Is There a Quantum Internet?

Is There a Quantum Internet?

Quantum computing is still in its early days, but the domain is rapidly advancing thanks to the interest of massive corporations as well as global governments. One of the biggest innovations in the Quantum Internet field is the ability to teleport quantum data between multiple nodes. So, does this mean that the age of the quantum internet has arrived?

There is no quantum internet right now, but the first quantum networks have been established. Scientists are working on ways to expand quantum networks and turn them into a global quantum internet. Once they devise a successful and efficient system, people will have access to the quantum internet.

This article provides a comprehensive overview of the various advancements and challenges in quantum communication. By the end, you should have a decent idea about the current state of the quantum internet, different challenges in the field, and expected timeframe for when it’ll become available to the public, and the various benefits and advantages it entails.

What Is the Quantum Internet and How Would It Work?

The quantum internet will be a global network for distributing quantum bits (qubits) between quantum computers or machines spread across vast distances. The quantum internet will leverage the quantum phenomena of entanglement for distributing information across connected devices.

You might know from our article “Is It Possible To Buy a Quantum Computer?” that quantum computers use quantum bits or qubits instead of the simple “bits” used by classical computers. 

Now, one of the properties of a qubit is that it can be entangled with another. This allows both entangled qubits to experience a shared state where if you measure the state of one qubit, you’ll instantly know the state of the other qubit. The best part is that this phenomenon works regardless of the distance between the two entangled qubits.

So, as you can imagine, entanglement can be used to quickly send and receive information from the farthest corners of the world. Quantum particles can be entangled across the universe theoretically. 

As such, scientists have already harnessed the power of quantum entanglement in developing quantum computers which are being used in the creation of the quantum internet.

But How Do You Create a Quantum Internet? 

To create a quantum internet in the simplest of terms, first, you’ll need to entangle a qubit with a photon. None of this was easy to figure out in the beginning, but once it was, quantum physicists do this all the time now, and the process is relatively straightforward.

Next, one way is to take two photons entangled with two different qubits and measure the photons together. This will entangle the qubits even though they never came into contact and are positioned far away from each other.

This is essentially the working principle of the quantum internet.

Now, to entangle the qubits, you can send the photons down a fiber optic cable. This configuration works but is limited to systems that are only a few tens of miles long. If the quantum bits you wish to entangle are very far away, the photons can get lost while traveling down the fiber optic cable, a phenomenon known as light attenuation

One way to address this problem is by installing relay stations called quantum repeaters – a quantum computer with a simple job to relay entanglement. In theory, installing multiple quantum repeaters should solve the light attenuation problem and build a truly global quantum internet.

But as you can imagine, we’ll likely need millions upon millions of quantum repeaters spread across the globe to turn this into a reality.

Are Quantum Repeaters the Best Way Forward with the Quantum Internet?

Are Quantum Repeaters the Best Way Forward with the Quantum Internet?
Some of the members of China’s quantum technology team with Jian-Wei Pan and Chaoyang Lu.

Chinese scientists established the world’s first integrated quantum communication network, as reported by Phys.Org on January 6, 2021. This network combined over 700 optical fibers on the ground with two ground-to-satellite links to achieve quantum key distribution with a distance of over 2858 miles for users across China.

China prefers to use sophisticated lasers stationed on orbiting satellites and use them to fire photons at qubits to entangle them. However, this may only shift the problem from installing millions of quantum repeaters to deploying thousands of laser-equipped satellites.

China also implemented a 46-node quantum metropolitan area network utilizing satellite links, as reported by Nature on September 7, 2021.

The U.S. Department of Energy Quantum Internet 

The U.S. Department of Energy Quantum Internet 
In this photo by Robert Kozloff, University of Chicago researchers work in a clean room at the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, where scientists make and test new quantum technology.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled its Quantum Internet Blueprint on July 23, 2020. The U.S. DoE is funding numerous projects to provide the infrastructure for the Quantum Internet.

Scientists at the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering released a statement on June 16, 2022. The statement describes how they have expanded and activated a quantum network and security trials with Toshiba working on a 124-mile quantum network.

The University of Chicago’s quantum network is now running quantum security protocols using technology provided by Toshiba and the Argonne National Laboratory’s quantum loop. This new optic cable network distributes quantum keys at speeds of over 80,000 quantum bits per second between Chicago and its western suburbs.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is another organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop new technology required to build a Quantum Internet, as reported by HPC Wire in February of 2022.

The Oak Ridge Team plans to develop systems for quantum memory capabilities, photon sources, quantum data using satellites, quantum teleportation, and utilization of frequency processors. 

Teleportation of Quantum Data Within a Node Network

As we have discussed, there is not a quantum internet yet, but scientists are working diligently around the world to create one. The teleportation of quantum data is extremely important to the Quantum Internet because it demonstrates the ability to supersede the ability of fiber optic cables in traditional and quantum networks.

Unfortunately, using typical internet cable or fiber optics cables, as many scientists are doing, ultimately may not be the optimum approach for a complete quantum internet.

Sending light through an optical internet fiber cable has too much loss, again, light attenuation. Qubit information as it moves on a quantum network is not static, and once it is lost, it is lost forever. 

For the purpose of explanation, just as we use cellular radio frequency signals with our smartphones and cell towers, teleportation, although completely different, is a similar concept in ways of perception getting something from one point to another without wires.

An article from Nature published May 25, 2022, titled ”Qubit teleportation between non-neighboring nodes in a quantum network,” shows how QuTech researchers succeeded for the first time in teleporting quantum information between three nodes of a rudimentary quantum network. 

Alice, Bob, and Charlie

Alice, Bob, and Charlie
QuTech description of teleporting a qubit between non-neighboring nodes of a quantum network.

Teleporting a qubit between non-neighboring nodes of a quantum network.

In this network scenario by QuTech, there are three network nodes known as Alice (A), Bob (B), and Charlie (C). These network nodes are connected to optical fiber cable in a line configuration. 

Each configuration has a communication qubit (purple) that enables entanglement generation with its neighboring node. Bob and Charlie contain a memory qubit (yellow). 

The steps of the QuTech teleportation protocol. 

  1. The teleporter is readied by establishing entanglement between Alice and Charlie using entanglement swapping protocol on Bob, followed by swapping the state at Charlie to the memory qubit. 
  2. The qubit state to be teleported is prepared on the communication qubit on Charlie. 
  3. A Bell-state measurement (BSM) is performed on Charlie’s qubits, and the outcome is communicated to Alice over a classical channel. Dependent on this outcome, Alice applies a quantum gate to obtain the teleported qubit state.

Quantum Internet: Current Progress and Challenges

Quantum Internet Current Progress and Challenges
Scientist making adjustments on quantum optics in the lab.

So as you can see, there are multiple potential ways of building a quantum internet. However, it’s taking time to decipher which approach will be the most efficient, economical, scalable, and maintainable in the long run.

The quantum internet promises to usher in a slew of significant advancements. These are mostly tethered around two points – an “unhackable” communication system and access to massive computational power. 

As a result, countries that’ll be the first to build a quantum internet will enjoy significant geopolitical advantages. The same applies to private companies and organizations. 

This is why there’s such a huge push from governments and corporations worldwide to develop a quantum internet.

So, Why is it Still Taking So Long?

So, Why is it Still Taking So Long

Well, scientists already have an idea of how the quantum internet will work, and they also have a proof of concept. However, they are yet to devise an efficient and functional system that’ll make the quantum internet as large-scale and readily accessible as the standard or classical internet. 

As we described above, the Netherlands, China, and the United States are making great progress with quantum internet discoveries. Meanwhile, in the EU, the Quantum Internet Alliance demonstrated quantum entanglement over 31 miles.

