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In the last column, Part 1 of 2 – Quantum is Weird… & About to Rock Our World, we covered a (very) brief intro to quantum theory and its implications. In this article, we’ll dive into current and potential real-world usage of this mind-shattering technology.
First, a correction to the previous article: the speed of transmitting a state between two entangled photons is four orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light. This is true, but the example calculation was incorrect: The minimum speed of transmission is 1.86 billion miles per second. Using the example in Part 1, it would take only FOUR SECONDS or less to cross our solar system, not 2.77 hours as stated. This is at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light.
Communicate — Quantum Internet
A momentous tech moment happened in August of 2016: China launched the first quantum satellite. The satellite transmits information encoded using entangled photons. For now, its use is encryption of data, in this case satellite communications. This was the first step towards a quantum internet, at least some version of what our current internet provides. A quantum internet would most likely be utilized to access quantum cloud compute systems to solve complex problems —such as drug companies modeling new molecules and drug interactions — and encrypt the results back to the company.
We’re at least a decade away from anything resembling a quantum internet. Currently, a quantum state transmitted over traditional fiber is “lost” after 60-ish miles. A much-needed device to push beyond this limit are quantum repeaters, which are currently under development with promising results. A normal fiber optic cable uses photonic amplifiers. A quantum repeater does the difficult job of transferring a quantum state without any form of duplication, which would destroy the state. It does so by transferring the quantum state from one photon to another, from one repeater to the next. All the above happens at or below the speed of light, since we’re using traditional systems and processes to send and receive information. This is a good time to point out that nothing PHYSICAL has been exchanged or delivered. In a fiber optic cable, the original photon is received at the other end. Quantum communication is transferring the state of a photon, not the original photon itself.
Yes, there will be a quantum internet, but its use will probably be specialized and not as ubiquitous as our current internet.
Galaxy-Scale Communication at 10,000 Times Faster Than the Speed of Light?
The short answer? “No,” at least not with our current understanding of quantum mechanics. Now a bit more on the speed of entanglement. Yes, entanglement happens 10,000 times faster than the speed of light thanks to quantum’s “Spook Action at a Distance” of two entangled photons. However, there’s a quantum “no-cloning” trait. Without some way of determining both sending and receiving states at the receiving end WITHOUT measuring the “receiving” entangled photon’s state (once you do, the entanglement is destroyed), there’s no way to determine the original photon’s state. It’s like sending a locked box with a message in it without the key to open the box. Yes, the state locked within the box was received faster than the speed of light, but the “key” containing information about the original entanglement state can only be sent using classical physics-based means such as a light beam. Hence no “message” can be decoded faster than the speed of light because the delivery of the key to unlock it can’t be.
Clear as mud? Suffice it to say we currently have no way to use quantum mechanics to effectively send information faster than the speed of light.
Compute — Quantum Super Computers
What we do have today are quantum computers, some accessible to the public, so what can we use it for now and what’s the promise?
D-Wave presented in early 2019 their largest quantum computer to-date, Pegasus, a 5,000-qubit monster that connects every qubit to 15 other qubits — a major technology leap from the six in its previous generation. D-Wave will bring it to market in 2020 and will add it to their quantum cloud service, Leap.
Note, not all qubits are the same. D-Wave’s are best suited for optimization problems. IBM, Rigetti and Google use different qubit chip architectures with their own abilities and limitations.
IBM was the first to make modest quantum compute instances available to the public, with two five-qubit and one 16-qubit instances available. Although these are modest-sized, some tough problems can be solved much faster than with traditional computing systems, such as complex optimization for factory floors, supply chains, airline flight patterns and vehicle traffic.
In March 2017, Volkswagen and Google teamed up to solve a complex traffic management problem: traffic flow optimization for 10,000 taxis in Beijing, the Chinese capital. Dr. Florian Neukart, principal data scientist at Volkswagen’s labs in San Francisco, said, “Our first traffic flow optimization project in Beijing successfully shows how an algorithm on a quantum computer can guide vehicles in a metropolis in such an intelligent way that congestion is avoided.”
Don’t hold your breath for a quantum laptop; it may never happen. There are problems best solved by traditional compute needs such as writing articles like this or compiling spreadsheets of most data needs organized in columns and rows. Our laptops today more than satisfy our basic compute needs and storage, except for those pushing the limits such as gamers, video production, software developers, etc.
