CHICAGO: Lightning bolts of what could become a transformative new technology shoot through a fiber optic network beneath Chicago.
Researchers have created one of the greatest in the world – a scientific field that is based on paradoxes so strange that Albert Einstein did not believe in them.
The network, which connects the University of Chicago to Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, is a rudimentary version of what scientists hope to one day become. For now, it’s open to companies and researchers to test the fundamentals of quantum information sharing.
The network was announced this week by the Chicago Quantum Exchange – which also involves Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Northwestern University, University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin.
With federal investment of US$500 million (RM2.2 trillion) in recent years and US$200 million (RM880 million) from the state, Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Madison form a premier region plan for quantum information research.
Why is this important for the average person? Because quantum information has the potential to help solve currently intractable problems, both to threaten and protect private information, and to lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine and climate change.
While classical computing uses bits of information containing either a 1 or a zero, quantum bits, or qubits, are like a coin tossed into the air – they contain both a 1 and a zero, to be determined once observed.
This quality 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. This is also a potentially crucial advantage, as it can handle exponentially more complex problems.
Another key aspect is the property of entanglement, in which qubits separated by large distances can still be correlated, so that a measurement in one place reveals a measurement far away.
The recently expanded Chicago array, created in collaboration with Toshiba, distributes particles of light, called photons. Trying to intercept the photons destroys them and the information they contain – making it much more difficult
The new network allows researchers to “push the boundaries of what is currently possible,” said University of Chicago professor David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
However, researchers must solve many practical problems before large-scale quantum computing and networking is possible.
For example, Argonne researchers are working to create a “foundry” where reliable qubits could be forged. An example is one with tiny pockets to hold and process qubits of information. Argonne researchers have also been freezing neon to hold a single electron.
Because quantum phenomena are extremely sensitive to any disturbance, 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 launched in Argonne in 2020, but has now expanded to Hyde Park and is open to businesses and researchers to test new communication devices, security protocols and algorithms. Any business that depends on secure information, such as financial records from banks or medical records from hospitals, would potentially use such a system.
Quantum computers, although under development, may one day be able to perform much more complex calculations than current computers, such as, which could be useful in the development of drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to stimulating research, the quantum field stimulates the economic development of 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 more are starting up in the area.
Because quantum computing could be used to crack traditional encryption, it has also drawn bipartisan attention from 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 ordered the federal agency to migrate to quantum-resistant cryptography on its most critical defense and intelligence systems.
Ironically, basic math problems, such as 5 + 5 = 10, are somewhat difficult thanks to quantum computing. Quantum information will likely be used for high-end applications, while classical computing will likely continue to be practical for many everyday uses.
The famous physicist Einstein poked fun at the paradoxes and uncertainties of quantum mechanics, saying that God doesn’t “play dice” with the universe. But quantum theories have been proven correct in applications ranging from nuclear power to MRIs.
Stephen Gray, a senior scientist at Argonne who is working on algorithms to run on quantum computers, said quantum work is very difficult and no one fully understands it.
But there have been significant developments in the field over the past 30 years, leading to what some scientists have jokingly called Quantum 2.0, with practical advances expected over the next decade.
“We’re betting that in the next five to 10 years there will be a real quantum advantage (over classical computing),” Gray said. “We are not there yet. Some naysayers are shaking their canes and saying it will never happen. But we are positive.
Just as early work on conventional computers eventually led to cellphones, it’s hard to predict where quantum research will lead, said Brian DeMarco, a physics professor 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 remain to be discovered.” – Chicago Tribune/apd