Quantum technologies are gaining speed in their development, with the U.S. government for example investing heavily in its research. Reflecting that momentum, earlier this week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hosted a Quantum Internet Forum, during which it became clear it’s a phenomenon that extends far past geographic borders.
A Global Quantum Network
David Awschalom, of the University of Chicago’s Department of Physics, referred to the Department of Energy (DoE)’s summer announcement of America’s Blueprint for Quantum Internet in his keynote speech. The idea is to connect all 17 DoE national laboratories as its backbone, but that would be just a start.
“We are not alone in this. This is a global effort. You look around the world and there are incredibly exciting efforts in the United Kingdom, Canada, in Europe, in Israel, in Japan, Korea, Russia, Germany, Singapore, India, France. It’s fantastic,” he said, concluding by referring to the potential of a global quantum network.
Alex Cronin, Senior Quantum Coordinator for the National Quantum Coordination Office at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called it too soon to put up barriers. Speaking during the third and final panel of the event, entitled “Global Landscape, Funding, and Workforce Needs”, he referred to it more as a time for fundamental science.
“The exciting developments and the discovery of [Quantum Information Science; QIS] approaches and technologies are at such an early stage that we really need to keep open-science approaches that respect the rigorous and fair interactions that are characterised by the academic community and having people and ideas freely exchange can benefit all of us in this area,” he said.
Security a High Priority
Outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai delivered an opening address at the virtual event. In prepared remarks, he clarified that quantum computing and communications are technologies that are still more than a decade off from widespread adoption.
“That should not obscure this technology’s upsides. For instance, when we think about the possible benefits of the quantum internet, the first big advancements we are likely to see involve network security. A quantum secure communications link could offer foolproof security for data communications,” he said.
Security was a recurring theme throughout the event. Taking part in the second panel, entitled “Challenges, Opportunities, and Roadmaps”, Thaddeus Ladd, Senior Scientist at research centre HRL Laboratories, drew a connection to current events, with United States government agencies having been recently hacked.
“[Network security] is a major problem facing the 21st century and it manifests as the ability to connect to certain meetings [like] many other problems as you’re seeing in the news, and the quantum network is possibly one component of a series of solutions to improve cybersecurity in the U.S.”
Ladd acknowledged widespread commercial development is relatively far away, although he cited applications in the government and banking sectors. JPMorgan Chase Head of Research and Engineering Marco Pistoia actually took part in the first panel, entitled “The Quantum Internet: Theory and Applications”. He cited Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), a secure communication method that panelists agreed was poised to become an early use case of the technology, as being front and center to the bank’s future plans.
“There is an enormous amount of infrastructure around security for a bank because the data that we deal with is extremely sensitive,” he said. “It is financial data, data of customers. You can imagine credit-card numbers, social-security numbers, and things like that. There are several transactions that are extremely sensitive. For this type of transaction, we are already looking at [QKD] [for the future].”
Comparing Classical and Quantum Spaces
Participating in the second panel, Duncan Earl, President and CTO of cryptography solutions provider Qubitekk, asserted his belief that the security component, when approached correctly, could become a springboard toward commercialisation.
“When I say ‘approach in the right way,’ I think the federal government should be investing in programs to demonstrate [QKD] or secure quantum networks that are based on entanglement,” he said of the key property of quantum computing, which describes non-classical correlations between subsystems. “We just need to be very careful that we don’t lose sight of the end goal. Security is a stepping-stone to this larger quantum network. It isn’t the end goal, or at least that’s what I would argue.”
Earl referred to progress in China in the sector, saying it was taking a similar approach, with a Chinese quantum satellite recently establishing an ultrasecure link between two ground stations more than 1,000 km apart. During the first panel, Paul G. Kwiat, who leads a quantum information group at the University Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also referred to the Chinese satellite as a basis for explaining the difference between wireless communication in quantum and classical spaces.
Kwiat explained how in the classical space, protons are effectively sent everywhere to establish a signal. The quantum case requires targeted alignments, but carries with it enormous benefits.
“[China] estimated when they distributed entanglement between two base stations, if they tried true fibre, they would have been poorer by I think 10 orders of magnitude. So, rates can just be much higher in a free-space application,” he said. “I think for any kind of long distances like transcontinental, transatlantic, definitely satellites are going to be the only option probably for at least 20 years if not going out further than that.”
Co-panelist Saikat Guha, an Associate Professor of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, called himself an optimist with regard to quantum repeaters, suggesting they could be developed within the next decade. Awschalom had earlier described repeaters as technology that “can take the signal, read it, amplify it, and repeat it from station to station to station to send quantum signals from here to Chicago to California or to New York.” Guha nevertheless supported Kwiat in his view on intercontinental links, citing cold-temperature requirements for current leading quantum-memory technologies.
“I don’t know when we will be able to actually lay fibre cables retrofitted with quantum repeaters underneath the oceans. That’s a much, much longer-term technology than building a ground-based quantum internet,” he said. “We will [possibly] have a whole network of Low-Earth-Orbit satellites and maybe in the future [Medium-Earth-Orbit] satellites assisting with the quantum repeater technologies to connect that LEO-based satellite network. It will play a big role in building that quantum internet.”
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.
With journalism credits spanning several sectors including finance and tech, Ryan joins 6GWorld with wide eyes looking onward. He aims to lend his experience to the site, covering the latest generation of cellular advancements as it unfolds, leading into 6G.