You Won’t See Quantum Internet Coming
Alternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.
The quantum internet is coming sooner than you think—even sooner than quantum computing itself. When things change over, you might not even notice. But when they do, new rules will protect your data against attacks from computers that don’t even exist yet.
Despite the fancy name, the “quantum internet” won’t be some futuristic new way to navigate online. It won’t produce any mind-blowing new content, at least not for decades. The quantum internet will look more or less the same as the internet you’re using now, but scientists and cryptographers hope it could provide protection against not only theoretical threats but also those we haven’t dreamed up yet.
“The main contribution of a quantum internet is to allow encrypted communication in a perfectly secure fashion that can’t be broken in principle, even if in the future we develop a more fundamental theory of physics,” Ciarán Lee, a researcher at University College, London, explained to Gizmodo. In short, the quantum internet would hopefully protect us from planned new computers, along with every theoretical computer for the foreseeable future.
So what’s the quantum internet? It’s what happens when you apply the weird rules of quantum mechanics to the way computers communicate with one another.
Quantum mechanics says that the smallest things, like subatomic particles, are restricted to a list of distinct values for certain properties (their energy, for example). When you’re not looking at them, they might enter a superposition of states, meaning taking on several values simultaneously—both the lowest and the second-lowest energy states, for example. But once they are measured, they assume only one of the values. The value you see is determined based on some innate probability. But you can also entangle these particles’ states, meaning when you repeat the measurements many times, they seem more related than you’d expect from two independent things following the usual rules of probability.
Researchers are working toward incorporating these weird rules into computing and networking. Computers that rely on quantum processors, based on quantum bits that can take on a superposition of states or entangle, might quickly create accurate simulations of molecules, enhance Artificial Intelligence, and solve other problems faster than regular computers can. No company has yet experimentally demonstrated that quantum computers can beat classical computers at anything, though they’re trying and may do so soon. A quantum computer worth worrying about is likely decades away.
Some of the potential problems that researchers think a quantum computer would excel at solving form the very basis of present-day encryption. And that is concerning.
“If quantum computers are on the horizon, then we need to prepare the internet to be secure against quantum computers,” Lily Chen, project leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Cryptographic Technology Group, told Gizmodo.
Today, internet communications are secured by algorithms like (Diffie–Hellman) key exchange or the RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) system. These algorithms scramble the message using a mathematical formula with some non-secret key n