Energy Unveils Blueprint for Nationwide, ‘Unhackable’ Quantum Internet

Impacts could be realized within the next decade.

The Energy Department on Thursday released a strategic blueprint to construct a potentially “unhackable” nationwide quantum internet. 

The plan to develop a prototype that relies on quantum mechanics to connect next-generation computers and sensors and underpin securely transmitted communications is the result of a workshop held by Energy in New York City in February. There, around 70 stakeholders from across sectors united to confront engineering and design barriers, pinpoint research needed and puzzle out how to transform existing, local network experiments to a viable ‘second’ internet. 

Energy’s 17 national laboratories will serve as the backbone of the system, according to the agency, which confirmed that the desired outcome could be fully realized within the next decade. 

“This is one of the most important technology innovations of the 21st century,” Argonne National Lab Director Paul Kearns said during a news conference unveiling the announcement in Chicago Thursday. “It'll lead the way to many remarkable benefits for society at large.”

The quantum landscape is rife with complexities, but to help attendees better grasp the endeavor, David Awschalom, a senior scientist at Argonne and professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, explained during the event that nature “behaves very differently”—namely, it follows the world of quantum physics—at the atomic scale. 

“In this quantum world, particles can exist in multiple states at the same time, like on and off but simultaneously. And they can be entangled, that is, they can share information with one another—even over very long distances and even without a physical connection,” he explained. “So 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 and communication, national security, finance and medicine.”

Moves to produce the quantum internet are already making progress in the Chicago region—as Energy puts it, Argonne scientists in Lemont, Illinois, and the University of Chicago in February “entangled photons across a 52-mile ‘quantum loop’ in the Chicago suburbs, successfully establishing one of the longest land-based quantum networks in the nation.” Now in this new streamlined effort, the network produced will connect to Energy’s Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to create “a three-node, 80-mile testbed.” 

“The combined intellectual and technological leadership of the University of Chicago, Argonne, and Fermilab has given Chicago a central role in the global competition to develop quantum information technologies,” Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, said in a statement. “This work entails defining and building entirely new fields of study, and with them, new frontiers for technological applications that can improve the quality of life for many around the world and support the long-term competitiveness of our city, state, and nation.”

Scientists from Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory also recently produced an 80-mile quantum network testbed, which they are actively expanding.

But America isn’t the first to engage in such a monumental pursuit. A key U.S. technology competitor—China—which has invested in quantum information science for years, “has been breaking distance records for quantum networks,” the new strategy notes. Europe also previously launched the Quantum Internet Alliance to craft the first blueprint for a quantum internet.

The U.S.’ strategy explores various hardware and software components that must be developed for the plan to come in fruition and details how the networks should be built over time. It includes four priority research directions and five key roadmap milestones that it says “must be achieved to facilitate an eventual national quantum internet.” 

According to Energy, the to-be-developed networks could be “virtually unhackable,” as it’s exceedingly difficult to intrude on quantum transmissions. 

“One of the interesting aspects of quantum data is the act of looking at it changes it,” University of Chicago’s Awschalom explained. “So this means if we use a quantum network to send or receive information, and someone tries to eavesdrop, they'll destroy the message. It’s quantum secure.”

As Awschalom previously alluded to, those in health, banking and airline industries, as well as national security-focused insiders are likely to be the earliest adopters, but the agency also predicts that “eventually, the use of quantum networking technology in mobile phones could have broad impacts on the lives of individuals around the world.” 

Energy’s Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar echoed a Henry Ford quote in reference to potential applications, during the announcement. “If I would have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘a faster horse.’ People don't know what they want until you show it to them,” he said, adding “and that is what we are beginning today.”

In a press call following the unveiling, Dabbar and other officials stopped short of confirming or elaborating on the ultimate cost and funding channels for the ambitious endeavor. President Trump’s budget request for 2021, nevertheless, includes $25 million specifically intended for Energy’s Office of Science “to support early stage research for a quantum internet.”

News of the U.S.’ path towards a quantum internet was welcomed by lawmakers, including Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who spoke at the event—and others presently working in the field. 

JD Dulny, a chief scientist leading Booz Allen Hamilton’s quantum computing research team told Nextgov Friday that insiders at the firm are “excited to see this next step for U.S. quantum information sciences.” 

“Quantum advancements are changing the ways we use computing, communications, and sensing technologies today,” Dulny said. “A well-developed ‘quantum internet’ of the future will bring the benefits of increased security and increased computational power to a broader audience, and provide next-generation distributed precision sensing capabilities.”