Quantum Internet: the next big thing for cloud?

The next big thing? During the holiday break, I explained what I do to a relative over dinner. They asked me about "quantum Internet" having skim-read an online article a few days earlier and wondering if it might be "the next big thing in cloud computing".

Perhaps you’ve heard about quantum Internet. Maybe you even think you understand it. I say "think" because it’s widely noted by people far wiser than I that anyone who thinks they understand quantum theory, doesn’t. It’s probably fair to say in fact, that to most people their sole understanding anything of anything "quantum" is limited either to dishwasher tablets or the the acting talents of Scott Bakula. To many others, it’s simply become synonymous with "next generation" as was the case with my questioner.

However, if you haven’t heard about it, you will. Expect this to show up in future tech forecasts a lot. It’s a long, long way off though, so don’t get too excited. There does appear to be a fair amount of sensationalist link bait out there which might lead you to think otherwise.

So, before we decide if quantum Internet will revolutionise cloud computing, let’s cover some background.

Quantum what?

This useful Guardian link describes a recent (December) successful experiment whereby some boffins from Eindhoven managed to produce single photons, conforming to specific shapes, on demand. This could form the basic building blocks of a future quantum Internet, where light photons are used to encode data.

As a brief aside for the consumer tech fans amongst you, it’s interesting to note the experiment was completed using "quantum dots". Expect to hear more about this at CES in January, where the major TV companies will announce releases for 2015 built on underlying tech like this. If you want a massive TV, this will bring you some fabulously sharp images.

Back to quantum Internet however, and we should highlight that one of the reasons people are excited about the concept is for secure key distribution since, in theory, the transmitted information cannot be read by any party without disrupting the end state of the data, the end recipient would quickly know whether or not their encryption keys were mathematically "safe".

This is either a very good thing, or a very bad thing, depending on your point of view. Most would tend towards good. One wonders if Edward Snowden would have had such notoriety with such unbreakable encryption in place. Certainly this is what is driving major government research in this area, and indeed some financial institutions, to start using quantum key distribution already in limited senses.

Assuming we could make quantum Internet a full-scale reality, what would it connect beyond these key distribution applications? Well, quantum computers of course… which don’t exist yet.

Things gets pretty complex here, but you need to start to think not in bits, but in qubits, where instead of either 0 or 1, you have both 0 and 1… at the same time. As a gross oversimplification, this would work by using the 'spin' property of particle rather than simply the 'charge'. Think you understand that? If you’re feeling brave, have a read up on 'entanglement' - see if you too find it spooky.

As above, with the exception of key distribution, this is some way off being understood and implemented. However, quantum computing could unleash incredible mathematical power and help to solve some of humanity’s great challenges (or at least make some drug companies very rich). Seriously, the common applications cited typically relate to Big Pharma, accurate (!) weather prediction or artificial intelligence - basically anything where there’s some hard maths to be done.

Be patient

So, what’s the summary? Quantum key distribution is coming, and if you’ve got very high value data (think "Swiss bank" value), you’ll probably start seeing this discussed. Scientists are also starting to make some breakthroughs which could help to link some much theorised, but non-existent, quantum computers together.

Am I excited yet? Not really. But I’m glad some people are - this is how we advance ourselves. Do note that quantum networks are being built at a small scale right now. Read up on the fun that’s being had with repeaters to try and beat the 100KM or so distance transmission limits. (How do you think you repeat a signal when the very act of reading it changes its state….?)

My answer to the original question posed is that there’s no major application to cloud computing specifically, and certainly not in the next few years, but it’s interesting nonetheless - at a minimum for key distribution and cryptographic applications, but not for general purpose IT as such.

Do you see other applications for this tech? Add a comment if so - I’d love to hear from you. Maybe one day, perhaps in 2030, you’ll use a quantum Internet to access a centralised super quantum computer to perform some calculations for you in the cloud. Come to think of it, want to place a bet on the first Quantum as a Service provider?