US laying groundwork for a quantum internet

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In the 1960s the U.S. government funded a series of experiments developing techniques to shuttle information from one computer to another. Devices in single labs sprouted connections, then neighboring labs linked up. Soon the network had blossomed between research institutions across the country, setting down the roots of what would become the internet and transforming forever how people use information. Now, 60 years later, the Department of Energy is aiming to do it again. 

The Trump administration’s 2021 budget request — currently under consideration by Congress — proposes slashing the overall funding for scientific research by nearly 10% but boosts spending on quantum information science by about 20%, to $237 million. Of that, the DOE has requested $25 million to accelerate the development of a quantum internet. Such a network would leverage the counterintuitive behavior of nature’s particles to manipulate and share information in entirely new ways, with the potential to reinvent fields including cybersecurity and material science.

While the traditional internet for general use isn’t going anywhere, a quantum network would offer decisive advantages for certain applications: Researchers could use it to develop drugs and materials by simulating atomic behavior on networked quantum computers, for instance, and financial institutions and governments would benefit from next-level cybersecurity. Many countries are pursuing quantum research programs, and with the 2021 budget proposal, the Trump administration seeks to ramp up that effort. 

“That level of funding will enable us to begin to develop the groundwork for sophisticated, practical and high-impact quantum networks,” says David Awschalom, a quantum engineer at the University of Chicago. “It’s significant and extremely important.”

A quantum internet will develop in fits and starts, much like the traditional internet did and continues to do. China has already realized an early application, quantum encryption, between certain cities, but fully quantum networks spanning entire countries will take decades, experts say. Building it will require re-engineering the quantum equivalent of routers, hard drives, and computers from the ground up — foundational work already under way today. 

The science behind a quantum internet

Where the modern internet traffics in bits streaming between classical computers (a category that now includes smart phones, tablets, speakers and thermostats), a quantum internet would carry a fundamentally different unit of information known as the quantum bit, or qubit.

Bits all boil down to instances of nature’s simplest events—questions with yes or no answers. Computer chips process cat videos by stopping some electric currents while letting others flow. Hard drives store documents by locking magnets in either the up or down position.

Qubits represent a different language altogether, one based on the behavior of atoms, electrons, and other particles, objects governed by the bizarre rules of quantum mechanics. These objects lead more fluid and uncertain lives than their strait-laced counterparts in classical computing. A hard drive magnet must always point up or down, for instance, but an electron’s direction is unknowable until measured. More precisely, the electron behaves in such a way that describing its orientation requires a more complex concept — known as superposition — that goes beyond the straightforward labels of “up” or “down.”

Quantum particles can also be yoked together in a relationship called entanglement, such as when two photons (light particles) shine from the same source. Pairs of entangled particles share an intimate bond akin to the relationship between the two faces of a coin — when one face shows heads the other displays tails. Unlike a coin, however, entangled particles can travel far from each other and maintain their connection.

Scientists developing internet 2.0

Quantum information science unites these and other phenomena, promising a novel, richer way to process information — analogous to moving from 2-D to 3-D graphics, or learning to calculate with decimals instead of just whole numbers. Quantum devices fluent in nature’s native tongue could, for instance, supercharge scientists’ ability to design materials and drugs by emulating new atomic structures without having to test their properties in the lab. Entanglement, a delicate link destroyed by external tampering, could guarantee that connections between devices remain private.

But such miracles remain years to decades away. Both superposition and entanglement are fragile states most easily maintained at frigid temperatures in machines kept perfectly isolated from the chaos of the outside world. And as quantum computer scientists search for ways to extend their control over greater numbers of finicky particles, quantum internet researchers are developing the technologies required to link those collections of particles together.

The interior of a quantum computer prototype developed by IBM. While various groups race to build quantum computers, Department of Energy researchers seek ways to link them together.

IBM

Just as it did in the 1960s, the DOE is again sowing the seeds for a future network at its national labs. Beneath the suburbs of western Chicago lie 52 miles of optical fiber extending in two loops from Argonne National Laboratory. Early this year, Awschalom oversaw the system’s first successful experiments. “We created entangled states of light,” he says, “and tried to use that as a vehicle to test how entanglement works in the real world — not in a lab — going underneath the tollways of Illinois.”

