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Imagine super-fast computers that can solve problems much quicker than machines today. These “quantum computers” are being developed in laboratories around the world. But scientists have already taken the next step, and are thinking about a light-based quantum internet that will have to be just as fast.
It’s not easy to develop technology for a device that hasn’t technically been invented yet, but quantum communications is an attractive field of research because the technology will enable us to send messages that are much more secure.
There are several problems that will need to be solved in order to make a quantum internet possible:
- Getting quantum computers to talk to each other
- Making communications secure from hacking
- Transmitting messages over long distances without losing parts of the message; and
- Routing messages across a quantum network
What is a quantum computer?
A quantum computer is a machine that is able to crack very tough computation problems with incredible speed – beyond that of today’s “classical” computers.
In conventional computers, the unit of information is called a “bit” and can have a value of either 1 or 0. But its equivalent in a quantum system – the qubit (quantum bit) – can be both 1 and 0 at the same time. This phenomenon opens the door for multiple calculations to be performed simultaneously.
However, qubits need to be synchronised using a quantum effect known as entanglement, which Albert Einstein termed “spooky action at a distance”.
There are four types of quantum computers currently being developed, which use:
- Light particles
- Trapped ions
- Superconducting qubits
- Nitrogen vacancy centres in diamonds
Quantum computers will enable a multitude of useful applications, such as being able to model many variations of a chemical reaction to discover new medications; developing new imaging technologies for healthcare to better detect problems in the body; or to speed up how we design batteries, new materials and flexible electronics.
Pooling computing power
Quantum computers might be more powerful than classical computers, but some applications will require even more computing power than one quantum computer can provide on its own.
If you can get quantum devices to talk to each other, then you could connect several quantum computers together and pool their power to form one huge quantum computer.
However, since there are four different types of quantum computers being built today, they won’t be all be able to talk to each other without some help.
Some scientists favour a quantum internet based entirely on light particles (photons), while others believe that it would be easier to make quantum networks where light interacts with matter.
“Light is better for communications, but matter qubits are better for processing,” Joseph Fitzsimons, a principal investigator at the National University of Singapore’s Centre of Quantum Technologies tells the BBC.
“You need both to make the network work to establish error correction of the signal, but it can be difficult to make them interact.”
It is very expensive and difficult to store all information in photons, Mr Fitzsimons says, because photons can’t see each other and pass straight by, rather than bouncing off each other. Instead, he believes it would be easier to use light for communications, while storing information using electrons or atoms (in matter).
One of the key applications of the quantum internet will be quantum key distribution (QKD), whereby a secret key is generated using a pair of entangled photons, and is then used to encrypt information in a way that is impossible for a quantum computer to crack.
This technology already exists, and was first demonstrated in space by a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore and the University of Strathclyde, UK, in December 2015.
But it’s not just the encryption that we will need to build in order to secure our information in the quantum future.
“You can write something, send it to a remote computer and the person who owns the computer can’t tell anything about it at all except how long it took to run and how much memory it used,” says Mr Fitzsimons.
“This is important because there likely won’t be many quantum computers when they first appear, so people will want to remotely run programs on them, the way we do today in the cloud.”
There are two different approaches to building quantum networks – a land-based network and a space-based network.
Both methods work well for sending regular bits of data across the internet today, but if we want to send data as qubits in the future, it is much more complicated.
To send particles of light (photons), we can use fibre optic cables in the ground. However, the light signal deteriorates over long distances (a phenomenon known as “decoherence”), because fibre optics cables sometimes absorb photons.
It is possible to get around this by building “repeater stations” every 50km. These would essentially be miniature quantum laboratories that would try to repair the signal before sending it on to the next node in the network. But this system would come with its own complexities.
Land or space?
Then there are space-based networks. Let’s say you want to send a message from the UK to a friend in Australia. The light signal is beamed up from a ground station in the UK, to a satellite with a light source mounted on it.
The satellite sends the light signal to another satellite, which then beams the signal down to a ground station in Australia, and then the message can be transmitted over a ground-based quantum network or classical internet network to the other party.
“Because there’s no air between the satellites, there’s nothing to degrade the signal,” says Dr Jamie Vicary, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s department of computer science and a member of the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT).
“If we want to have a really global-scale quantum internet, it looks like a space-based solution is the only way that will work, but it’s the most expensive.”
Quantum teleportation via space has been conducted successfully, and scientists are currently vying to demonstrate longer and longer distances.
Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences generated headlines in June when they succeeded in teleporting entangled photons between two towns in China located 1,200km apart. They used a specially developed quantum satellite called Micius.
The same Chinese scientists recently topped their own record on 29 September, by demonstrating the world’s first intercontinental video call protected by a quantum key with researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences – over a distance of 7,700km.
The call lasted for 20 minutes and the parties were able to exchange encrypted pictures of the Micius satellite and Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger.
Rupert Ursin, senior group leader at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information believes the quantum internet will need land-based and space-based networks to operate in parallel.
“In the cities, we need a fibre network, but long haul connections will be covered by satellite links,” he explains.
How does quantum key distribution work?
To understand how QKD works, let’s go back to the video call made between the Austrian and Chinese scientists. The Micius satellite used its light source to establish optical links with the ground stations in Austria and the ground stations in China.
It was then able to generate a quantum key.
The great thing about quantum encryption is you can detect whether someone has tried to intercept the message before it got to you, and how many people tried to access it.
Micius was able to tell that the encryption was secure and no one was eavesdropping on the video call. It then gave the go ahead to encrypt the data using the secret key and transmit it over a public internet channel.
Multiple groups of scientists are developing land-based networks by working on the technologies for quantum repeater stations, which are located every 50km, connected by fibre optic cables.
These repeater stations, also known as “quantum network nodes”, will need to perform several actions in order to route, or direct, messages around the network.
First, each node needs to repair and boost the signal that was damaged from the previous 50km stretch of the network.
Imagine that you’re using an old fax machine to send a one-page document to someone else, and each time you send the page, a different part of the message is missing, and the other party has to piece the message together from all the failed attempts.
This is similar to how a single message may have to be sent between different nodes on a quantum network.
There will be many people on the network, all trying to talk to each other. So the node, or repeater station, will also have to figure out how to distribute its available computing power in order to piece together all the messages being sent. It will also have to send messages between the quantum internet and the classical internet.
The University of Delft is building a quantum network using nitrogen vacancies in diamonds, and it has so far shown the ability to store and distribute the links needed for quantum communications over quite large distances.
The University of Oxford and the University of Maryland are both currently building quantum computers that work in a similar way to a network. Their quantum computers consist of trapped ion nodes that have been networked together to talk to each other.
The bigger the computer you want, the more nodes you have to add, but this type of quantum computer only transmits data over a short distance.
“We want to make them small so they can be well-protected from decoherence, but if they’re small then they can’t hold many qubits,” says Dr Vicary.
“If we connect the nodes up in a network, then we can still have a quantum computer without being limited by the number of qubits, while still protecting the nodes.”
The repeater station will also need to have a quantum memory chip. The nodes create “links”, which consist of entangled pairs of light particles. These entangled pairs are prepared in advance.
While the node calculates the route across the network that the message will need to take, it needs to store the entangled pair of photons somewhere safe, so a quantum memory chip is needed. It has to be able to store the photons for as long as possible.
Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) have developed a telecom-compatible quantum memory chip using an erbium-doped crystal. This device is able to store light in the right colour and it is able to do so for longer than one second, which is 10,000 times longer than all other attempts so far.
“The biggest challenge is now to demonstrate a quantum memory with a large data storage capacity,” associate professor Matthew Sellars, program manager in the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at ANU tells the BBC.
“It will be the memory’s storage capacity that will limit the data transmission rate through the network.
“I think it will take about five years before the technology [for the quantum internet] is practical.”
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— BET (@BET) October 11, 2017
Eminem just laid down a ridiculous fire freestyle at BET’s 2017 Hip Hop Awards. The verses burnt so brightly hey could even give Donald Trump a darker tan from thousands of miles away as Em repeatedly slammed into the president for pretty much existing. In a dark parking garage, hood up, Marshall Mathers paced angrily, but with purpose, calling out every possible hypocrisy made by Trump. In other words, it was a long cypher, clocking in at almost five minutes long.
“Same ish he slandered and tortured Hillary for, he gets in office and does it more,” Em growled as the veins in his neck bulged.
“Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his, I’m drawing in the sand a line—you’re either for or against. And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split on who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this: f*ck you.”
Now you can only imagine Donald Trump figuring out a way for Mike Pence to attend the next Eminem concert, just to have him walk out immediately. Anyway, Twitter is going nuts over the freestyle, which will go down as one of the most legendary performances of Em’s great career.
But then, Slim “has Donald Trump’s vote.”
