The University of Chicago lab is conducting quantum internet research, reports The Washington Post. Using equipment that transmits quantum particles over a fiber-optic network to exchange information in an encrypted form that cannot be broken, researchers plan to connect a network of quantum computers capable of performing gigantic calculations.
If the research is successful, the quantum internet could protect financial transactions and medical data, prevent identity theft, and stop hackers from hostile states. Quantum research still has many hurdles to overcome before it can be widely used. But banks, medical companies and others are starting to experiment with the quantum internet.
Some industries are also experimenting with quantum computers in the early stages to see if they can eventually solve problems beyond the power of current computers, such as discovering new pharmaceuticals to treat incurable diseases.
The study of quantum physics began in the early 20-th century, when scientists discovered that the smallest objects in the universe — atoms and subatomic particles — behave differently than matter in the large-scale world, for example, being in several places at the same time.
Existing computers and communication networks store, process and transmit information by breaking it up into long streams of bits, which are usually electrical or optical pulses representing zero or one. Quantum particles, also known as quantum bits, or qubits, can exist as zeros and ones at the same time, or anywhere in between, a flexibility known as “superposition” that allows them to process information in new ways.
In a university basement, hardware made by the Japanese company Toshiba emits pairs of entangled photons and sends one of each pair through a network to Argonne, which is located 30 miles (48 km) from the university in Lemont, Illinois. One encryption key is encoded on a string of photon pairs.
The cabinet hardware is connected to a 124-mile (200 km) fiber-optic network that runs from the university’s campus on Chicago’s South Side to two labs in the western suburbs.
The team is using photons — quantum particles of light — to patch encryption keys across the network to see how well they travel through fibers that are laid under highways and bridges. Quantum particles are extremely delicate and have a tendency to break down with the slightest perturbation, such as vibration or temperature changes, so sending them over long distances in the real world is quite difficult. When the traveling photons reach Argonne, scientists there measure them and retrieve the key.
Anyone who tries to hack the network to intercept the key will fail because the laws of quantum mechanics dictate that any attempt to observe particles in a quantum state automatically alters the particles and destroys the transmitted information. It also alerts the sender and recipient of an eavesdropping attempt.