This is undoubtedly impressive but a far cry from what’s necessary to build a true, global quantum internet. The main hurdle between today’s localized quantum networks and tomorrow’s globalized quantum internet is scaling the present infrastructure. However, it’s much easier said than done.

Standardized Quantum Internet Communication System

Currently, scientists can connect multiple end-points of a quantum system separated over relatively short distances in relation to the current world internet. But, for a true quantum internet to exist, multiple senders and receivers must be able to connect with one another, and that too, on a global scale. 

Moreover, the whole world must also settle on a new standardized quantum communication system. Unfortunately, this is currently not the case. 

China is marching forward with satellite-based quantum networking, whereas the United States is focusing on optical fiber. The Netherlands is moving forward with teleportation studies and experiments, and all three countries would ultimately prefer this method.

Suppose countries choose different technologies to back up their local quantum network. In that case, there needs to be an even more complicated infrastructure to facilitate communication between users of two different countries using different quantum internet technologies.

As such, the main challenge in front of a truly global quantum internet is figuring out the proper standardized infrastructure to back it and then deploying it on a global scale.

When Will Scientists Develop the Quantum Internet?

When Will Scientists Develop the Quantum Internet
Quantum Internet Project Engineer discussing software with her team.

Scientists could develop the quantum internet within the next decade, but it can take longer. That said, governments and multinational organizations are taking great innovative strides to make quantum internet a reality, and that too, as fast as possible.

Scientists are trying to figure out the best and most efficient way to build a quantum internet. Once they develop a secure, unhackable quantum communication system that is sustainable, economical, and scalable for sending quantum information across the globe, the quantum internet will become a reality.

As we discuss in our article “What Are the Benefits of Quantum Computing for Businesses?” governments and businesses worldwide are pouring tons of money into the development of the quantum internet. The interest is huge, and that should propel new advancements in the field.

So, how long will it take till a global quantum internet becomes a reality?

Dr. Jian-Wei Pan, university administrator and professor of physics at the University of Science and Technology of China, is one of the more optimistic quantum physicists working on the quantum internet. According to him, a global quantum internet is a possibility by 2030.

However, not everyone is as hopeful as Dr. Pan, and barely any scientist wants to comment on a timeframe when a global quantum internet will become a reality, especially one that will replace our classical internet. 

Quantum Internet Security

Quantum Internet Security

In all likelihood, the beginnings of the quantum internet will exist and work beside and in conjunction with our current internet focusing on additional security and computational power.

As we discuss in our article “Does Quantum Computing Use Binary Systems?” we describe the current internet, the data, and the keys that are used are sent as classical bits. These classical computer data bits are digital and represent 1s and 0s, and that is what makes them vulnerable to hackers.

The global cost of cybercrime topped $6 trillion in 2021 and is projected to reach $10.5 Trillion annually by 2025, according to Cybercrime Magazine. That is bigger than most of the world’s economies.

People on the Dark Web and hackers can steal your data without leaving a trace. Every day they are becoming better at overcoming current encryption barriers by getting to people and around internet security measures.

The benefit of quantum internet cybersecurity and quantum encryption. is because when Qubits are observed in their quantum state, they “collapse” to either a 1 or 0. This means that hackers cannot try to steal data with qubits without leaving behind signs of activity.

Final Thoughts

Final thoughts Is there a quantum internet
Laser work in a quantum optics lab.

Currently, a quantum network allows two or more quantum systems to communicate with one another, sending quantum information back and forth over a short distance. 

Expanding this system to allocate more users spread throughout the globe will signify the advent of the quantum internet. 

The main obstacle in achieving this is figuring out a scalable, economical, and efficient infrastructure that’ll power the quantum internet and then developing and deploying it across the globe.

References:

John Mortensen

I am a project manager, tech writer, and science enthusiast who loves to study the latest technology, such as AI, comedy, quantum computers, smartphones, headphones, and software.

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