“Now that I told ya a little bit about myself, let me tell you a little bit about this dance.”

— Digital Underground, “The Humpty Dance”

Previously, I talked at length about the bare minimum of quantum mechanics  you needed to know in order to understand the concept of quantum teleportation (minus Harmonic Oscillators and Live/Dead Schrodinger Cats). This was on the heels of last week’s groundbreaking announcement by scientists at Delft University, on a much-improved method of teleporting information via two electrons confined in diamonds. Mention the word “teleportation,” and we imagine people vanishing into thin air, then re-manifesting out of nowhere in an entirely different place. Sadly, that may not happen anytime soon in this century or the next. However, there are still a lot of applications that we may yet see in our lifetime:

  • Quantum Cryptography. The most immediate applications. Information that used to be camouflaged by binary code and rendered deconstructible by hackers, could now be almost absolutely secure. That’s a bold statement, of course, but here’s why it’s such a big deal: Both the sending and receiving party would be the only ones with the encryption key, which in quantum entanglement means the measuring apparatus, calibrated a certain way. Any attempt to measure it otherwise, brute-force, would instantaneously destroy the information sent. If scientists create a randomizer so that no two pairs of qubits will have the same general state, it would mimic the sort of frequency-hopping technology (invented by actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Anthiel) commonly used in wireless communication. Which would drive the NSA crazy, since they can’t just tap into a qubit network to listen in, the way they used to tap phone lines. [They’d have to go through the courts and the carriers, as they do right now to be able to monitor mobile phone calls. Oh, the good ol’ days…]
  • Quantum Computing. Instead of being funneled through long links of data streams before reaching their end users, specific data (or data groups) could be conjured almost instantaneously, increasing a computer’s efficiency, at up to half the power, if not more. As a result, designs based on principles of quantum teleportation would be drastically streamlined, as they would be based on discrete, isolated transfer points instead of circuits. And this is hardly trivial. By itself, the concept of QT-based chips would spawn an entire new industry by itself. Ultra-crazy transistors, power switches, memory devices, and most computer-based electronics (from desktops to mobile devices) would proliferate, ushering in a new Golden Age of Technology. And that’s not factoring the language programs and other software applications, which are industries by themselves.
  • Telecommunications. The breakthrough by the scientists at Delft made me think of the current fiber optic grid. Even though it is a vast improvement over the radio/TV analog signal technology that it supplanted, broadband-based technology is a cumbersome beast that is relatively expensive to install. There are still many cities in the U.S. that do not have fiber optic lines, and therefore, have no access to high-speed cable and internet. If engineers developed a sort of QT/fiber optic hybrid grid, which took all of the signal strength of the old broadband-based technology, but at a fraction of the cost (especially if it means much less digging), then fiber optic would be rendered obsolete, the same way analog had been just a few years ago. More bandwidth would be freed up; or at the very least, more telecommunication channels would be made available for use. If maintenance costs for the QT/fiber optic grid are minimal as compared to fiber optic cable, that the latter being eventually phased out. A QT/fiber optic hybrid technology could entail “relay points” between disconnected joints of cable; the teleportation part would occur at the ends of the cables. The rest of way, the signal would then be “classically” transported (via the fiber optic track) to cable and internet users. Depending on power considerations, a hybrid might also be an improvement, even more so than its fiber optic brethren.
  • The Power Grid. What’s good for the goose may also be good for the gander. What if QT principles were incorporated into a full-blown power grid for a major metropolis? This might be a stretch, but I’m sure a Nikola Tesla-type genius is already furiously thinking up ways to tweak the QT concept, so that units of energy instead of information could be teleported. In 2010, physicists in Japan were able to induce a photon to do “work,” simply by feeding it information. In the same way energy was found to be convertible to matter, the link between energy and information could be the beginning of a new paradigm shift that could radically alter the way we see the flow of power. A QT-based grid that fine-tunes energy demands could be the godsend to an infrastructure’s electrical load concern. Tesla’s Polyphase AC Motor drastically improved the foundation laid by Thomas Edison. Although the concept may still be decades (even centuries) away, a QT-based power grid would decrease our energy requirements — and reduce the rate of our carbon footprinting.
  • Biotechnology & Other Applications. Conceived by Manhattan Project alumni John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, the study of Cellular Automata is still in its proverbial adolescent years. However, it has led to some modest gains in AIDS and cancer research. A combination of QT knowledge and genetic engineering could yield breakthroughs in developing vaccines that cause diseased cells to safely “self-destruct,” leading to safer ways of treating cancer patients with a higher rate of survivability. Complexities of random automata aside, encoded cells could also use a sort of inception principle in modifying individual genes. These would be invaluable for everything from stem-cell development to food technology. Electrical and electronic devices, transportation, and other machines could also indirectly benefit, as a result.

