and can be used in all sorts of fields, from engineering to biology and medicine.

Physics is traditionally a very male-dominated field. Was that a discouraging image when you were deciding to enter the field?
When choosing physics I didn’t feel that there was a problem, because my parents empowered me. They always treated me as an individual, so the way I interact with the world is not primarily through the fact that I happen to be a woman. I’m a scientist and I’m interested in physics, that’s all. Sometimes I’ve encountered residual incredulity about the fact that there are women in physics. But if we persist at it, a culture shift will occur. Girls will then realise they can do anything they want (provided it’s allowed by the laws of physics).

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Nvidia’s Arm deal faces another blow, this time from the US FTC

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The US Federal Trade Commission wants to block Nvidia’s Arm takeover as it believes the combined company will stifle competition.

Nvidia’s contentious acquisition of UK chip designer Arm continues to face roadblocks as the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) is suing Nvidia to block the deal.

The acquisition, which is now valued at $54bn, has been fighting an uphill battle since it was first announced more than a year ago, first from the UK’s competition watchdog in January 2021 and then from the EU.

Now, the FTC wants to block the acquisition. In a statement, the FTC said Arm’s technology is a critical input that enables competition between Nvidia and its competitors in several markets.

Therefore, it believes the proposed merger would give Nvidia the ability and incentive to use its control of this technology to undermine its competitors, reducing competition and ultimately resulting in reduced product quality, reduced innovation, higher prices and less choice.

The FTC’s bureau of competition director, Holly Vedova, said the proposed deal would allow the combined company to stifle the innovation pipeline for next-generation technologies.

“Tomorrow’s technologies depend on preserving today’s competitive, cutting-edge chip markets. This proposed deal would distort Arm’s incentives in chip markets and allow the combined firm to unfairly undermine Nvidia’s rivals,” she said.

“The FTC’s lawsuit should send a strong signal that we will act aggressively to protect our critical infrastructure markets from illegal vertical mergers that have far-reaching and damaging effects on future innovations.”

Opposition from all sides

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK raised similar concerns in August when it said the deal would require an in-depth investigation.

“We’re concerned that Nvidia controlling Arm could create real problems for Nvidia’s rivals by limiting their access to key technologies, and ultimately stifling innovation across a number of important and growing markets,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.

In October, Nvidia’s planned purchase hit another roadblock from the European Commission launching an in-depth antitrust investigation into the deal at the end of October, with a decision expected by 15 March 2022.

“While Arm and Nvidia do not directly compete, Arm’s IP is an important input in products competing with those of Nvidia, for example in data centres, automotive and internet of things,” said executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager, who is responsible for competition policy.

“Our analysis shows that the acquisition of Arm by Nvidia could lead to restricted or degraded access to Arm’s IP, with distortive effects in many markets where semiconductors are used.”

Despite opposition from several watchdogs, Nvidia has been confident the deal will go through.

“Although some Arm licensees have expressed concerns or objected to the transaction, and discussions with regulators are taking longer than initially thought, we are confident in the deal and that regulators should recognise the benefits of the acquisition to Arm, its licensees and the industry,” Nvidia CFO Colette Kress said earlier this year.

And in a letter to the Financial Times a month after the deal was first announced, Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang said the company will maintain Arm’s open licensing model. “We have no intention to ‘throttle’ or ‘deny’ Arm’s supply to any customer.”

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UK government’s risk planning is weak and secretive, says Lords report | Politics

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Assessment and planning by the government relating to risks facing the UK are deficient and “veiled in secrecy”, a report has found.

The 129-page report, entitled Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, was produced by the House of Lords select committee on risk assessment and risk planning – a group appointed in October 2020.

James Arbuthnot, chair of the committee, said that while the UK’s risk assessment processes had been praised across the world before the pandemic, the impact of Covid suggested there may be problems.

“It had been advised that if there were to be a coronavirus pandemic, as a country we would suffer up to 100 deaths,” he said. “Over 140,000 deaths later, we realised that we could perhaps have been doing rather better in our assessment and our planning.”

The report – which draws on sources including oral evidence from 85 witnesses, including from the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, during 29 sessions – looked at the country’s approach to assessing and preparing for a wide range of risks, from chemical warfare to the climate crisis and severe space weather.

“If you ask, what keeps me awake at nights, it is the growing possibility of major disruption due to more and more frequent cyber-attacks,” said Lord Rees, a committee member. “And even more, I worry on a timescale of tens of years about bioterrorism, bioengineered viruses and all that, which are going to be feasible.”

The report’s conclusions point to a number of shortcomings. Among them the committee highlighted a tendency for the government to focus on immediate problems rather than preparing for the long term.

“The likelihood of major risks actually occurring during the term of the government is low,” said committee member Lord Mair, noting as a result there is no incentive to prepare for them.

The committee also flagged concerns over the National Risk Register and the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), and called for better processes to categorise risks, including looking at how vulnerable the country would be to certain threats, and better modelling of how risks can cascade – with Arbuthnot noting as an example the impact of Covid on school exams.

Among other issues the report criticised a lack of transparency by the government. “The current risk management system is veiled in an unacceptable and unnecessary level of secrecy,” the report noted, adding that in turn has hampered the country’s preparedness, with frontline responders including local government and volunteer groups struggling to access the information they need.

