The Race For A New Internet Has Begun
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Europe will create a network infrastructure based on quantum physics
In May 2023, Dr. Benjamin Lanyon of the University of Innsbruck (Austria) took an important step toward creating a new type of Internet: he transferred information along a 50-kilometer-long optical fiber using the principles of quantum physics.
Information in quantum physics differs from the units of data (binary digits) stored and processed by computers that form the core of today’s World Wide Web. The scope of quantum physics covers the properties and interactions of molecules, atoms, and even smaller particles such as electrons and photons.
Quantum bits, or “qubits,” offer the promise of transmitting information more securely because the particles change with the act of observing and measuring them. That means that a spy cannot go unnoticed.
Lanyon said his work is making quantum internet look feasible within cities, after which longer intercity distances will be the goal.
“You could imagine this is a big city scale,” he said.
Its breakthrough was part of an EU research project to bring the goal of a quantum Internet closer.
The project, called Quantum Internet Alliance (QIA) , brings together research institutes and companies from all over Europe. The initiative will receive €24 million of EU funding over three and a half years until the end of March 2026.
“It is not intended to replace the classical Internet, but to work together,” said Stephanie Wehner, a German who coordinates the QIA and is a professor of quantum information at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “We are not going to replace Netflix.”
A key concept in quantum physics is entanglement. If two particles become entangled, no matter how far apart they are in space, they will possess similar properties; For example, both will have the same measure of something called “spin,” a quantum version of the direction in which the particles spin.
The spin state of the particles is not clear until they are observed. Until then, they are in multiple states called superposition.
But when one is observed, the state of both particles is known.
This is useful in secure communications. People who hacked a quantum transmission would leave an obvious trace of their attempt by causing a change in the state of an observed particle.
“We can use the properties of quantum entanglement to achieve a means of secure communication that is likely to be secure even if the attacker has a quantum computer ,” Wehner said.
The secure communications offered by a quantum Internet could open up a much broader range of applications that are far beyond the limits of the classical Internet.
In medicine, for example, the physics of entanglement enables a level of clock synchronization that can improve telesurgery.
“If I want to operate on some remote node, I want to do it at the most precise time so I don’t make any mistakes,” Wehner said.
Astronomy is another potential beneficiary.
Telescopes making distant observations could “use a quantum Internet to generate entanglements between sensors and get a much better picture of the sky,” Wehner said.
Another example could be ATMs.
Currently, if an ATM malfunctioned when a person was withdrawing money, the machine would assume that no cash had been dispensed, while another dispenser would record a withdrawal. A quantum Internet could eliminate that discrepancy.
Many applications of a quantum Internet are likely to become evident only after the technology is created.
“It offers a whole range of new possibilities for making precise measurements of space and time and studying how the world and the universe work,” Lanyon said.
The trick now is to scale up a quantum Internet to use many particles over long distances.
Lanyon and his team have also shown that communication not only between individual particles but also between “trains” of particles (in this case light particles called photons) accelerates the speed of entanglement between quantum nodes.
“If you only send out one photon at a time, you’ll have to wait for the travel time,” he said. “But if trains of many photons can be formed at the same time, this will allow us to increase the entanglement rate between quantum nodes for the distances we want.”
The ultimate goal is to extend quantum nodes to much greater ranges, perhaps 500 kilometers, and create a prototype quantum Internet that can connect remote cities, much like the classical Internet relies on different nodes to create a global Internet. .
While a quantum Internet for specialized applications could exist as early as 2029, experts are afraid to hazard a guess when a full version might be available for a wide range of uses.
“It’s a very difficult question,” Wehner said.
As the QIA advances the components and systems of the quantum Internet, Europe is also working to develop quantum computers themselves.
In June 2023, an EU public-private partnership (the European Joint Undertaking for High Performance Computing) announced that six countries in Europe would host quantum computers . The countries are the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain.
The aim is to ensure that Europe is at the forefront of the quantum technologies revolution. Quantum computers are expected to have unprecedented computing power with many uses, including the ability to break the cryptographic algorithms that protect most exchanges on today’s Internet.
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With projections that half of the most widely used crypto systems will be dismantled by the end of the decade, Europe is not the only interested party.
China and the United States have made progress in quantum computing and the quantum Internet in recent years.
On the infrastructure front, Europe is taking other steps. It is developing an integrated space and ground infrastructure for secure communications, a kind of building block for the quantum Internet.
“I am very proud to say that we are a world leader in many areas,” said Wehner.
While much remains to be done in all interested countries, the potential benefits indicate further progress and improvements in a short time.
“People are developing new applications of quantum networks at a fairly high rate,” Lanyon said.