Just a few days after the Trump administration announced it would be pouring $75 million to build three new national institutes dedicated to quantum computing, the Department of Energy took those plans one step further by rolling out its own blueprint for full-on quantum internet that could be up and running within the coming decade.
According to the Department, the “backbone” of this new internet system—which “will rely on the laws of quantum mechanics to control and transmit information more securely than ever before,”—will be based across the 17 different DOE laboratories housed across the country. Funding, meanwhile, will come off the back of the more than $1 billion the president agreed to pump into the country’s quantum research when the National Quantum Initiative Act was signed in late 2018.
What a “quantum internet” means in practice is.... kind of up for debate, but the general idea involves building out quantum networking devices designed to send quantum-entangled data. To bring that network nationwide, the team would have to make sure that these signals can also work across our current networks of fiber-optic cables, and then use those pre-existing networks to send that data “across campuses or cities.” If that works, the team plans to expand those networks “between cities,” and between states after that, using quantum “repeaters” to amplify those signals.
One of the biggest reasons the U.S. is trying to beat out other countries in the quest for quantum supremacy is just how dang secure quantum computers actually are. Unlike typical data that’s transmitted over fiber-optic networks, quantum data can’t be tampered with or even observed by foreign adversaries or the NSA, which makes the idea appealing to an administration that’s increasingly focused on cyberattacks both here and abroad.
It’s still, admittedly, in the early days for any sort of quantum internet to be built out—but the Energy Department has started taking steps. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago have already built a fully functioning quantum network using unused fiber that’s already 52 miles long, and could expand to a full 80 miles once the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory comes on board.
According to the Energy Department, this would be a government research project first and foremost—meaning that it’s unlikely any of us will be surfing the quantum internet as soon as it rolls around. Then again, it’s also worth noting the internet we’re all currently scrolling through was once a government pet project of its own, so it’s not entirely out of the question that quantum computing might be a part of our lives somewhere (far, far) down the line.