What Happened to Quantum Networks?

A few years ago, there were a lot of predictions that we’d see broadband networks converting to quantum technology because of the enhanced security. As happens with many new technologies, quantum computing is advancing at a slower pace than the wild predictions that accompanied the launch of the new technology.

What are quantum computing and quantum networks? The computers we use today are all Turing machines that convert data into bits represented by either a 1 or a 0 and then process data linearly through algorithms. Quantum computing takes advantage of a property found in subatomic particles called superposition, meaning that particles can operate simultaneously in more than one state, such as an electron that is at two different levels. Quantum computing mimics this subatomic world by creating what are called qubits, which can exist as both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. One cubit can perform two calculations at once, but when many cubits are used simultaneously, the number of simultaneous calculations grows exponentially. A four-cubit computer can perform 24 or 16 calculations at the same time. Some quantum computers are currently capable of 1,000 cubits, or 21000 simultaneous calculations.

We are starting to see quantum computing in the telecom space. In 2020, Verizon conducted a network trial using quantum key distribution technology (QKD). This uses a method of encryption that might be unhackable. Photons are sent one at a time alongside an encrypted fiber optic transmission. If anybody attempts to intercept or listen to the encrypted light stream, the polarization of the photons is impacted, and the sender and receiver of the message both know instantly that the transmission is no longer safe. The theory is that this will stop hackers before they can learn enough to crack into and analyze a data stream. Verizon also added a second layer of security using a quantum random number generator that updates the encryption key randomly in a way that can’t be predicted.

A few months ago, EPB, the municipal fiber provider in Chattanooga, announced a partnership with Qubitekk to let customers on the City’s fiber network connect to a quantum computer. The City is hoping to attract companies to the City that want to benefit from quantum computing. The City has already heard from Fortune 500 companies, startups, and government agencies that are interested in using the quantum computer links.

EBP has established the quantum network separate from its last-mile network to accommodate the special needs of a quantum network transmission. The quantum network uses more than 200 existing dark fibers to establish customer links on the quantum network. EPB engineers will constantly monitor the entangled particles on the quantum network.

Quantum computing is most useful for applications that require large numbers of rapid calculations. For example, quantum computing could produce faster and more detailed weather maps in real time. Quantum computing is being used in research on drugs or exotic materials where scientists can compare multiple complex molecular structures easily. One of the most interesting current uses is that quantum computing can greatly speed up the processing power of artificial intelligence that is now sweeping the world.

It doesn’t look like quantum networking is coming to most fiber networks any time soon. The biggest holdup is the creation of efficient and cost-effective quantum computers. Today, most of these computers are in labs at universities or government facilities. The potential for quantum computing is so large that the technology could explode onto the scene when the hardware issue is solved.

Technology Right Around the Corner

Every once in a while I like to review technologies outside of telecom that are going to be impacting most of us in the near future. Today I’m writing about some technologies that seem likely to become commonplace within the next five years. Of course, as with any new innovation, the way these ideas are marketed and implemented will likely mean that some will become bigger than expected and others might fizzle.

Self-driving Trucks. It seems inevitable that we are going to eventually live in a world of smart cars that can drive themselves. But before we get to that place many industry experts believe that the first mass-adopted use of the new technologies will appear in long-haul trucking. The challenges for using self-driving trucks for local deliveries are a lot more complex and may not be solved until trucks are somehow paired with robots to load and unload local goods.

We spend a huge amount of money in this country moving things from one place to another, and our current system of using human drivers has some built-in inefficiencies. Trucking today is limited to a big extent due to the number of hours that a driver is allowed to drive per day due to safety regulations. Self-driving trucks can drive around the clock and only need to stop occasionally to refuel. The combination of eliminating truck-driver salaries and also extending the hours of daily drive time provides a huge economic incentive to make this work. There have already been trials of self-driving trucks. Another strategy being tried in Europe is to create truck convoys, with a live driver in the first truck leading a pack of self-driving trucks.

Enhanced Vision. IBM predicts that soon there will be inexpensive technology available that will enable us to ‘see’ in a wide range of spectrum including microwaves, millimeter waves and infrared. There have been infrared goggles available for decades, but IBM says that there will be glasses or small handheld devices that will operate in a similar manner and that will let us see in these other frequencies.

This opens up a wide range of products that will let people see at night, will let cars see through fog and rain, and will let workers and technicians see their work environment in a different and useful manner. In telecom picture a technician able to ‘see’ a millimeter-wave microwave beam to more efficiently install receivers. Imagine linemen able to climb and fix aerial cables easily at night.

But the possibilities for better vision are immense. Imagine policemen knowing in a glance if somebody is carrying a concealed weapon. Or consider a metal worker who can ‘see’ flaws in metal work that are not detectable with normal light. And perhaps best imagine being able to hike in the woods at night and able to see with the same clarity as the daytime.

Practical Quantum Computers. These have been on many lists of future technologies, but it looks like 2017 is the year that is finally going to see some practical developments of this new technology. There have been tiny steps taken in the field with D-Wave Systems of Canada now selling a precursor machine that uses a technology known as quantum annealing. But there is a lot of big money being put into the technology by Google, IBM, Microsoft and others that might lead to soon building a working quantum computer including the needed chips and the complex circuitry along with needed control software.

The challenge to building workable quantum computers has been the fact that the qubits – the basic unit of quantum information – are susceptible to interference. For qubits to work they must be able to achieve the dual states of quantum superposition (seeming to be in two physical states at the same time) and entanglement (the linking of a pair of qubits such that when something happens to one it simultaneously changes the paired qubit as well). The rewards for making this work means the development of computers that far exceed the reach of today’s best supercomputers. Various scientists working in the field say that breakthroughs are imminent.

The Cell Atlas. There have been great strides over the last decades in deciphering DNA and other chemical reactions within the human body. The next big challenge now being tackled is to create what is being called a cell atlas that will map all of the different types of cells in the human body. The goal is to understand in detail the exact function and location within the body of different kinds of cells as a way understand how cells interact with each other. It’s a huge undertaking since the human body contains over 37 trillion cells. Teams of scientists in the US, the UK, Sweden, Israel, Japan, and the Netherlands are undertaking this task. They are planning to catalog the different kinds of cells, assign each a different molecular signature and then map each kind of cell in a three-dimensional map of the body.

Many of the kinds of cells in our bodies have been studied in detail. But scientists expect the mapping process to uncover many additional kinds of cells and to also begin to let them start to understand the way that cells interface with the rest of the body. They are certain that this process will lead to many new discoveries and a far better understanding of the human body.

The process relies on three different technologies. The first is cellular microfluidics which allows scientists to isolate and manipulate individual cells and allows for a detailed analysis. The second are new machines that can rapidly decode individual cells for just a few cents per cell. These machines can decode as many as 10,000 cells per day. Finally there are new technologies that allow for labeling different kinds of cells on the basis of gene activity and to ‘map’ the location of the particular kind of cell within the body.