At the level of atoms and atomic particles, matter and energy behave in ways completely alien to our visible realm. They operate by the mysterious laws of quantum mechanics. And last month, the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled a blueprint for a practical application of these phenomena: a nationwide “quantum Internet” that will store and transmit data more safely and securely than would ever be possible with today’s systems.

Hackers Will be Hackers

It’s no secret that hackers find ways around even the best of conventional software’s defenses, with disastrous results for the rest of us. The U.S. government has been the victim of many such attacks, from a 2015 OPM data breach that compromised millions of private citizens’ personal records to an incident this year in which a pro-Iran group briefly gained control of the website of the Federal Depository Library Program.

Quantum Internet Decreases Vulnerabilities

But the quantum Internet would be a complete break away from the mechanics of today’s Internet and would have none of its vulnerabilities, according to the blueprint, which states that this network would “deliver the ultimate in secure communication.” An Energy department press release goes so far as to say that a quantum network would be “virtually unhackable.” The Energy Department’s 17 national labs could serve as the foundation of this new system, according to the press release, which states that this new Internet could be born within the next decade.

Qubits instead of just bits in the Quantum Internet World

A quantum Internet may still use fiber-optic cables like the current Internet does. But whereas today’s Internet processes information as many “bits,” the quantum Internet would convey data via quantum-entangled particles, or “qubits,” which could be stored in the polarization states of an atom or the spin states of electrons and atoms’ nuclei. 

Every conventional computer bit has one value: either 1 or 0. But a qubit could be both, at the same time, until we observe it. This is because, in quantum mechanics, a particle exists in a superposition of two or more states all at once until it is seen. Yes, just looking at the data actually changes it (“Schrödinger’s Cat,” which is trapped in a box and is simultaneously alive and dead, is a well-known metaphor for how this works). 

Benefits of Quantum Internet

The upside, for quantum network security, is that if a hacker tries to eavesdrop on a network while it is sending or receiving information, the message automatically garbles, making it unreadable to the hacker and also alerting the intended recipient of the attempted hack.

Another aspect of quantum mechanics is particle entanglement—Albert Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” This is when two or more particles—or network systems, in the Energy department’s case—interact, they form a connection and exhibit the same quantum state, so measuring one system instantly influences the other. This connection holds even if they are many miles apart. 

In a quantum Internet, one computing system could instantly transfer qubits of data to another without ever actually sending it the physical qubits. The second system already has the data, due to the entanglement.

“While this special world is invisible to us, a quantum internet is going to harness these strange properties to build new types of devices with powerful applications for communication, national security, finance, and medicine,” said David Awschalom, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, during a news conference announcing the Energy department blueprint.

U.S. Heads in the Right Direction

The U.S. government’s work on quantum computing has been ongoing for the last few years. In December 2018, the White House approved the National Quantum Initiative Act. The act funds research projects dedicated to quantum technologies, including quantum computing and networks. 

The work has reached a few milestones so far. In February of this year, scientists from Argonne and the University of Chicago successfully entangled photons across a 52-mile quantum loop in the Chicago suburbs. Meanwhile, Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists have jointly built an 80-mile quantum network testbed and are actively expanding it. 

Energy Department Charts Way Forward Against Competition

We’re not the only ones laying out groundwork for a quantum Internet, however. Europe’s Quantum Internet Alliance is also making efforts to build a first-ever quantum network. One alliance researcher, Ben Lanyon of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Information in Innsbruck, Austria, told Scientific American that a prototype is just five years away.

China is in the game, as well. It launched a quantum communications satellite, Micius, in 2016. Just this year, China reported successfully using quantum entanglement to transmit communications between a satellite and two ground stations that were roughly 700 miles apart.

But while this Energy Department blueprint doesn’t offer the prototype, it does chart a way forward. And it seeks to keep the starting point here in the United States.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.