Scientists just laid the cornerstone of our quantum internet future

Today’s Internet is not the last frontier of communication. Physicists have developed a new method of communication that allows information to be sent over what’s called a “quantum internet,” a network of quantum devices that will deliver hypersecure communications, ultra-precise timekeeping, and dozens of other applications that scientists can’t even begin to anticipate. Even trying is like expecting Alan Turing to predict TikTok.

Scientists from QuTech – a collaboration between Delft University of Technology and the Dutch organization for applied scientific research that built the world’s first quantum network last year – published the breakthrough in an article in the journal Nature On Wednesday. The team successfully sent quantum information between two non-neighboring nodes (think: quantum routers) using a concept that has long been debated by quantum physicists and quantum physicists star trek Fans alike: teleportation.

“Teleportation is like what you see in science fiction,” says the paper’s co-author Ronald Hanson Vice versa. Hanson is an experimental physicist, co-founder of QuTech and Distinguished Professor at Delft University of Technology. “The information disappears on my side and appears on your side, but it doesn’t move between us… It’s an extremely powerful way of sending information.”

This ability to teleport essentially forms a quantum network – the deep physics that holds it all together. Without the ability to transmit information via teleportation, the quantum internet would not be possible. However, this “teleportation” isn’t exactly like wiping out Captain Kirk’s atoms only to have them rematerialize on a newly discovered M-class planet. We’re not talking about organic matter here, we’re talking about information, or more specifically, quantum bits (or qubits).

Today’s Internet uses bits, a combination of 0 and 1, to form everything online – including this website. Qubits are zeros and ones that exist simultaneously in a state called “superposition,” which allows quantum computers to solve complex mathematical problems in minutes that would take a powerful supercomputer 10,000 years to solve.

The quantum internet is also inherently secure, as qubits rely on the physical properties of photons rather than vulnerable code, so they cannot be intercepted. In other words, it is nearly impossible to hack quantum messages.

So where does teleportation fit in? To realize the full potential of quantum computers, they need to be networked together, but qubits cannot be sent in the same way as traditional bits. As bits travel via light (fiber optic cables) or radio waves, photons carrying qubits are quickly dissipated using the same methods. And because qubits can’t be amplified or duplicated (“cloned,” as quantum physicists call it), the signal can’t be amplified either. So scientists have found another way to send quantum information, using teleportation, brought to you all by the mysterious phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.

Quantum entanglement is when two particles are intrinsically linked, so when you read one you instantly know the state of the other – whether it’s in the next space or the next galaxy. This fundamental quantum principle is such a mystery that even Albert Einstein, a world-class physicist and all-around smart guy, threw up his hands and simply called it “creepy action at a distance.” But because of this “creepy action,” if a network could establish entanglement over long distances, say from the US to China, qubits could teleport without losing accuracy.

“The whole process of teleportation doesn’t have a classic analog…there’s no such thing,” says Hanson. “It’s the entanglement that makes this whole process possible.”

The workings of quantum teleportation are simultaneously simple and complex (as only quantum mechanics can be), and this study shows how teleportation works in a miniature quantum internet. In the study, QuTech scientists teleported information between three nodes. Information was sent from Node C or Charlie to another point called Node A or Alice. To do this, the researchers used an intermediary, Node B or Bob.

First, Alice and Bob entangle their quantum processors via an optical cable, and Bob stores this entangled state in a so-called “memory qubit”. Bob then entangles with Charlie, and using what QuTech calls a “quantum mechanical sleight of hand,” Bob performs a special measurement on his processor and swaps his entanglement with Charlie for the Alice entanglement stored on his storage qubit is. Alice and Charlie now share an entangled state, but that’s not the end of the process – Scotty just warmed up the teleporter.

Charlie then prepares the quantum bit to be teleported and finally carries out a joint measurement with Alice using the message and its entangled state. This is where the true power of the quantum internet comes into play. When the information on Charlie’s page disappears, it immediately appears on Alice’s page. After some quantum decoding, the information is now available.

While the quantum internet will perform technological marvels impossible by today’s standards, it’s unlikely that all of our laptops and iPhones will one day simply become “quantum.”

“Most people don’t believe that quantum internet will replace the internet,” says Hanson. Instead, he envisions a future where our classical internet and the quantum internet work together—with quantum teleporters on standby, for example, when you need to send a particularly secure communication or when you are dealing with other highly sensitive information. But streaming your latest Netflix binge will probably still be a chore for your standard internet.

Although the QuTech study only focused on a simple three-node network, Hanson says the idea can be expanded to include as many nodes as needed. The next phase of research is to test the method outside of the lab and teleport information further distances. It is just the beginning of the process of scaling the technology that will power the age of quantum communications. Scientists just laid the cornerstone of our quantum internet future

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