Daily temperature swings cause the wires to shrink by dozens of feet, for instance, requiring careful adjustment in the timing of the pulses to compensate. This summer the team plans to extend their network with another node, bringing the neighboring Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory into the quantum fold.

Similar experiments are under way on the East Coast, too, where researchers have sent entangled photons over fiber-optic cables connecting Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York with Stony Brook University, a distance of about 11 miles. Brookhaven scientists are also testing the wireless transmission of entangled photons over a similar distance through the air. While this technique requires fair weather, according to Kerstin Kleese van Dam, the director of Brookhaven’s computational science initiative, it could someday complement networks of fiber-optic cables. “We just want to keep our options open,” she says. 

Such sending and receiving of entangled photons represent the equivalent of quantum routers, but next researchers need a quantum hard drive — a way to save the information they’re exchanging. “What we’re on the cusp of doing,” Kleese van Dam says, “is entangled memories over miles.”

When photons carry information in from the network, quantum memory will store those qubits in the form of entangled atoms, much as current hard drives use flipped magnets to hold bits. Awschalom expects the Argonne and University of Chicago groups to have working quantum memories this summer, around the same time they expand their network to Fermilab, at which point it will span 100 miles.

But that’s about as far as light can travel before growing too dim to read. Before they can grow their networks any larger, researchers will need to invent a quantum repeater — a device that boosts an atrophied signal for another 100-mile journey. Classical internet repeaters just copy the information and send out a new pulse of light, but that process breaks entanglement (a feature that makes quantum communications secure from eavesdroppers). Instead, Awschalom says, researchers have come up with a scheme to amplify the quantum signal by shuffling it into other forms without ever reading it directly. “We have some prototype quantum repeaters currently running. They’re not good enough,” he says, “but we’re learning a lot.”

Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul M. Dabbar (left) sends a pair of entangled photons along the quantum loop. Also shown are Argonne scientist David Awschalom (center) and Argonne Laboratory Director Paul Kearns.

Argonne National Laboratory

And if Congress approves the quantum information science line in the 2021 budget, researchers like Awschalom and Kleese van Dam will learn a lot more. Additional funding for their experiments could lay the foundations for someday extending their local links into a country-wide network. “There’s a long-term vision to connect all the national labs, coast to coast,” says Paul Dabbar, the DOE’s Under Secretary for Science.

China’s lead in quantum networking

In some senses the U.S. trails other countries in quantum networking. China, for example, has completed a 1,200-mile backbone linking Beijing and Shanghai that banks and other companies are already using for nearly perfectly secure encryption. But the race for a fully featured quantum internet is more marathon than sprint, and China has passed only the first milestone. Kleese van Dam points out that without quantum repeaters, this network relies on a few dozen “trusted” nodes — Achilles’ heels that temporarily put the quantum magic on pause while the qubits are shoved through bit-based bottlenecks. She’s holding out for truly secure end-to-end communication. “What we’re planning to do goes way beyond what China is doing,” she says.

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Researchers ultimately envision a whole quantum ecosystem of computers, memories, and repeaters all speaking the same language of superposition and entanglement, with nary a bit in sight. “It’s like a big stew where everything has to be kept quantum mechanical,” Awschalom says. “You don’t want to go to the classical world at all.”

After immediate applications such as unbreakable encryptions, he speculates that such a network could also lead to seismic sensors capable of logging the vibration of the planet at the atomic level, but says that the biggest consequences will likely be the ones no one sees coming. He compares the current state of the field to when electrical engineers developed the first transistors and initially used them to improve hearing aids, completely unaware that they were setting off down a path that would someday bring social media and video conferencing.

As researchers at Brookhaven, Argonne, and many other institutions tinker with the quantum equivalent of transistors, but they can’t help but wonder what the quantum analog of video chat will be. “It’s clear there’s a lot of promise. It’s going to move quickly,” Awschalom says. “But the most exciting part is that we don’t know exactly where it’s going to go.”

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