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Will China be the first to develop an unhackable internet?
Inkstone is adding to the conversation in a series about Chinese scientists working on breakthroughs that could revolutionize everyday life. Today, we take a look at a team of scientists building an “unhackable” internet.
So what makes it unhackable? Quantum broadband.
This technology, which uses quantum mechanics rather than the binary logic that currently powers our digital technology, has been discussed and developed for decades – but it's still in its infancy.
Quantum computing works by sending information about miniscule particules – for example, the exact state of an atom – from one place to another.
Unlike the web you're surfing now, quantum networks would be immune to hacking because the laws of quantum physics make eavesdropping almost impossible: particles cannot be observed without being altered.
Once established, quantum networks could be used to ensure data security for consumers, financial institutions, defense entities, and more.
Many countries are racing to develop the world's first quantum network – and China has been in on the action for over a decade.
A team led by Pan Jianwei at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, eastern China, has made a series of breakthroughs using quantum technology that could pave the way for unbreakable quantum communication networks, as well as computers billions of times faster than current supercomputers.
Back in 2015, the team published a paper in the British journal Nature Photonics that demonstrated for the first time that quantum information could be stored and distributed using a broadband communication protocol.
This could eventually create a "memory chip" for quantum computers.
The following year they then teleported near-identical versions of tiny particles called photons across the Chinese city of Hefei – a feat matched by a team of Canadian scientists in Calgary working independently.
The forms of teleported photons were destroyed in one laboratory and recreated in another more than five miles away. The discovery potentially paves the way for the transport of humans or objects – although a Star Trek-style transporter is still a very long way off.
However, the French physicist Frederic Grosshans said the research showed that the development of a citywide quantum internet network was clearly feasible.
Then last year, the Chinese team took a leap ahead of their Canadian rivals by applying similar techniques in space, using a satellite to link two facilities 745 miles apart, from Beijing to Shanghai.
At the moment, the technology is still far from practical. For instance, the experiment recovered only about one photon out of every 6 million sent.
But the Chinese team is planning further experiments using satellites over the next five years to address existing problems.
And while the network isn't hackable in the traditional sense (no undetected spying is possible), quantum networks are still vulnerable to fast-developing methods that threaten their security and privacy.
It's the latest chapter in the history of coders vs code breakers that dates back to ancient Egypt.
Security remains a big concern for the existing technology, with many quantum hacking methods discovered in the last few decades, said Hoi-Kwong Lo, a quantum information scientist at the University of Toronto.
"It has been said that the most important question in quantum cryptography is to determine how secure it really is," he said. "Cybersecurity is of growing importance in the internet age. Cyber warfare is the new frontier. Corporations and nation states now rely on cybersecurity for their survival."
Wang Jianyu, a member of the research team who co-wrote a paper reporting the latest breakthrough in Science magazine in August 2017, said their work “will give scientists in other countries more encouragement and hope. It is a small but important step for humans into the quantum age.”
He promised further ground-breaking results would be published soon.