Quantum teleportation may hold the key for a lot of technologies and new sciences that we have not even begun to imagine. Needless to say, the way we live, move, and view culture, would all fundamentally change. Other subtle changes may also occur, in the way we interact with each other or strive for lofty goals. Nuclear fusion, interstellar travel and — gasp! — even human teleportation could become tangible, commonplace realities. We may not see these wonders happen in this lifetime (or the next)… but it sure is fun to speculate on what you can do with it all.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

“I don’t like it and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”

— Erwin Schrödinger, on his contributions to Quantum Mechanics

A few days ago, Dutch scientists at the Delft University of Technology reported having successfully teleported information between two entangled quantum bits ten feet apart, with no reported degradation. As an pundit of the physical sciences, I have been very excited by this news, imagining several possibilities that could very well be realized as consequences of this achievement. Mind you, this has not been the first time quantum teleportation has been accomplished. Nor is it a record-breaker, by any account (the current record is 143 km, or 89 miles, according to this group). But it is said to be the most successful transfer of information over a significant distance.

Before I continue, I will hash out a few concepts (in my snarkiest possible tone) before you get all glazy-eyed on me. I’d rather explain them in terms I understand, because a lot of the sources out there are vague or altogether bogus:

qubit

A quantum bit, or “qubit” is a quantum analogue of the classical bit. Because you’ll ask, a “bit” is a basic unit of information in computing. Bits are binary, meaning they can only have a value of zeroes and ones. Bits are the building blocks of the information you are reading on this blog right now. Each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a cluster of bits (also known as a byte), corresponding to a certain arrangement of 0’s and 1’s. For example, the letter “A” in the ASCII table has a binary pattern of 01000001; “B” is 01000010… you get the idea. In classical computing, a bit can only be a 0 or a 1. In quantum computing, a qubit can be 0, 1, or both at the same time. This last concept of simultaneity is known as Superposition in Quantum Mechanics. Physically, a qubit can be any subatomic unit of matter that can exhibit such a duality of states, such as an electron or a photon.

Superposition Schrodinger's Cat

An electron has an intrinsic property called spin (associated with its magnetic polarization). By Pauli’s Exclusion Principle, only two electrons can coexist at any given state, but with opposing ends of said state. So in any given state (an orbital in an electron, a diamond confinement cell, etc.), you can only have one electron spinning “up” and one electron spinning “down.”  Sounds simple enough? Good. Your head’s about to get blown up some more.

spin

Now electrons are infinitessimally small, see, so that any attempt to “look” at them means that their a) momentum will be disturbed, or b) their position changes. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle at work. Think of a pea bullet striking a static marble. Similarly, an individual electron struck by a photon would bounce away, thwarting any attempt to accurately measure it.  However, by this gnarley concept called Quantum Entanglement, we can bypass the Uncertainty Principle and obtain the information we need, without disturbing the electron in question. Well, sort of. During entanglement, two or more particles with opposing ends of a quantum state are confined, and we are able to determine the sum state of the system. So if you are getting a magnetic value of “0,” you can be confident that you have two electrons, of which one with a spin-up value of +1/2, the other with -1/2. Does it matter which one’s which? By quantum entanglement, not necessarily.

feature1-fig3

This is when Quantum Teleportation comes into play. A “simple” setup of a quantum teleportation would involve a photon, or a stream of photons, that are split so that one set is polarized horizontally, the other vertically; the photons are already entangled. Without identifying either one, i.e., measuring its state, both are separated a certain distance from each other. A segment of information is pumped into the home photon. The photon is observed, revealing its state. As a result, the enclosed information is destroyed. However, the observer communicates the revealed state to the party holding the other photon. Armed with this knowledge, the receiving end measures the away photon accordingly, which then reproduces the conditions for the other photon. In measuring the away photon, the information lost by the local photon manifests. The Delft experiment was essentially the same, except that electrons confined in diamond cells were used, instead of photons. Because electrons are much slower than photons, they are easier (more or less) to capture and modulate, improving the efficiency of information exchange. For a really cool infographic, check out the New York Times’ superb presentation here.

I won’t even mention anything about the whole “Einstein was wrong” spooky science cliche that just about every news article on the planet is trumpeting about. It is indeed spooky, because it seems to violate most laws of physics. In a way, it does; in reality, however, it does not. So far as we’re concerned, it’s only the information that’s been communicated from one end of the link to another. However, the vessels of communication still have to be physically transported from one end of the universe to another. So the photons won’t be violating the laws of relativity anytime soon in this case.

