Quantum teleportation is just the latest mind-blowing innovation made possible by breakthroughs in subatomic physics


According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum teleportation shouldn’t be possible. There’s a lot we’re learning about the world of subatomic physics. (AP file photo)

Researchers in the Netherlands have just demonstrated that the quantum teleportation of information is now possible. For now, researchers are only quantum teleporting information a distance of ten feet, but conceivably, it means that larger objects can be transported even longer distances. In fact, says one of the lead researchers, there’s nothing in the laws of physics that prevents humans from being teleported at some point in the future.

But let’s get one thing straight – the teleportation of information doesn’t work the same way that teleportation in “Star Trek” works. In “Star Trek,” atoms are converted into energy, and then this energy is beamed to a new destination, where the energy is reconverted into atoms. In short, atoms physically move. In this modern form of teleportation, atoms don’t move. Instead, information about the state of an atom or particle is moved from one place to another without that information actually moving in between.

If you’ve ever pondered any of the arcane mysteries of quantum mechanics — such as Schrödinger’s Cat – then you realize that things start to turn into a funhouse mirror once you get to the subatomic level. You get things like spooky action at a distance and quantum entanglement. Life becomes intensely probabilistic, and merely viewing an event changes the outcome. It becomes, in short, very difficult to determine exactly what’s going on.

As a result, all this talk of quantum teleportation may turn out to be like the cold fusion claims of the late 1980s, when researchers claimed that they had discovered that it was indeed possible to create a cheap, unlimited source of energy. Cold fusion seemed to ignore all the laws of thermodynamics, and indeed, it turned to be a pathological science. (Although it does appear to be making a comeback.)

In the same way, quantum teleportation would seem to imply an entirely new theory of physics. (And there are plenty of prospects, including one which posits that there are alternative universes – “multiverses” – out there.) True quantum teleportation — in which objects could travel vast distances — would theoretically mean that these objects can travel faster than the speed of light. Einstein would have had a problem with that.

While quantum mechanics is tough to wrap the brain around, quantum teleportation is not the only fascinating development in the world of subatomic physics. Take quantum computing, for example, which has long been a topic of discussion among computer scientists. Given the fact that we appear to be running up against a wall when it comes to Moore’s Law, some are now claiming that quantum computers — which rely on transforming quantum bits rather than digital bits — are the future. It’s for good reason that companies like Lockheed Martin, IBM, Hitachi and Google are now at work building a quantum computer.

And there are other innovations that are being made possible by quantum mechanics, in fields ranging from genomics to logistics. The NSA, for example, views quantum computers as the key to cracking any known type of cryptography. The reason, quite simply, is that quantum computers are better than digital computers at certain mathematical operations involving prime numbers. Other innovators see quantum mechanics as the key to creating a quantum Internet, in which packets of information are securely exchanged vast distances without actually having to travel those distances.

Right now, we’re still at the baby steps of innovation involving subatomic physics. Those quantum computers? They can’t do much more than a few basic operations, and some of the ones being built today have come under withering skepticism. Quantum teleportation? Yes, researchers “teleported” information about 10 feet, but are still awaiting the big showcase later this summer, when they teleport information 1300 meters. Instead of teleporting information from one room to another room, they will attempt to teleport information from one building to another.

But you can see where all this is headed. Innovative tech companies such as Google are surfing the quantum physics wave, determined not to be left behind by the creation of fantastically powerful computers. The University of Maryland (site of quantum computing research) is now hosting “relativity camps” in which kids will learn all about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Government and university  labs are now receiving funding to study quantum computing. It seems to be only a matter of time before the study of something very small ends up producing something very big.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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