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A clear road to the quantum internet

Over the last 50 years networks have changed every aspect of our lives. Now the next phase of networks is coming and is set to be equally transformational. The journey to the quantum internet may have only just begun but all the building blocks – from Nobel Prize winning breakthroughs, to proof of concepts, to early products – are firmly in place. 

There’s a video perennially doing the rounds on social media that shows David Bowie on BBC Newsnight in 1999 predicting the future of the internet. His vision of “an alien life form” that’s “exhilarating and terrifying” is met with incredulity. “It’s just a tool,” suggests host Jeremy Paxman.

Since then, most predictions about the internet have come true – in many ways beyond what anyone could have imagined back then – and now it’s easy to dismiss the internet as simply ‘here’. Yet like all things technological it is evolving, innovating, and incorporating new networking elements, and will eventually burst forth as something quite new.

The next phase of the internet will be quantum. In the simplest terms, classical computing is based on ones or zeros, which is limiting. Quantum computing is based on ones and zeros, which is limitless. 

Kapil Dhiman, a former Web 3.0 leader at PwC India and serial entrepreneur, is currently launching startup Quranium which aims to provide the first quantum-proof hybrid digital ledger technology platform. He believes it’s important not to underestimate the potential of the quantum internet, even though it’s a long way off:

“The quantum internet is more than just a new way to transmit data. It's a beacon for the next phase of the internet's evolution, promising a future where secure, instantaneous, and global quantum communication is a reality.”

Two internets will run in parallel

In its pure form, the quantum internet is a very long way off, with many challenges – technological and otherwise – to overcome first, but individual networking products are already entering the market making the route to get there a clear reality. 

Dr. Christoph Dietzel, the global head of products and research at global internet exchange operator DE-CIX, is in a prime position to see this evolution unfold in real-time. He explains that his customer base – which span the gamut of enterprises, cloud service providers, internet service providers, and other types of network operators – are very interested in practical products and how they might make a difference to operations, even if they don’t buy them yet.

In a sense it’s like the early days of the internet where the promise runs from the prosaic to the monumental. What might begin as a specific way to securely transport medical data could become a whole previously unthought of way to run a global hospital.

Dietzel believes that the biggest hurdle will be to monetize the fledgling quantum internet: “That’s the point the [classical] internet grew exponentially.”

In his view, more simple use cases will emerge over the next five years but “real growth at scale is longer term” and “anything beyond [five years] is wild guessing”.

Dhiman of Quranium agrees that a full-scale global quantum internet deployment timeline “remains uncertain” but is happy to add that “interstate quantum networks are expected to be established within the United States in the next 10 to 15 years”.

The quantum internet will arrive incrementally. Dietzel stresses: “A quantum network – even a fully functional one – won't replace the internet as is. It will be something that’s built next to it and benefit someone that is willing to pay.”

At present, while there are plenty of highly publicized breakthroughs, few affect real businesses. Dietzel sees watching these signs in the market as the academic part of his role. 

“A huge proportion of research should go in physics, a little into electrical engineering, and then even less into computer science. We need to get the foundations right before we build the fancy stuff on top. Otherwise, what we build on top won't work,” he says. 

The world is taking notice

It is easy to get bamboozled by the litany of ongoing developments, as interest in the quantum internet has been escalating in recent years. Money has been flowing thick fast and with investment comes news.

Analysis for Nokia by market and analytics tool, Quid, shows a consistent rise in mainstream news stories since the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for scientific understanding of quantum entanglement. This phenomenon is an important building block of the quantum internet, as it allows data to travel, and has puzzled scientists for so long that even Einstein described it as ‘spooky action at a distance’.

Over the last year Quid has documented more news in top tier publications (9.4%) around advances in the quantum internet than it has in niche publications (8.4%). And Nobel Prize aside, this is not altogether surprising when you consider the many spectacular real-world advances in recent years. These show a flourishing patchwork of global activity.

