CHICAGO — The key to a more robust and secure internet that might be impossible to hack could be in a basement closet that looks like it’s meant for brooms and mops.
In the bowels of a lab at the University of Chicago, a 3-foot-wide cubby holds a slim hardware rack that sends quantum particles into a fibre-optic network. The goal is to use minor things in nature to share information in a way that can’t be broken. Eventually, they want to connect a network of quantum computers that can do calculations that are hard to imagine.
Equipment Closet LL211A looks simple, but it is at the forefront of one of the most critical technology competitions in the world. The United States, China, and other countries are all trying to figure out how to use the strange properties of quantum particles to process information in powerful new ways. This technology could give the government that masters its economic and national security benefits.
Quantum research is so essential to the future of the internet that the government is giving it more money, including through the Chips and Science Act, which was just passed. This is because, if it works, the quantum internet could protect financial transactions and health care information, stop identity theft and stop hackers from hostile states in their tracks.
Just last week, three physicists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on quantum research, which helped pave the way for the internet of the future. Quantum research still has a long way to go before most people can use it. But banks, hospitals, and other businesses are starting to test the quantum internet.
Some industries are also experimenting with early quantum computers to see if they could solve problems that current computers can’t, like finding new drugs to treat diseases that can’t be cured. Grant Smith, a graduate student on the University of Chicago’s quantum research team, said it’s too early to think of all the possible uses.
During a recent tour of the university’s labs, he said, “When the first internet was built to connect research-level computers to universities and national labs, no one could have imagined e-commerce.”
Quantum physics started in the early 20th century when scientists found that atoms and subatomic particles, minor things in the universe, behave in ways that are different from how big things behave, like appearing to be in more than one place at once.
People call these discoveries the “first quantum revolution,” leading to new technologies like lasers and the atomic clock. But new research is getting scientists closer to using more of the strange powers of the quantum world. David Awschalom, the leader of the quantum team and a professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, calls this the second quantum revolution.
He said that the field tries to “engineer” how nature works at its most basic level in our world and uses these basic rules to make new technologies and applications. Existing computers and communication networks store, process, and send information as lengthy streams of bits, which are electrical or optical pulses representing zero or one.
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Quantum particles, or qubits, can exist as zeros and ones simultaneously or in any position. This “superposition” allows them to process information in new ways. Physicists compare them to a spinning coin with heads and tails.
Quantum bits can display “entanglement,” where two or more particles are hopelessly coupled and reflect each other even when separated. Einstein dubbed it “spooky action at a distance.”
The closet hardware connects to a 124-mile fibre-optic network from the university’s campus on Chicago’s South Side to two federally sponsored facilities in the western suburbs cooperating on the project.
The team uses photons to send encryption keys around the network to see how well they travel through fibres under motorways, bridges, and toll booths. Quantum particles are sensitive and can malfunction at the slightest vibration or temperature change, making long-distance transport difficult.
Toshiba machinery in the university’s basement closet feeds entangled photons to Argonne, 30 miles distant in Lemont, Ill. Photon pairs encode a key. Entangled pairings are in sync. Awschalom: “You can perceive them as one piece of knowledge.”
Heremans and his colleagues are developing new technologies and materials to enable photons to transport quantum information further. He nodded towards a reactor generating synthetic diamonds at a glacial pace of nanometers per hour.
The lab bought a second reactor to generate diamonds quicker using federal money from the National Quantum Initiative Act. President Biden signed the Chips and Science Act in August to boost quantum research.
Heremans showed a Toshiba machine similar to the one in Chicago. A mess of colourful wires transports signals to and from the network. After leaving the facility, loops under an Ikea and Buffalo Wild Wings before heading to the university and Fermilab.
Boston, New York, Maryland, and Arizona have similar testbeds. Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and China have experimental networks. The idea is to connect all of these testbeds through fibre and satellite into a global quantum internet. As the web grows, it might connect quantum computers to boost their computing capability, as the cloud does for existing computers.
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