Energy leading way to tomorrow's quantum internet
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Imagine a completely secure network, one that cannot be cracked no matter how sophisticated the cyber assailant or how determined the hack. Further, imagine that the network connects computers that can solve challenges of incredible complexity – problems that are literally beyond the reach of today’s fastest systems– and joins together devices in a quantum internet-of-things, opening up whole new areas of scientific research.

Such a network would open worlds of possibility to consumers and clinicians, defense practitioners and financial institutions, scientists and innovators -- just to name a few.

That’s the potential of tomorrow’s quantum information systems.

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And that’s why the Trump administration is committed to laying the foundations for a quantum internet today.

In his 2021 budget request, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE called for a government-wide near-doubling of quantum information science (QIS) research and development. As part of this historic effort, the Department of Energy (DOE) will play a leading role in building the foundations for the quantum internet and has requested $25 million to advance that effort in this year’s budget request.

This request builds on the up-to-$625 million that DOE announced in January to establish between two and five multidisciplinary Quantum Information Science Centers, where researchers from DOE’s National Laboratories will join with experts from universities and the private sector to advance the field.

The groundwork for those centers was laid by the bipartisan National Quantum Initiative Act, which President Trump signed into law in December 2018. It commits the United States to maintaining and expanding its leadership in QIS, to furthering quantum science, as well as developing new quantum capabilities. It coordinates the quantum R&D efforts of the federal government – DOE along with its partners at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the defense research community.

The quantum internet will be built on regional nodes already being established by DOE’s labs. That includes the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which is led by the University of Chicago, and whose partners include DOE’s Argonne and Fermi Labs in addition to several leading universities. The Exchange recently launched a 52-mile testbed for quantum communications experiments, which will allow scientists and engineers to address the challenges of operating a quantum network under real-world conditions.

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Another node is being developed around New York and the Northeast, led by DOE’s Brookhaven Lab. And in the West, DOE is engaged with the Northwest Quantum Nexus, a partnership of Pacific Northwest National Lab, Microsoft Quantum, and the University of Washington.

Ultimately, we plan to connect all 17 of our National Labs as the backbone of the quantum internet, from Brookhaven to Stanford SLAC, from Idaho to Sandia to Oak Ridge, adding in universities and private sector partners and building out along all our paths.

While progress has already been impressive, quantum computing and networking technologies are still at an early stage, and some of the innovations needed to make them usable haven’t been invented yet. They’re also extremely challenging to handle. To give just one example, today’s quantum computers have to be cooled down to a temperature colder than space -- and barely above absolute zero.

That’s why our goal with the quantum internet is to bring together a broad community with diverse and complementary skill sets – a community with the ability to combine traditional networking capabilities and infrastructure with new hardware, new materials and new control algorithms to create something truly groundbreaking.

The digital internet will be the basis, and when brought together with the quantum internet, the result will be a heterogeneous computing network of incredible power and potential.

For thanks to their use of quantum properties, quantum computing systems can explore multiple solutions to key problems simultaneously, and thereby provide exponential jumps in computing speed. They could open new avenues in developing everything from new materials to personalized medicines.

Quantum networks offer different advantages. They could potentially be faster than today’s internet, and they certainly will offer much greater security, providing essentially unhackable systems, with implications for national and financial and transactional security, as well as patient privacy. And if ways can be figured out for QIS systems to talk directly to one another, they could conceivably create completely new approaches to cloud computing.

We honestly don’t know where quantum systems will go, whether speeding advances in industry and science and art, or terabytes of (Schrodinger) cat videos.

But that was true of the founders of the first network too, who could scarcely imagine the internet of today.

And that’s the possibility – and opportunity – of the future, and it’s why DOE is leading the way.

Paul Dabbar is Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy.