As you approach the orbit of your new home planet, Gliese 667CC (opens in new tab), you realize you made a terrible, terrible mistake: you didn’t download the latest firmware update for your ships’ communication protocols.
While this would be a secondary concern around Earth’s orbit, where the servers holding the installable package reside and radio communications are speedy enough (opens in new tab) to make do, things are different when you’re 22 light-years away from humanity’s cradle. There’s no way for you to download an update for your ships’ protocols promptly; with no communications handshake happening, you’ll have to pay a hefty fine for the military ships sent to investigate your lack of response to the official channels. You haven’t even crossed Gliese’s atmosphere, and you’re already in debt. Ouch.
Fortunately, researchers with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have furthered the road towards an eventual quantum internet. The effort, published earlier this week in Nature (opens in new tab), drives us ever-so-slightly forward toward an intra-and, perhaps, extra-planetary communications network.
When achieved, this quantum network will be able to operate at instantaneous speed, teleporting information between places in a secure, interference-and-snooping-free way. It happens because anyone trying to intercept qubit operations or read the qubit state would introduce errors in the computation or even lead the entangled qubits to decohere, losing the information in the process - a quirk dubbed the Observer Effect (opens in new tab) in quantum physics.
“This means that the quantum computer can solve your problem and that it does not know what the problem is,” said Tracy Eleanor Northup, a researcher at the University of Innsbruck’s Institute for Experimental Physics. “It does not work that way today. Google knows what you are running on its servers.”
The research takes advantage of the entanglement property of quantum physics, which allows for the “marriage” of two qubits so that changes affecting one of them automatically replicate them in the other - irrespective of such mundane concerns as distance. As a result, the qubits are no longer independent: they’re now a single system like a married couple.
While entanglement between two qubits has been conquered for a while now, the researchers finally managed to expand the maximum number of entangled qubits from two to three - opening up the door for multilateral, instead of simply bilateral, communication.
With quantum computing still being a nascent field, there are several ways to produce qubits - from electrons to quantum dots, passing through ion chains and Microsoft's exotic topological qubits; there are several approaches and materials with different strengths and weaknesses. For their experiment, which entangled the three qubits in systems 60 feet apart from each other, Dr. Hanson and his team used a nitrogen vacancy center — a tiny empty space in a synthetic diamond to trap electrons.
But entanglement has already been shown to be viable (opens in new tab) up to 1,203 kilometers (748 miles) apart - and future research will focus on scaling the distance between entangled qubits while increasing the number of entangled "network nodes."
This development, in turn, could enable a veritable quantum internet, where information only needs to be updated in a single physical location - such as a specific ship manufacturer's headquarters - with instantaneous propagation across the network of entangled qubits. Wouldn't that be handy for your firmware update antics above the skies of Gliese 667CC?