One of the biggest questions of our modern age is how best to transmit enormous amounts of data over larger and larger spaces. Now, quantum theorists suggest that “teleportation”—something previously dreamed of by Star Trek and Willy Wonka—could be the quantum secret to unlock truly lossless data transmission.
In new research, scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and quantum workgroups at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, suggest that quantum data transfer could blow our minds. Their research, which experiments with capturing and recovering stray photons during data transfers, appears in Nature Communications.
We’ll set the scene by imagining some different data scenarios. Think about the simple telegraph set, where one wire carries a signal that is transmitted one zap or quiet space at a time. These zaps travel all the way back and forth as electrons are swapped on the molecular level. At its simplest level, that’s what electricity is.
Now, imagine a computer network where files are passed back and forth to and from a server or among different workstations. The passage of these files appears to be lightning-fast, but in reality, different pieces are being passed back and forth one at a time. The algorithms that manage it even have “collision detection” to make sure that less data is lost when pieces collide in the cables.
Both of these scenarios involve passing data. They seem very different in complexity, but both also represent a simple paradigm: continuous flow. In these situations, data pours in one direction or the other like water from a pitcher. Sometimes it alternates, but the flow is still continuous through the pipes.
Here’s the other thing about continuous or linear flow of information: there is loss. Even in computer networks, packets of data do sometimes collide or drop, and get lost. And in a massive local fiber optic network, for example, the light bounces around inside the fiber—with some inevitable loss from the nature of light itself. “Loss-induced noise, e.g., from scattering and diffraction, is inevitable in long-distance information transfer,” the researchers write.
Even with cutting-edge transfer of data, like in massive fiber optic trunks that connect entire cities or countries, bouncing light particles are what power the entire technology. These technologies shed photons, so finding ways to cut down on loss is a huge industry unto itself. The more data we send, the more the tiny losses add up to real amounts of data lost.
To study loss, the scientists first set up an experiment where a non-important photon was bounced into a position where it would intentionally be lost in the interference noise. To control the loss, they first applied a device called a noiseless linear amplifier. When it works, this device seems to “catch” the errant photon, return it to the quantum state, and zoom it back into the healthy portion of the data.
Next, the researchers want to test this method for long-distance quantum cryptography. After that, they can start dreaming of a truly secure global quantum network.