UArizona Scientists to Build What Einstein Wrote off as Science Fiction

Scientist working on an experimental setup as part of the Center for Quantum Networking

Training tomorrow's quantum engineer workforce is just one of the declared goals of the new Center for Quantum Networks, funded by the National Science Foundation to create a socially responsible of the internet of the future.

Dylan Renaud/Harvard University

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey today joined University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins and leading scientists from the new University of Arizona-based Center for Quantum Networks to talk about how the center will help develop the "internet of the future."

The National Science Foundation has awarded UArizona a five-year, $26 million grant – with an additional $24 million, five-year option – to lead the Center for Quantum Networks, or CQN, which is a  National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. The award has placed Arizona at the forefront of quantum networking technologies, which are expected to transform areas such as medicine, finance, data security, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and smart devices, which together are often are referred to as "the internet of things."

"Arizona continues to lead the nation in innovation. Establishing the Center for Quantum Networks will position the state as a global leader in advancing this technology and developing the workforce of the future," Gov. Doug Ducey said. "We're proud of the work the University of Arizona has done to secure this grant and look forward to the scientific achievements that will result from it."

The CQN will take center stage in a burgeoning field. Companies like IBM, Microsoft and Google are racing to build reliable quantum computers, and China has invested billions of dollars in quantum technology research. The U.S. has begun a serious push to exceed China's investment and to "win" the global race to harness quantum technologies.

"Less than a year ago, a quantum computer for the first time performed certain calculations that are no longer feasible for even the largest conventional supercomputers," said Saikat Guha, CQN director and principal investigator and associate professor in the UArizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, who joined Ducey and Robbins for the virtual event. "The quantum internet will allow for applications that will never be possible on the internet as we know it."

Unlike the existing internet – in which computers around the globe exchange data encoded in the familiar 0s and 1s – the quantum internet will rely on a global network of quantum processors speaking to one another via "quantum bits," or qubits.

Qubits offer dramatic increases in processing capacity over conventional bits because they can exist in not just one state, but two at the same time. Known as superposition, this difficult-to-grasp principle was first popularized by "Schrödinger's Cat" – the famous thought experiment in which an imaginative cat inside a box is neither dead nor alive until an equally imaginative observer opens the box and checks.

The key new resource that the quantum network enables – by being able to communicate qubits from one point to another – is to create "entanglement" across various distant users of the network. Entanglement – another hallmark of quantum mechanics so strange that even Einstein was reluctant to accept it at first – allows a pair of particles, including qubits, to stay strongly correlated despite being separated by large physical distances. Entanglement enables communication among parties that is impossible to hack.

One of the center's goals is to develop technologies that will put the entanglement principle to use in real-world applications – for example, to stitch together far-apart sensors, such as the radio telescopes that glimpsed the first image of a black hole in space, into one giant instrument that is far more capable than the sum of the individual sensors. Similar far-reaching implications are expected in the autonomous vehicles industry and in medicine.

"Who knows, 50 years from now, your internet service provider may send a technician to your house to install a CQN-patented quantum-enabled router that does everything your current router does, but more," Guha said. "It lets you hook up your quantum gadgets to what we are beginning to build today – the new internet of the future."

A first-of-its-kind campuswide quantum networking testbed will be built at the University of Arizona, connecting laboratories across the UArizona campus, initially spanning the College of Optical Sciences, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the BIO5 Institute.

"The next few years will be very exciting, as we are at a time when the community puts emerging quantum computers, processors, sensors and other gadgets to real use," Guha said. "We are just beginning to connect small quantum computers, sensors and other gadgets into quantum networks that transmit quantum bits."

According to Guha, quantum-enabled sensors will be more sensitive than classical ones, and will dramatically improve technologies such as microscopes used in biomedical research to look for cancer cells, sensors on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and magnetic field sensors used for positioning and navigation.

Guha says today's internet is a playground for hackers, due to insecure communication links to inadequately guarded data in the cloud. Quantum systems will provide a level of privacy, security and computational clout that is impossible to achieve with today's internet.

"The Center for Quantum Networking stands as an example for the core priorities of our university-wide strategic plan," said UArizona President Robert C. Robbins. "As a leading international research university bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to life, we are deeply committed to (our strategic plan to) advance amazing new information technologies like quantum networking to benefit humankind. And we are equally committed to examining the complex, social, legal, economic and policy questions raised by these new technologies.

"In addition to bringing researchers together from intellectually and culturally diverse disciplines, the CQN will provide future quantum engineers and social scientists with incredible learning opportunities and the chance to work side by side with the world's leading experts."

The center will bring together scientists, engineers and social scientists working on quantum information science and engineering and its societal impacts. UArizona has teamed up with core partners Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University to work on the core hardware technologies for quantum networks and create an entrepreneurial ecosystem for quantum network technology transfer.

In addition to creating a diverse quantum engineering workforce, the center will develop a roadmap with industry partners to help prioritize CQN's research investments in response to new application concepts generated by the center.

Jane Bambauer, CQN co-deputy director and professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law, who also spoke about the center, said that "the classical internet changed our relationship to computers and each other."

"While we build the technical foundations for the quantum internet, we are also building the foundation for a socially responsible rollout of the new technology," Bambauer said. "We are embedding policy and social science expertise into our center's core research activities. We're also creating effective and inclusive education programs to make sure that the opportunities for jobs and for invention are shared broadly."

This is the third National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center led by the University of Arizona. The other two are the ERC for Environmentally Benign Semiconductor Manufacturing, led by the College of Engineering, and the Center for Integrated Access Networks, led by the Wyant College of Optical Sciences. CQN will be bolstered by the Wyant College's recent endowments – including the largest faculty endowment gift in the history of the University of Arizona – and the planned construction of the new Grand Challenges Research Building, supported by the state of Arizona.

Additional speakers at today's event included:

  • Dirk Englund, CQN Deputy Director for Engineering Research, MIT Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
  • Charlie Tahan, Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science and Director, National Quantum Coordination Office, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Linda Blevins,  Deputy Assistant Director of the Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation
  • Kon-Well Wang, Division Director, Division of Engineering Education and Centers, Directorate for Engineering, National Science Foundation