What is the Quantum Internet?

We live in a digital world. Or do we? Although it may seem like the digital era is humanity’s biggest achievement, conventional computer language doesn’t reflect the real world. It’s all 0s and 1s, which isn’t how the world really works. Cue quantum computing and, one day, a quantum cloud networked as a quantum internet.

It would be a huge step-change for the tech industry. Conventional computers use transistors to process information in various sequence of 0s and 1s. Transistors are merely switches that switch on or off to produce a 0 or a 1, thus producing the simple binary computer language. The more transistors, the more processing power a computer has, with the current leader among single-chip processors being the the Intel Broadwell-EP Xeon, with 7.2 billion transistors.

Impressive, perhaps, but it’s nothing compared to what a quantum computer would be capable of.

Quantum mechanics offers endless possibilities thanks to the fact that tiny particles such as electrons and photons can be in multiple states – not just one and zero, but both at the same time. This is called superposition. So instead of on or off ‘bits’ of classical computing, we get qubits, which can be 0, or 1, or both simultaneously. Extrapolate how many more calculations a quantum computer is capable of simultaneously and you get this stunning result: a 500 qubit computer could perform more calculations in a single step than there are atoms in the observable Universe.

Quantum computing was in the news recently when Google produced the first completely scalable quantum simulation of a hydrogen molecule. In their experiments, Googles technicians simulated the energy of hydrogen H2 molecules, something that would take a even the largest multi-core supercomputer over a week to figure out. If Google can do the same for other molecules, it may open up an entirely new field for chemists and physicists. Cue new medicines, massively more efficient solar cells, longer lasting batteries, and dozens of other innovations we don’t even know we need yet.

All of this will require a quantum cloud and a quantum internet so that quantum computers could be connected to one another. That way, the compute power available in the cloud would be enormous, and theoretically able to compute the answers to problems conventional computing cannot get near. For instance, simulating the human body, the unravelling and even assembling of the human genome, the near-instant scanning of massive databases, and building an exact model of Earth’s ecosystem to accurately predict the weather. All would be within the grasp of quantum computers.

For now, quantum computers like Google’s exist only in research labs, but in the future they’re likely to help create a hybrid internet of classical and quantum computers. Since the conventional internet works by sending packets of data about 1,000 or 1,500 bytes in size – known as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) – as ones and zeroes, it breaks down when faced with quantum computing.

But a quantum cloud isn’t the only driving force behind creating a new kind of global data network. A major reason why we need a quantum internet is security. A quantum internet would be impenetrable to hackers, and that’s crucial largely because the very invention of quantum computers means that standard encryption keys will soon be easy to unravel. The easiest way form of quantum cryptography is quantum key distribution (QKD), which sends a secure key across a network to decipher a conventional message or file that’s based on arbitrary, unknown quantum states. If someone does read the data while it’s being transmitted, it is automatically changed, making the interception very obvious. While quantum networks are still bound to research labs, quantum cryptography systems are already commercially available.

Moore’s Law – the golden rule for the electronics industry since 1965 that states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will double every two years, hence doubling computer processing power – is now breaking down. If what replaces it is the unlimited power of quantum computing, and a quantum internet, Then the age of the transistor will quickly make way for the era of the quantum cloud.

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