How Close Are We to the Quantum Internet?

“Spooky action at a distance” is the way Einstein described quantum mechanics. This difficult and baffling aspect of physics may become the most secure way to transmit data in the future. Quantum scientists are uncovering ways to use quantum mechanics to create a more secure internet, but will it ever exist on a grand scale?

The Concept of a Quantum Internet

What most of us know about quantum mechanics is enough to fill a teaspoon, so when imagining a quantum internet, we probably think about science fiction and not real life. The quantum internet is a new way to transmit data using quantum mechanics, and quantum physicists say it’s a much safer way to transport data.

How does quantum mechanics translate to sending data from one computer to another? It has to do with quantum entanglement, a rather confusing process that involves two particles behaving like a single particle, even if they’re separated by a great distance.

According to Nature, quantum “teleportation”, which uses quantum channels to transmit particles (or information), including an already entangled particle, is another necessary aspect of the quantum internet. If this isn’t confusing enough, throw in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which basically means scientists can never know with absolute certainty what a particle is going to do.

How Would the Quantum Internet Work?

Thanks to discoveries in quantum mechanics over the last two decades, scientists know how the quantum internet would have to work. But it’s complicated. Quantum computers rely on nodes entangled with each other to transmit information. When you only have a few computers, entangling the nodes isn’t as daunting a task as it would be entangling all the nodes of any computer that wants to use the quantum internet. See the problem?

That being said, the MIT Technology Review reported back in 2013 that a government lab has been successfully using the quantum internet on a small scale. Though lots of questions still need to be answered, the quantum internet works in practical terms, thanks to Los Alamos National Labs. Unfortunately, the Los Alamos National Labs technique involved lengths of fiber that only connected two computers at once. It’s secure, but it’s not very scalable.

What Needs to Happen to Achieve the Quantum Internet

Scientists at the University of Vienna have been working on quantum entanglement and teleportation for decades, and in 1997 were the first to teleport photons. Today, this team, headed by Anton Zeilinger, has made more breakthroughs that could lead to the quantum internet, including entanglement swapping and teleporting something called twisted light.

The complexities of the quantum internet mean it may happen in tandem with the current internet. To transmit ordinary data, businesses could use the regular internet. Then, to transmit sensitive or private data, businesses could switch to secure quantum channels.

For now, the quantum internet will remain in laboratories. One of the biggest problems the quantum internet faces is growing it to a size that makes it practical to use, even if just by governments and big businesses. But the exciting possibility is here, ready to someday become a reality.

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