I can see why Einstein would get so worked up about quantum entanglement. If information, which hitherto had been communicated via the electromagnetic spectrum could now be instantaneously accessible, that implies some sort of superluminal travel. However, the information doesn’t so much travel as it manifests from one qubit to another, as if they were inextricably linked by an invisible psychic link. That’s the best analogy I can think of for quantum teleportation. The only way this could happen, though, is if the photons were homogenous enough in every way – except polarity. They have to be two equal but opposite sides of the same quantum coin, so to speak.

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So there it is! Quantum mechanics, entanglement, and teleportation — all in a nutshell.  Next time, I’ll be talking about what kind of interesting applications we could see in the future, once all this technology has been perfected. Until then, stay spooky!

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

Woman on Plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?

Narrator: You wouldn’t believe.

Woman on Plane: Which car company do you work for?

Narrator: A major one.

Fight Club (1999)

Being the discriminating creatures we are, we carry an internal yet rudimentary sense of statistics, which acts as a sort of guide in understanding (in a vague sense) what’s “good” for us. Much of our individual day-to-day decisions — where to eat, what to watch on TV, where to go, what to buy — are decided by factors of popularity and safety.  The latter tends to be grossly underestimated. For every new product, countless testing runs are done; these form the basis of data analyzed by armies of actuaries, who hold all but the absolute last word on that product’s safety. Everything from airplanes to weight-loss drugs have gone through this regimen. In effect, businesses have developed a Darwinian approach to product suitability, using parameters similar to the dialogue above: If a risk of failure has been perceived with an object, but the failure rate is low enough to avoid a threshold of scrutiny, then the product remains on the shelves. Otherwise, it is recalled and replaced. Issues of branding and marketability come afterwards.

This tendency to rely on statistics has made us complacent amid all this surrounding technology. That isn’t necessarily our fault, since we’ve been born into it. If things had not developed as they did, we could still be hauling water in buckets, instead of pouring it out from a tap. Progress is hardly ever linear. Watch a few episodes of James Burke’s Connections, and you’ll get an idea of just how chaotic and unpredictable the evolution of technology has been. For instance, the concept of underwear has gone through a drastic overhaul through the ages. It would be difficult for any mere mortal to mentally grasp all the physical concepts behind the gadgets we use everyday. Even if our schools tried to cram all the science into our brains (which they already do), only a fraction of the population would come close to understanding most of it. It is neither a good or bad thing; it just simply is.

Perhaps no other major technological innovation has been more so important than the development of electricity, and the electrical grid, in the modern era. It is also one that we quite possibly take for granted, most of all. In his book The Grid, Phillip Schewe points out that our power grid could just as easily have been steam- or water- based. Imagine all our machines, our mechanical beasts of burden, running on steam power. In fact, an entire sub-genre of science fiction, Steampunk, exists on such a “What If?” premise. However, a steam-based power grid would be too inefficient for our world as it is now. Thousands of Joules’ worth of steam energy would have to be pumped through ultra-tightly sealed vacuum tubes, to power a mechanical hand press, for instance. And by the law of diminishing returns, there would be no guarantee that all of the incoming steam would be used; a larger volume would have to be produced at the beginning of the cycle, resulting in bigger and more costly contraptions. The distances would be short. By comparison, electric currents run through wires with cross-sections far smaller than their thermodynamic brethren. Furthermore, because of Nicolai Tesla’s amazing discovery of Alternating Currents, this source can be leveraged to do a whole lot more. Dangerously high voltages can be modulated and distributed across several hundred square miles of civilization, and used to power all of our machines.

Other grids depend heavily on the electrical grid, as much as the human body is dependent on blood and oxygen to be able to survive. The Internet, most telecommunications and transportation networks depend on it. Our financial infrastructure, and indeed our very economy depends on electricity, allowing real-time decisions to be made in just seconds, instead of days. If the electric grid was shut down for more than a few days, more than just the world would stop, as it did back on August 14, 2003, when the entire city of New York was engulfed in a blackout that lasted for nearly two days.

Could we develop a more efficient power grid that’s less prone to shortages? Perhaps, but it might take a while to get there. The electric grid-based utility system has crept into every avenue of our lives, exponentially growing new synapses.  Statistically, its track record has been tried and true. It’s reliable, almost to a fault even as we’ve thrown everything into it. It’s in the background, humming quietly as we live our lives, watch our favorite soaps, fret over our daily dramas. But it is neither infinite nor perfect. With the way our appetite for consumption has been, fuel shortages are a real possibility. Forced outages could occur, as they already do in underdeveloped parts of the world. Civilization might very well be at a standstill, if it doesn’t altogether fall. This was the premise of the now-defunct NBC series Revolution.

Long before that happens, though, we ought to consider a low-cost alternative. We might even have to cut back on our lifestyle. At worst, figure out ways to wean ourselves off the grid, en masse. Because if not, a Steampunk-like future may be in the books for us — whether we like it or not. And that’ll force us to appreciate what we used to have, real fast.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases