There is an international quantum teleportation space race heating up. Around the world, countries are investing time and millions of dollars into the technology, which uses satellites to beam bits of quantum information down from the sky and and could profoundly change worldwide communication.
This is not a maybe-sort-of-one-day quantum technology. Quantum teleportation has been proven experimentally many times over and researchers are now eyeing the heavens as their next big leap forward. Most of what remains are the nuts and bolts engineering challenges (and some more money) before it becomes a thing of the present.
Though it may be disappointing to hear, quantum teleportation is not about instantly sending a person or object between two places – this is no “Beam me up, Scotty,” or “Bampf!” Instead, the technique involves the perhaps even freakier task of separating a subatomic particle from its quantum state.
“Once you disembody the state of one of particle, you can then recreate the particle in remote copy,” said physicist and computer scientist Charles Bennett of IBM, who co-authored the first paper on quantum teleportation in 1993.
Though the team’s paper was purely theoretical at the time, scientists since then have done many experiments teleporting particles over longer and longer distances. In the past year, a team from China and another in Austria set new records for quantum teleportation, using a laser to beam photons through the open air over 60 and 89 miles, respectively. This is many times farther than the previous record of 10 miles, set in 2010 by the same Chinese team. With scientists extending quantum teleportation to such distances, many are already considering the next step: zapping particles and information from an orbiting satellite to a relay station on Earth.
If developed, quantum teleportation satellites could allow spies to pass large amounts of information back and forth or create unhackable codes. Should we ever build quantum computers – which would be smaller and exponentially more powerful than modern computers, able to model complex phenomenon, rapidly crunch numbers, and render modern encryption keys useless – they would need quantum teleporters in order to be networked together in a quantum version of the internet.
China plans to launch a satellite with a quantum teleportation experiment payload in 2016 and the European, Japanese, and Canadian space agencies are hoping to fund their own quantum teleportation satellite projects in the coming years. Conspicuously, the U.S. is far behind the pack because of a bureaucratic reshuffling that left quantum communication research experiments without government support in 2008. Whoever loses this new competition could fail to capitalize on the promise of quantum communication altogether.