Scientists are testing a hack-proof quantum internet

Perhaps the secret to a safer, more powerful, and potentially hacker-free Internet lies in a closet fit for brooms and mops in a basement in the city of Chicago.


The cubicle, literally in the middle of a University of Chicago lab, contains a thin rack of hardware that discretely fires quantum particles over a network of fiber optics.

And what is the purpose? Using the smallest natural objects to exchange information under unbreakable cryptography and eventually connecting a network of quantum computers capable of monstrous large calculations.

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The United States, China and other countries are racing to harness the properties of quantum particles to process information in powerful new ways, and the technology can offer major economic and national security advantages to countries that master it.

Quantum research is so important to the future of the Internet that it is attracting new federal funding, including the Chips and Science Act. That’s because, if successful, the quantum internet could protect financial transactions and health data, preventing identity theft and other types of hacking.

Importantly, just last week three physicists shared the Nobel Prize for quantum research that helped pave the way for this future Internet.

Quantum research still has many hurdles to overcome before it reaches widespread use. But banks, healthcare companies and others are starting to experiment with the quantum internet.

Some industries are also tinkering with early-stage quantum computers to see if they can solve problems that current computers can’t, such as discovering new drugs to treat still-intractable diseases.

Grant Smith, a graduate student on the University of Chicago’s quantum research team, said it’s too early to imagine all the potential applications.

“When people built the first rudimentary Internets by connecting research-level computers and universities and national labs, they couldn’t foresee e-commerce,” he said during a recent visit to university labs.

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The study of quantum physics began in the early 20th century, when scientists discovered that the smallest objects in the universe, atoms and subatomic particles, behave differently from matter in the large-scale world, such as appearing to be in several places at once.

But now research is bringing scientists closer together to harness more of the unusual benefits of the quantum world. David Awschalom, a professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and leader of the quantum team, calls this “the second quantum revolution.”

The field is “trying to engineer the way nature behaves at its most fundamental level for our world and harness those behaviors for new technologies and applications,” he said.

Existing computers and communications networks store, process and transmit information by breaking it down into long streams of bits, which are usually electrical or optical pulses, representing zero or one.

Quantum particles, also known as quantum bits or qubits, can exist as zeros and ones at the same time, or anywhere in between, a flexibility known as “superposition” that allows them to process information in new ways.

Quantum bits can also exhibit “entanglement,” where two or more particles are linked and mirror each other exactly, even when separated by large physical distances. Albert Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”

The team in Chicago is using photons – which are quantum particles of light – to send encryption keys over the network, to see how well they travel through fibre.

Quantum particles are extremely sensitive and have a tendency to malfunction at the slightest disturbance, such as a small vibration or temperature change, so sending them over long distances in the real world is still a challenge.

At the university, hardware made by the Japanese company Toshiba emits pairs of entangled photons and sends one of each pair over a network to Argonne, 30 miles away in Lemont, Illinois.

Anyone trying to break into the network to intercept the key will fail, Awschalom said, because the laws of quantum mechanics say that any attempt to observe particles in a quantum state automatically alters the particles and destroys the information being transmitted. It also warns the sender and receiver about the spying attempt. This is one of the reasons why scientists believe the technology is so safe and promising.

“There are enormous technical difficulties to overcome, but you could argue that it could become as important as the technological revolution of the 20th century that gave us the laser, the transistor and the atomic clock, and thus GPS and the Internet.” Steven Girvin, professor of physics at Yale, said of recent breakthroughs in quantum technology.

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In another nearby lab, Awschalom and his colleagues are trying to develop new devices to help photons carry information over longer distances.

One of the problems they’re trying to solve: As tiny particles of light travel through the mesh’s glass fibers, imperfections in the glass cause the light to weaken after a certain distance. So researchers are trying to develop devices that can capture and store information from light particles as they travel and then send the information back with a new particle.

The goal is, one day, to connect all those test benches via fiber optic and satellite links, into an initial quantum internet that could span the United States and eventually the world.

As the network grows, it could be used not only to send encrypted information, but also to connect quantum computers to increase their processing power, in the same way that the cloud works for today’s computers.

“The idea of ​​a quantum internet is something that is in the process of being born,” Smith said.

Via: The Washington Post

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