R2-D2. Ewoks. BB-8. With nearly every addition to the Star Wars film franchise, there has been some new creature or droid that has delighted audiences and found its way onto lunchboxes and pajama bottoms. Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be no different. This time around, though, the fandom’s obsession with the movie’s creature du jour is already in full swing long before the flick hits theaters.
Mere moments after The Last Jedi’s new trailer (above) dropped last night, it started: porg mania. The little creature—a Furby-esque species native to the world where Rey and Luke Skywalker met at the end of The Force Awakens—only shows up for about a second in the new trailer, but its singular cry from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon was all it took. Soon, tweets, memes, and fan art were everywhere. There was no escaping its giant saucer eyes and frantically flapping wings.
This reaction was by design. Much like the studio did with BB-8 before Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has been touting porgs as the New Cute Thing for a few months now. It started back in July when a D23 behind-the-scenes video a showed the little bugger in development. That was quickly followed by a piece on StarWars.com that touted “We know only one truth: We love porgs” and offered up a full explanation of their cuteness from Lucasfilm story group’s Pablo Hidalgo. “Porgs are native to Ahch-To,” he explained. “In many ways, they’re the Star Wars version of puffins. They build nests. They can fly. Their babies are called porglets. You fall into those deep, soulful eyes. I think a lot of people are going to want a porg as a pet.”
The porgåsbord continued with Lucasfilm announcing upcoming porg toys, Tumblr filling up with fan tributes, and director Rian Johnson talking about how a group of porgs is called “a murder” (like crows). By last night, folks were so invested in them they were sliding into Johnson’s mentions with frustrations that the director had gotten a Twitter hastag avatar for his name while one didn’t exist for the poor little guy. The embrace of porgs has not been universal, though. Some are already dismissing the creatures as a marketing ploy, and wondering if they’re destined to be the new Ewoks—creatures that divide Star Wars fans for years to come.
That nerd war has yet to be fought, however, and we won’t know the outcome until after Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theaters on December 15. In the meantime, let’s join the internet in celebrating the pug-like puffins while they’re still cute.
According to Twitter’s well-worn origin story, the 140-character limit for tweets was born out of the now bygone restrictions of text messaging. The founders wanted Twitter to be used via SMS; at the time, messages were capped at 160 characters. (The extra 20 accommodated user names.) A few years after the company’s founding in 2006, text message limits had disappeared, but Twitter’s restriction remained. It became a cultural institution. People like working within its constrictions; it’s almost an art form for some. But today, Twitter announced that it’s toying with the idea of upping the character count to 280. And just like that, Twitter became that annoying jackass on Twitter who screenshots something from the Notes app to try to get more words in edgewise.
The news provoked an immediate reaction, not much of it good. #280characters became a popular hashtag; users bemoaned what would happen if President Trump had even more runway; even Jack Dorsey’s biggie-sized tweet announcing the news got worked over. In general, the news did not go over well. (Though, some cheered the idea that a few more characters might curtail the #thread.)
The issue with Twitter changing its character limit isn’t that it’s trying out a new feature, it’s that the company is basically altering one of the last pure, long-standing rules of online culture.
But is this actually bad? It’s just Twitter, right? Sure, but here’s the thing. While all social media services change—Instagram gets new filters, Facebook integrates bizarre emoji reactions—Twitter isn’t just trying out a new feature; the company is basically altering one of the last pure, long-standing rules of online culture. Granted, Twitter has tested the boundaries of the character limit for a while now, but it never fully broke them. Millions of users have condensed their witticisms to 140 characters or less for over a decade now; removing that one constant just feels wrong.
Twitter has been under a lot of scrutiny lately—for not handling harassment very well, for not letting users edit tweets, for providing trolls with a platform and playground. It deserves most of those criticisms, but they stem from things Twitter didn’t do, issues the service hasn’t responded to quickly enough. For the expanding-character-limit initiative, the critiques focused squarely on something Twitter did that it didn’t have to. They focused on Twitter screwing up the one thing it’s always done right.
Net neutrality is a contentious topic that has been the subject of numerous debates and continues to make news almost every day. So what is it exactly?
The major Las Vegas fight is likely the start of a long string of rematches between the two fighters who put on a show on Saturday night. Both have already agreed to stage a rematch in the future, and both claimed victory in part after the match.
But the reality is the judge’s decision, which was a draw. Much of the Internet’s reaction was in favor of Golovkin, who most thought won a majority of the match’s rounds. There was plenty of firey Tweets late Sunday night.
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