In the US, Argonne Labs built a quantum loop in 2020 that achieved quantum entanglement across a 56 kilometre fiber network through the Chicago suburbs. In 2022 they extended the project to stretch a total of 200 kilometers.  

In the UK, York University has established a leadership position with what it describes as “the longest stretch of fiber-optic cable ever used to enable quantum communications underwater”. This runs 224 kilometers underneath the Irish Sea to connect England and the Republic of Ireland.

In South Africa, Andrew Forbes, a physics professor at Wits University who has won multiple awards for his work had a real ‘sci-fi breakthrough’ recently that brought to mind the Star Trek holodeck. This involved teleporting images securely using only light, and while it is only early days, he believes it has immediate, practical applications in banking where security is a premium.

Security is the first practical concern

Since 1994, when Peter Shor produced his first quantum algorithm while working at Bell Labs, fear of the security-cracking potential of quantum computing has been paramount. The threat, which becomes more tangible with every individual quantum advance, is that quantum can crack security protocol RSA and ‘break the classical internet’.

This makes enhanced security the initial promise behind a quantum internet. Dhiman of Quranium highlights the benefits of ultra-secure communications thanks to quantum cryptography.

“Methods such as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) allow two parties to produce a shared random secret key known only to them, which can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages,” he explains.

Not surprisingly, Quantum Key Distribution is one real-world use case and provides a clear early building block for the quantum internet. “These solutions are not yet end-to-end,” says Dietzel of DE-CIX, but they do provide the beginnings of very real solutions that will only expand.

Quantum-safe networks, for example, blends QKD technology with two other technologies –symmetric centralized key distribution (SCKD) and post-quantum ciphers – to provide a triangulated response to threats on the existing network. In the longer-term, networks will likely need to adapt in other ways to allow for the growth of the quantum internet.

These wider changes could include the development of quantum routers, switches, and other networking devices capable of handling quantum information. They could include new network management systems, global network architecture considerations, as well as a wealth of ethical and regulatory concerns.

Interoperability between the classical and quantum internet will also be a consideration as the two run together in parallel. Andrew Forbes of Wits University simplifies the two internets as a world of two alphabets. The classical internet of ones or zeros. And the quantum internet as ones and zeros.

“The present quantum network works well with the lower alphabet,” he says. “More capacity on the network requires a larger alphabet.”

Between this and all the different pockets of global activity: “We have to make it all work well together.”

“If we're going to have a global quantum network, everybody has to be part of it. Everybody must connect into it and the challenge is to make sure that all technologies are compatible with one another,” he says.

The world must act together

Like any advance in technology, progress will ultimately unfold through collaboration.

“The transition to a quantum internet era will be as much about technological innovation as it is about global cooperation and regulatory evolution,” says Dhiman of Quranium.

He believes this collaboration will need to cover a raft of diverse organizations including research institutions, technology companies, government bodies, regulatory agencies, and international organizations. In the end, he sums up:

“As we venture into this uncharted territory, the collaboration, creativity, and commitment of the global community will be our most valuable assets.”

Perhaps that’s another lesson that we can learn from David Bowie.

Networks sit front and center of all advances in the quantum internet. This journey begins with the pioneering research at organizations like Nokia Bell Labs, travels through to new, innovative products deployed by likes of global internet exchanges, and will gradually lead to faster, more secure communications solutions for businesses and our society.


Five things to know about the quantum internet now

  1. It is a long way off in any true form – but the building blocks are being put in place to make it a reality including government funding, global projects, and practical products.
  2. Two internets will run in parallel for a long time – the quantum internet will not immediately displace the classical internet, it will be ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’.
  3. Security comes first – most of the early products are about securing the network, this is the biggest promise of the quantum internet.
  4. Incremental developments can be misleading – quantum is a sprawling topic with a raft of exciting discoveries, most of these are merely signposts, and a long way from practical application.
  5. The potential is exponential – most early ideas of what the quantum internet will do for the world are cautious and highly specific, like the classical internet, its eventual uses are likely to surprise us all.