On Monday, the Department of Energy’s advanced research facility at the Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico unveiled that it has had a functioning quantum Internet for more than two years—in a work-around sort of way.
Both engineers and super spies have long pined for a quantum Internet that utilizes strange properties of top shelf particle physics instead of conventional bytes to transmit information. Messages transmitted using this quantum cryptography are, in effect, 100 percent secure.
In a very dumbed down sort of way, a quantum message sends information that can only be translated at the other end. The very act of anyone listening into the message would render the information useless.
Sound weird? It is. The properties of quantum cryptography were derived from the famous “double slit experiment.” If you’re not familiar, here’s a very good explainer, which charitably lowers its aim at those without advanced degrees.
Scientists have been able to send quantum information from one point to another over a single length of fiber, but it’s only a one-way ticket. Researchers have not yet devised a way to route information to other points—the kind of functionality you would need for an actual working Internet.
Several teams are searching for ways to steer this quantum information without destroying it, but that sort of quantum router technology is still years away.
The research team at Los Alamos has found a way around this problem by creating a piecemeal quantum hub system. In the Los Alamos model, quantum messages are sent to a central hub where they are translated to traditional bytes and then re-routed.
This set-up has been attempted before, but the current version has created a versatile efficient system where others could not be easily scaled. In the newly unveiled system, only the main hub can collect information using expensive and bulky photon detectors, and it then sends secure messages to nodes, which relay the quantum information outwards.
The system is far more versatile than previous quantum hub systems as each transmission node is only the size of a box of matches, though the research team promises that the next generation will be “an order of magnitude smaller in each linear dimension.”
Of course, you may have noticed a small, yet gaping security hole in the whole set-up. The whole system is only secure as the hub where conventional messages are translated and transmitted. However, securing one centralized communication hub is a far less daunting prospect than securing the entirety of a network.
Eventually, the team hopes that the technology can be attached to every device in our polygadget lives and routed through a main secure hub. In effect, this workaround quantum Internet would be entirely secure—as long as you trust the gatekeepers around the hub.