Flashes of what could become a transformative new technology shoot through a network of optical fibers beneath Chicago.
Researchers have created one of the world’s largest networks for sharing quantum information — a field of science that relies on paradoxes so strange that Albert Einstein didn’t believe them.
The network, which links the University of Chicago to the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, is a rudimentary version of what scientists hope to one day become the Internet of the future. For now, it is open to businesses and researchers to test the basics of quantum information sharing.
The network was announced this week by the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which also involves the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin.
With $500 million in federal investment in recent years and $200 million from the state, Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Madison are a leading region for quantum information research.
Why does this matter to the average person? Because quantum information has the potential to solve currently unsolvable problems, both threaten and protect private information, and lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine and climate change.
While classical computing uses bits of information that contain a 1 or a zero, quantum bits or qubits are like a coin tossed in the air – they contain both a 1 and a zero, which are determined as soon as it is observed.
That property of being in two or more states at once, called superposition, is one of the many paradoxes of quantum mechanics: how particles behave at the atomic and subatomic levels. It’s also a potentially critical advantage, as it can handle exponentially more complex problems.
Another important aspect is the property of entanglement, whereby qubits separated by large distances can still be correlated, so that a measurement in one place reveals a measurement far away.
The recently expanded Chicago network, created in collaboration with Toshiba, scatters light particles called photons. Trying to intercept the photons destroys them and the information they contain, making it much harder to hack.
The new network will allow researchers to “expand the boundaries of what is currently possible,” said University of Chicago professor David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
However, researchers need to solve many practical problems before large-scale quantum computing and networks are possible.
For example, researchers at Argonne are working to create a “foundry” where reliable qubits can be forged. An example is a diamond membrane with small cells to hold and process qubits of information. Argonne researchers also created a qubit by freezing neon to hold a single electron.
Because quantum phenomena are extremely sensitive to any disturbance, they can also be used as small sensors for medical or other applications, but they also need to be made more durable.
The quantum network was launched in Argonne in 2020, but has now been extended to Hyde Park and opened for use by businesses and researchers to test new communications equipment, security protocols and algorithms. Any company that relies on secure information, such as bank financial records or hospital medical records, could potentially use such a system.
While quantum computers are now under development, they may one day be able to perform much more complex calculations than current computers, such as folding proteins, which could be useful in developing drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to stimulating research, the quantum field stimulates economic development in the region. A hardware company, EeroQ, announced in January that it is moving its headquarters to Chicago. Another local software company, Super.tech, was recently acquired and several others are starting up in the region.
Because quantum computing can be used to hack traditional encryption, it has also attracted the bipartisan attention of federal lawmakers. The National Quantum Initiative Act was signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 to accelerate quantum development for national security purposes.
In May, President Joe Biden ordered the federal agency to migrate to quantum-resistant cryptography on its most critical defense and intelligence systems.
Ironically, basic math problems, such as 5+5=10, are somewhat difficult by quantum computers. Quantum information is likely to be used for advanced applications, while classical computing is likely to remain practical for many everyday uses.
The famous physicist Einstein mocked the paradoxes and uncertainties of quantum mechanics, saying that God does not “play dice” with the universe. But quantum theories have proven correct in applications from nuclear power to MRIs.
Stephen Gray, senior scientist at Argonne who is working on algorithms to run on quantum computers, said quantum work is very difficult and no one fully understands it.
But there have been significant advances in the field over the past 30 years, leading to what some scientists jokingly called Quantum 2.0, with practical advances expected over the next decade.
“We’re betting there will be a real quantum advantage (over classical computing) in the next five to 10 years,” Gray said. “We are not there yet. Some opponents shake their sticks and say it will never happen. But we are positive.”
Just as early work on conventional computers eventually led to cell phones, it’s hard to predict where the quantum research will lead, said Brian DeMarco, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who works with the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
“That’s why it’s an exciting time,” he said. “Key uses are yet to be discovered.”
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