Chicago quantum technology research could lead to a safer internet

Quantum research at the University of Chicago lab could help prevent hacking and connect a future network of supercomputers

Laser heads, bottom, and laser controllers, above, in the Quantum Computing Lab at the University of Chicago's Eckhardt Research Center.
Laser heads, bottom, and laser controllers, above, in the Quantum Computing Lab at the University of Chicago’s Eckhardt Research Center. (Taylor Glasscock for The Washington Post)

CHICAGO – The secret to a safer and more powerful internet that may be impossible to crack may be residing in a basement closet that seems to fit brooms and mops.

The 3-foot-wide chamber, located in the bowels of the University of Chicago lab, contains a thin shelf of devices that unobtrusively fire quantum particles into a fiber-optic network. The goal: to use nature’s smallest beings to share information under unbreakable encryption – and eventually to connect a network of quantum computers capable of massive computations.

The Equipment Closet LL211A’s humble trappings belie the importance of a project at the forefront of one of the world’s most important technology competitions. United State , China Others are competing to harness the peculiar properties of quantum particles to process information in powerful new ways — technology that could confer economic and national security benefits to the countries they dominate.

Quantitative research is so important to the future of the Internet that it is attracting new federal funding, including the recently approved one. Chip and science law. This is because, if the problem is resolved, a quantum internet can protect financial transactions and healthcare data, prevent identity theft and stop hostile state hackers in their tracks.

Just last week three physicists subscriber Nobel Prize for quantum research that helped pave the way for this internet of the future.

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Quantitative research still has many hurdles to overcome before it can reach widespread use. But banks, healthcare companies, and others have begun experimenting with the quantum internet. Some industries as well patching Using quantum computers in their early stages to see if they can eventually solve problems that current computers can’t, such as discovering new drugs to treat incurable diseases.

It’s too early to imagine all the potential applications, said Grant Smith, a graduate student on the quantum research team at the University of Chicago.

“When people first made the initial intranets connecting computers at the research level, universities, and national labs, they could not have foreseen e-commerce,” he said during a recent tour of university labs.

The study of quantum physics began in the early 20th century, when scientists discovered that the universe’s smallest objects – atoms and subatomic particles – behave in ways different from matter in the large-scale world, such as appearing in multiple places at the same time. .

These discoveries, called the first quantum revolution, led to new technologies such as the laser and the atomic clock. But the research now brings scientists closer to harnessing more of the powers of the quantum world. David Oshalom, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and leader of the quantum team, calls this a second quantum revolution.

The field, he said, “attempts to engineer the way nature behaves at its most fundamental levels for our world, and to exploit these behaviors in new technologies and applications.”

Today’s computers and communications networks store, process, and transmit information by breaking it down into long streams of bits, which are typically electrical or light pulses representing zero or one.

Quantum particles, also known as quantum bits, or qubit, they can exist as zeros and ones at the same time, or anywhere in between, a flexibility known as “overlay” that allows them to process information in new ways. Some physicists compare it to a coin rotating at the same time in the case of the head and tail.

Quantum bits can also display”tangle“where two or more particles are closely related and completely mirror each other, even when separated by a great physical distance. Albert Einstein called this “terrifying action at a distance.”

Cabinet hardware is connected to a 124-mile fiber-optic network that stretches from the university’s Southside campus in Chicago to two federally funded laboratories in the western suburbs that collaborate on research — Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator.

The team uses photons – quantum particles of light – to send encryption keys across the network, to see how well they travel through fibers that pass under highways, bridges and toll booths. Quantum particles are very sensitive and tend to crash at the slightest disturbance, such as vibration or a temperature change, so sending them across long distances in the real world is difficult.

In a university’s basement locker, a piece of hardware made by Japanese company Toshiba emits entangled pairs of photons and sends one of each pair over the network to Argonne, which is 30 miles away, in Lemonte, Illinois. A single encryption key is encrypted on a chain of photon pairs.

Since the pairs are intertwined, they are completely in sync with each other. “In a sense, you can look at it as one piece of information,” Oshalom said.

When traveling photons reach Argon, scientists measure them and extract the key.

Anyone attempting to hack the network to intercept the key would fail, Oshalom said, because the laws of quantum mechanics state that any attempt to observe particles in a quantum state alters the particles automatically and destroys the information being transmitted. It also alerts the sender and receiver of an eavesdropping attempt.

This is one reason why scientists believe technology holds such hope.

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“There are huge technical difficulties to overcome, but you could argue that this could become just as important as the technological revolution in the 20th century that gave us the laser, the transistor, the atomic clock, and by extension, the GPS and the Internet,” Stephen Gervin, a professor of physics at Yale University, said of the discoveries. Modern quantum technology.

In a lab next to the cabinet, Oshalom and his colleagues are trying to develop new devices that help photons transmit information over greater distances. The room is a cramped, multimillion-dollar collection of lab equipment, lasers, and a picture of Thomas the Tank’s engine, because one of the instruments makes a constant screeching noise. “I think it’s for comedic value,” graduate student Cyrus Zeledon said.

One of the problems they are trying to solve: while small particles of light travel through the glass fibers of the lattice, defects in the glass cause the light to be attenuated after a certain distance. So researchers are trying to develop devices that can capture and store information from particles of light as they travel and then send the information back forward using a new particle – such as the Photon Pony Express.

Wearing purple rubber gloves to avoid damaging the surface, Zeledon grabbed a small circuit board containing two silicon carbide chips that he and his colleagues are testing as a device for storing and controlling information from quantum qubits. Later that day, Zeledon was planning on cooling the chips to extremely low temperatures and examining them under a microscope, looking for the quantum bits he had implanted into the chips that he could then process using microwaves to exchange information with the photons.

On the other end of the net one morning, Argonne scientist Joe Hermans, a former student of Oshalom, apologized for the loud squeak that also resounded around his lab. Where was his picture of Thomas the Tank Engine? “We’re trying to be a little bit more professional here,” he joked.

Hermanns and his colleagues are also trying to develop new devices and materials to help photons transmit quantum information over greater distances. One material that shows promise is synthetic diamond, he said, as he shakes his head toward a reactor that has been growing diamonds at a glacial pace of nanometers per hour.

Federal funding from National Quantum Initiative LawThe lab, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, recently helped the lab buy a second reactor that will grow diamonds faster. The Chip and science lawwhich President Biden signed in August, provides additional research and development support that will bolster the quantitative effort.

In a corner of his lab, Hermanns pointed out a Toshiba machine similar to the one at the University of Chicago. From there, a set of colored wires carry signals to and from the grid, which, after leaving the lab, run in a short loop under the nearby Ikea and Buffalo Wild Wings before firing in any direction to the university and Fermilab.

Scientists are conducting experiments on similar test prey in Boston, New York, Maryland and Arizona. Experimental networks also exist in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and China.

The goal is to one day connect each of these test bases, via fiber and satellite links, to the nascent quantum internet covering the United States and, eventually, the globe. As the network grows, it could ideally be used not just to send encrypted information, but to connect quantum computers to increase their processing power, the way the cloud does for existing computers.

“The idea of ​​a quantum internet is in the process of being born,” Smith said.

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