Crypto — Bulletproof Encryption
One proven use of quantum tech is encryption. The Chinese satellite launched in 2016 uses quantum encryption to encode communications to/from the ground station. The transmission/message is encrypted using a cryptographic key and relayed via a quantum signal. Thanks to the weirdness of quantum theory, specifically where an observer affects a quantum state, if someone attempts to intercept a quantum encrypted message, the communication connection self-destructs and a new one is created.
Nation-states are investing heavily in this encryption technology, and simultaneously researching quantum mechanics as a tool to break these same codes.
Clocks — Insanely Precise Quantum Timing
In July 2019 at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), physicists created a quantum logic clock that deviates only one second every 33.7 billion years! It shoots lasers at ions of aluminum and magnesium super-cooled to near zero degrees Kelvin in an electric trap. The two ions are entangled, and the magnesium cools the aluminum ion, which allows the quantum state of the aluminum ion to be read using the laser.
Why does this matter? Imagine trying to precisely sync two telescopes across the planet or in space or any two devices that depend upon two highly synchronized system clocks. One example: Elon Musk’s Starlink network of 42,000 satellites currently being deployed to deliver internet services.
Nature — Bees, Birds and Humans Do it Quantumly
Over the past several decades, research has shown how nature already utilizes quantum mechanics. In 1997, mathematician Barbara Shipman stumbled across a quantum solution to the mysterious and complex bee “ritual dance” used to communicate directions to other bees. While working on translating a six-dimensional figure onto a two-dimension drawing, eerily, a familiar pattern appeared: that of the honeybee’s dance. Six-dimensional patterns are common in quantum mechanics and figure prominently in the bee dance ritual performed on top of a honeycomb (comprised of hexagons, six-sided). The dance is used to communicate complex directions to other bees in the hive the location and distance of food sources (aka, pollen).
Scientists have a theory that birds may be using quantum mechanics to track magnetic fields. Birds have a light-sensing protein, cryptochrome, in their eyes that acts as a compass. It has the sensitivity of detecting magnetic fields when a light particle (photon) collides with electrons in a pair of the protein’s molecules, making their entangled state highly unstable and hence extremely reactive to the Earth’s magnetic field.
How about humans? A renowned Oxford mathematical physicist, Sir Roger Penrose, along with anesthesiologist Dr. Stuart Hameroff, developed a theory back in the mid-1990s called “Orchestrated Objective Reduction” (Orch OR). They theorized that consciousness springs from quantum vibrations inside microtubules in our brain’s neurons. This was highly criticized, but recent discoveries have proven them correct. Japan’s Dr. Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences, recently discovered the proposed quantum vibrations in microtubules. Similar discoveries at MIT also corroborated their theory.
In a review published in Physics of Life Reviews, Penrose and Hameroff noted, “The origin of consciousness reflects our place in the universe, the nature of our existence. Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain? This opens a potential Pandora’s Box, but our theory accommodates both these views, suggesting consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules, protein polymers inside brain neurons, which both govern neuronal and synaptic function, and connect brain processes to self-organizing processes in the fine scale, ‘proto-conscious’ quantum structure of reality.”
What does this boil down to? Our very consciousness is based on quantum vibrations in our brains. Bees are quantum-aware and use it to communicate. Birds use the instability of entangled pairs to detect magnetic fields. Nature itself, through billions of years of evolution, harnessed the mysterious powers within quantum mechanics way before humans existed.
Next Month’s Column: Electric vs. Petrol — The Good, Bad and Ugly
Electric vehicles are flooding the market and virtually every major automaker is committing most, if not all, its future vehicles to be all-electric. What’s the reality of owning one today and what does the future look like?
Find Out More
bit.ly/Quantum-Speed-of-Entanglement; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics; bit.ly/Wired-Quantum-Internet; bit.ly/IEEE-Quantum-Repeater-Prototype; bit.ly/IBM-Quantum-Cloud; tcrn.ch/TC-Worlds-Largest-Quantum-Computer; bit.ly/Volkswagen-Google-Quantum-Project; bit.ly/Wired-Quantum-Clock; bit.ly/Discover-Quantum-Bees; to.pbs.org/NOVA-Birds-Quantum-Navigate; bit.ly/Are-Brains-Quantum-Computers; bit.ly/Orch-Or-Theory; bit.ly/Phys-Org-Orch-OR-Theory-Validated
Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent Software, Inc. based in Bend. His hope is that writing articles such as this one will allow his mind to stop waking him up at 4am with “aha’s” and “oh-my’s” about the massive impact tech has on our collective future.