It is not the first time the government has been accused of secrecy over risk assessment and planning: a report on Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 government simulation of how the country would handle a fictitious “swan flu”pandemic was only made public after a copy was leaked to the Guardian.

Among other actions, the latest report recommends:

  • The establishment of an Office for Preparedness and Resilience by the government, headed by a newly created post of government chief risk officer.

  • A presumption of publication by the government, and the publication of the content of the Official-Sensitive National Security Risk Assessment except where there is a direct national security risk.

  • The publication, every two years, by the government of a brochure on risk preparedness to inform the public on topics including what to do in an emergency.

“[It’s] much better to face some of these issues, having prepared for, and practised for, and exercised for them in advance rather than doing them first in the heat of battle,” said Arbuthnot

Arbuthnot added the Covid pandemic had offered the chance to “address a public that is ready to be addressed. And people have proved that they’re up to it.”

Prof David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, and who contributed evidence to the report, welcomed its publication.

“It’s extraordinary that the National Risk Register does not get any public promotion or media coverage, and I welcome the committee’s recommendation to radically improve the communication with the public about the risks they face,” he said. “These vital issues deserve to be widely known and discussed.”

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Ubiquiti dev charged with data-breaching own employer • The Register

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A Ubiquiti developer has been charged with stealing data from the company and extortion attempts totalling $2m in what prosecutors claim was a vicious campaign to harm the firm’s share price – including allegedly planting fake press stories about the breaches.

US federal prosecutors claimed that 36-year-old Nickolas Sharp had used his “access as a trusted insider” to steal data from his employer’s AWS and GitHub instances before “posing as an anonymous hacker” to send a ransom demand of 50 Bitcoins.

The DoJ statement does not mention Sharp’s employer by name, but a Linkedin account in Sharp’s name says he worked for Ubiquiti as a cloud lead between August 2018 and March 2021, having previously worked for Amazon as a software development engineer.

In an eyebrow-raising indictment [PDF, 19 pages, non-searchable] prosecutors claim Sharp not only pwned his employer’s business from the inside but joined internal damage control efforts, and allegedly posed as a concerned whistleblower to make false claims about the company wrongly downplaying the attack’s severity, wiping $4bn off its market capitalisation.

Criminal charges were filed overnight in an American federal court against Sharp, of Portland, Oregon. The indictment valued the 50 Bitcoins at $1.9m “based on the prevailing exchange rate at the time.”

US attorney Damian Williams said in a US Justice Department statement: “As further alleged, after the FBI searched his home in connection with the theft, Sharp, now posing as an anonymous company whistle-blower, planted damaging news stories falsely claiming the theft had been by a hacker enabled by a vulnerability in the company’s computer systems.”

Sharp is alleged to have downloaded an admin key which gave him “access to other credentials within Company-1’s infrastructure” from Ubiquiti’s AWS servers at 03:16 local time on 10 December 2020, using his home internet connection. Two minutes later, that same key was used to make the AWS API call GetCallerIdentity from an IP address linked to VPN provider Surfshark – to which Sharp was a subscriber, prosecutors claimed.

Later that month, according to the prosecution, he is alleged to have set AWS logs to a one-day retention policy, effectively masking his presence.

Eleven days after the AWS naughtiness, the indictment claims, he used his own connection to log into Ubiquiti’s GitHub infrastructure. “Approximately one minute later,” alleged the indictment, Sharp used Surfshark to ssh into GitHub and clone around 155 Ubiquiti repos to his home computer.

“In one fleeting instance during the exfiltration of data,” said the indictment, “the Sharp IP address was logged making an SSH connection to use GitHub Account-1 to clone a repository.”

For the rest of that night, prosecutors said, logs showed Sharp’s personal IP alternating with a Surfshark exit node while making clone calls. Although it was not spelled out in the court filing, prosecutors appeared to be suggesting that Surfshark VPN was dropping out and revealing “the attacker’s” true IP.

Ubiquiti discovered what was happening on 28 December. Prosecutors claimed Sharp then joined the company’s internal response to the breaches.

In January 2021 Ubiquiti received a ransom note sent from a Surfshark VPN IP address demanding 25 Bitcoins. If it paid an extra 25 Bitcoins on top of that, said the note, its anonymous author would reveal a backdoor in the company’s infrastructure. This appears to be what prompted Ubiquiti to write to its customers that month alerting them to a data breach. Ubiquiti did not pay the ransom, said the indictment.

Shortly after Federal Bureau of Investigation workers raided Sharp’s home, prosecutors claim he “caused false or misleading news stories to be published about the Incident and Company-1’s disclosures and response to the Incident. Sharp identified himself as an anonymous source within Company-1 who had worked on remediating the Incident. In particular, Sharp pretended that Company-1 had been hacked by an unidentified perpetrator who maliciously acquired root administrator access [to] Company-1’s AWS accounts.”

This appears to be referencing an article by infosec blogger Brian Krebs that was published that day, on 30 March 2021. He spoke “on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Ubiquiti”, and El Reg (among many other outlets) followed up Krebs’ reporting in good faith. In that article, the “whistleblower” said he had reported Ubiquiti in to the EU Data Protection Supervisor, the political bloc’s in-house data protection body.

We have asked Krebs for comment.

Sharp is innocent unless proven guilty. He is formally charged with breaches of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, transmitting interstate threats, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. If found guilty on all counts and handed maximum, consecutive sentences on each, he faces 37 years in prison. ®

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