CHICAGO: Flashes of what could become transformative new technology stream through a network of fiber optics beneath Chicago.
Researchers have created one of the greatest in the world – a field of science that depends on paradoxes so strange Albert Einstein didn’t believe them.
The network connecting the University of Chicago to Lemont’s Argonne National Laboratory is a rudimentary version of what scientists hope will one day become the internet of the future. For now, it’s open to companies and researchers to test the fundamentals of quantum information exchange.
The network was announced this week by the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which also includes Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin.
With US$500 million (RM2.2 trillion) in federal investment in recent years and US$200 million (RM880 million) from the state, Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Madison form a leading region for quantum information research.
Why does this matter to the average person? Because quantum information has the potential to solve currently unsolvable problems, threaten and protect private information, and lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine and climate change.
While classical computers use bits of information that contain either a 1 or a zero, quantum bits, or qubits, are like a coin tossed in the air – they contain both a 1 and a zero that must be determined once observed.
This property of being in two or more states at once, called superposition, is one of the many paradoxes of quantum mechanics – how particles behave at the atomic and subatomic level. It’s also a potentially crucial advantage, as it can handle exponentially more complex problems.
Another important aspect is the property of entanglement, where qubits separated by large distances can still be correlated, so that a measurement at one location reveals a measurement far away.
The newly expanded Chicago network, created in collaboration with Toshiba, disperses particles of light called photons. Attempting to intercept the photons will destroy them and the information they contain – making hacking far more difficult.
The new network allows researchers “to push the boundaries of what is currently possible,” said Professor David Awschalom of the University of Chicago, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
However, researchers need to solve many practical problems before large-scale quantum computing and networks are possible.
For example, researchers at Argonne are working to create a “foundry” that could be used to forge reliable qubits. An example is one with tiny pockets for holding and processing qubits of information. Researchers at Argonne have also frozen neon to hold a single electron.
Since quantum phenomena are extremely sensitive to any perturbation, they could also be used as tiny sensors for medical or other applications – but they would also have to be made more durable.
The quantum network was launched in Argonne in 2020 but has now been extended to Hyde Park and opened up for use by businesses and researchers to test new communication devices, security protocols and algorithms. Any business that relies on secure information, such as financial records from banks or medical records from hospitals, would potentially use such a system.
Quantum computers, which are still under development, could one day perform far more complex calculations than current computers, which could be useful, for example, in the development of drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
In addition to driving research, the quantum field stimulates economic development in the region. A hardware company, EeroQ, announced in January that it was moving its headquarters to Chicago. Another local software company was recently acquired and several others are launching in the region.
Because quantum computers could be used to hack traditional encryption, it has also attracted the bipartisan attention of federal lawmakers. The National Quantum Initiative Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018 to accelerate quantum development for national security purposes.
In May, President Joe Biden directed the federal agency to migrate its key defense and intelligence systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.
Ironically, basic math problems like 5 + 5 = 10 are a bit difficult through quantum computing. Quantum information is likely to be used for high-end applications, while classical computing will likely continue to be practical for many everyday applications.
The renowned physicist Einstein famously scoffed at the paradoxes and uncertainties of quantum mechanics, saying that God does not “play dice” with the universe. But quantum theories have been proven correct in applications ranging from nuclear energy to MRIs.
Stephen Gray, a senior scientist at Argonne who works on algorithms running on quantum computers, said that quantum work is very difficult and that nobody fully understands it.
However, there have been significant developments in the field over the past 30 years, leading to what some scientists jokingly dubbed Quantum 2.0, with practical advances expected over the next decade.
“We’re betting that there’s going to be real quantum advantage (over classical computing) in the next five to 10 years,” Gray said. “We’re not there yet. Some naysayers shake their sticks and say it will never happen. But we are confident.”
Just as early work on traditional computers eventually led to cell phones, it’s hard to predict where quantum research will lead, said Brian DeMarco, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who works with the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
“That’s why it’s an exciting time,” he said. “The most important applications have yet to be discovered.” – Chicago Tribune/dpa