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Along a sandy road in the New Mexico desert, just about a 45-minute drive from Santa Fe, you’ll happen upon the town of Los Alamos, hidden amongst the foothills of Pajarito Mountain.
This is the home of a U.S. government laboratory. It was founded under a veil of intense secrecy during the early 1940s, tasked with the infamous Manhattan Project. 70 years on, we now know it’s also where government scientists have been operating what might be the world’s most secure version of the web, the quantum Internet.
British born physicist Richard J. Hughes and a team of scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have recently made public that they’ve been operating a network that communicates in an exceptionally safe and potentially hacker-resistant environment since 2011. Before their announcement you’d be forgiven for thinking that quantum Internet technology wouldn’t be within reach for quite a few years.
They’ve achieved this by using a technique known as quantum cryptography. But perhaps more remarkable is that the researchers are confident it could readily, cost effectively, and swiftly be implemented across the civilian Internet. At a consumer level, that’d mean safer and speedier online shopping transactions and in a world where it seems just about any institution can succumb to a hack–even Google–the technology could also help to keep state secrets secret.
Whenever you purchase something online and you hit the ‘buy’ button and your computer seems to buffer, taking its sweet time to present you with the order confirmation page and you begin to doubt that the order went through successfully, “that’s because of the cryptography,” says Hughes. It takes time to create a secure line to transmit sensitive information, like your card number, between your laptop, eBay, and your bank. But “in our case that just wouldn’t happen,” says Hughes, “in principle [our invention] could speed up the Internet.”
Quantum communication is the process of manipulating a photon to empower it to carry binary information, which turns it into something called a ‘qubit’. Hughes created his qubits by polarizing photons.
Qubits are fragile beyond words; if another computer so much as glances at one, the qubit’s makeup will change. This has so far limited quantum computing and acted as a major barrier to the discipline. Quantum cryptography takes this perceived weakness and turns it into a strength. If a quantum communiqué has changed in the slightest, it’s a telltale sign that the line has been tapped and someone who shouldn’t be is listening in. In other words, the delicate nature of a qubit allows it to act as a highly sensitive and sophisticated detector of security breaches.
Quantum cryptography isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but it’s never quite managed to take off because it’s hasn’t yet been commercially viable. “The news is that we can easily implement this into today’s Internet infrastructure. Others before us have failed here,” says Hughes.
Most other quantum communication researchers haven’t tried to work with the current network. This meant what they came up with would have required a complete and expensive overhaul of how the Internet gets to your house. “We took a step back and asked how we could adapt quantum cryptography to what’s already there,” explains Hughes.
They created a “quantum smart card,” which is about the size of a house key and sends qubits down the same fiber optic cables that we use to send emails, watch TV and shop online today. They’re currently in the process of producing the second generation of smart cards, which they anticipate to be even smaller.
His lab in New Mexico has been using their quantum Internet for about two and a half years, and Hughes says that if a company came to him tomorrow with serious intentions to implement his invention then “we could have it in place within a couple of years.”
The MIT Technology Review believes that while Hughes’ invention might be impressive, it may ultimately be short lived and soon to be “obsolete as quantum routers become commercially viable.” But Ron Meyers, a top quantum physicist at the Army Research Lab in Maryland, says it’s not a technology to be so easily dismissed. “Yes, technology is always being upgraded but you can’t really skip this step,” he says.
Meyers anticipates that Hughes’ work will be “important for U.S. national security … and if it’s implemented, the country and world are going to benefit.”
At the time of writing, Hughes and the national lab declined to comment on the specifics of which companies are pursing his invention for fear of compromising negotiations. But he was able to say that they’ve “received expressions in commercializing the technology from more than 14 companies, the majority of which are U.S. corporations.”