Two of the greatest challenges we face online today are speed and security. An ever increasing amount of people want to download and stream an ever increasing amount of data. Safely, of course! And this is just the tip of the iceberg. It has been said that there is no 100% hacker proof system on the planet. Every single computer, network, or system can be cracked. So long we rely on passwords to protect out data!
Scientists in China have taken the next step in creating an internet that can’t be hacked or compromised. The future of data transfer is called quantum networking and it relies on a complex concept that takes the ‘signal’ out of sending data. Hackers can’t intercept or steal data that never travels, so there’s no signal — the source and destination, in quantum networking, are one in the same.
Of course, the Chinese did not create the concept of quantum computing. The first time I heard about this concept was at least 20 years ago, but we’ve been beating around the bush for so long that some scientists have said in the past that quantum computers will never see the light of day. A few history lessons should teach us something: never forsake a novelty because it looks like it’s not going to work or it serves no purpose! We’ve been trying to build a quantum computer for so long now that it’s not even a novelty anymore, anyway! The problem is that advances have been made, but we still cannot scale it to any useful level.
Google has recently made headlines with a major milestone, but we still have a long way to go, or do we? Some say that as early as 2019 we might have a breakthrough. The truth is, this is the future, no matter how long we take to get there. Quantum computing is not only the future because it will increase the power and speed of operations and data transfers, but also because it will produce unhackable machines.
So, what have the Chinese done that is so significant (considering we’re not there yet!)?
First some background:
With the new quantum internet, instead of sending information, we create pairs of photons that mirror one another. This is called quantum entanglement. We keep one of the photons, send someone else the other entangled photon, and then anything you do to your photon instantly happens to the other person’s photon.
Writing your name on your photon (which isn’t possible yet, by the way!) would result in it appearing on the other photon — no matter where it was (even if it’s on the other side of the universe!). The idea is so complex that, despite the fact we’re using it, nobody quite understands it.
Scientists used a fiber-optic cable to send the photons in previous experiments. This approach was revolutionary, but limited. The largest problem with the fiber optics method is that it has a range of around 100 miles. Photons travel through fiber optic cables by bouncing back and forth — this process causes the signal to degrade as it gets further from the source.
The relatively short distance makes the tech promising for city-wide use, but unrealistic for global implementation.
Now, the Chinese…
Professor Jian-Wei Pan of Hefei University and his team came up with a method of using quantum entanglement that relies on the vacuum of space to overcome the terrestrial problems with quantum networking. The satellite Micius was launched last year to conduct these experiments in quantum networking and the results have not only been positive — they’ve shattered previous distance records for the technology.
Photons don’t lose signal strength when they are transmitted through space and atmosphere. This is how Pan’s work has advanced the technology far beyond what was previously possible. The Chinese team created entangled photons aboard the spaceship by passing lasers through special crystal optics, they then beamed some of those particles down to earth.
The satellite was over 300 miles above the earth when it beamed the signal to two different ground-side locations, 750 miles apart from one another, where it was confirmed by both that the photons remained entangled. Theoretically this process could be repeated over any distance — we could communicate with explorers on the other side of the universe instantaneously using quantum entanglement.
What does this mean? Nobody seems quite sure yet. Pan and his team have taken something that happens, even though we aren’t sure why, and started trying to find applications for it. To put this into perspective: sailors once navigated by the bright lights in the night sky in a time where the idea that stars were distant suns would have been preposterous to most.
It bears mention that quantum entanglement isn’t hackable because it eliminates the ability for someone to intercept any data being transferred. It does not protect files that are stored on any system that can still be accessed non-physically. If you’re on the internet, connected to Wi-Fi, or otherwise ‘online’ — chances are you’re vulnerable (and will always be). The important part here is that this technology protects data at its most vulnerable: when it is being transferred. Quantum networking doesn’t speed the car up, it removes the needs for roads entirely; it does not, however, protect your car from being stolen from your garage.
Now, quantum computing also brings another change that might solve this kind of vulnerability. With this technology passwords will never, ever be safe. You see, with a quantum computer, it’s possible to break ANY password instantaneously. So we’ll need a major change (that is already taking place) to replace the use of passwords permanently, which is, of course, the use of biometrics. Our phones and gadgets have already been using it for years. Major US banks are in the process of updating ATM machines with biometric technology. In other countries like Brazil, almost all ATM machines have already been using biometrics for years! There are also other technologies that make the use of passcodes obsolete and as quantum computing becomes a reality, we’ll also need to adapt to the way we store and transmit data.