Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Quantum Communication

This is where I found out that I'm not nearly as clever as I thought I was. Well, that's not precisely true; this is where I found out that there are other people at least as clever as I am.

Before we get to that, though:

At the moment, society is limited. Specifically, we are limited to Earth. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the hugest blocks to any kind of off-planet expansion is communication. It's hard to think about in those terms, because, today, we can talk to anyone in the world at speeds that are, basically, instantaneous. The fact that light can travel three times around the Earth in one second may have something to do with that. When we move off-planet, though, the speed of light becomes a limitation. And, right now, light is our fastest mode of communication.

There are two things that much of science fiction takes for granted:
1. the ability to travel at greater than the speed of light (although, there is, usually, some sort of basic explanation (in Star Trek, warp drive; in Star Wars, hyperspace (a theoretical possibility, by the way))
2. the ability to communicate instantaneously across the galaxy (there is usually no explanation given for this (although, Star Trek did, eventually, add in sub-space buoys to enable communication); we just have to accept that it's possible)
Until we solve these two issues, expansion out of the solar system just isn't feasible.

The good news? We may have solved one of these issues. Or, at the very least, be on the way to solving it.

See, communication has long been an issue to expansion. Establishing faster communication has been something that has been being worked on for ages. Think back 400 years ago. Let's say you were on the east coast of the USA (because, really, that's almost for sure where you would have been, and, yes, I know it wasn't the USA 400 years ago), and you wanted to send a letter to someone in... oh, let's just say Moscow. First, you have to write out a letter. By hand. On paper. With a quill of all things and a bottle of ink. This is if you could even write at all, so it may be that you are having to pay someone else to write the letter for you. At any rate, once you have your letter, you have to send it by ship across the ocean. And there were no post offices, so it's not like you just put a stamp on it. Anyway, the letter had to spend weeks travelling across the ocean on a ship, and you had to hope the ship didn't sink. Not that you would find out in any kind of timely manner if it did. Supposing the letter makes it all the way across the ocean to whatever port it's going to, let's say Paris, because that was a pretty busy place, once it gets over to Europe, someone has to take the letter on to Moscow. On a horse. And, unless this was some kind of political thing, there wasn't any kind of official mail carrier, and, since I'm pretty sure I don't have any politicians reading my blog, I'm going to suppose you're just some normal person sending a letter to Moscow, which means that, basically, someone going that direction has to volunteer to take the letter. That means that your letter might sit around in an office for weeks waiting for someone to take it. And then more weeks on horseback to Moscow. And then someone to find the person to whom the letter is going and take it to them. Now, let's suppose further that you're someone that has come to the New World (USA) to establish yourself and, then, you're going to send for your spouse and kids (which would make you in all likelihood a male, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt), which you've done with this letter. Your spouse then sits down and pens a letter back, "we're coming!" Because letters took so long, the spouse might well beat his/her letter back across the ocean and arrive before you knew s/he was even coming. At any rate, all of this would take months and months. And months. And, sometimes, more months. And you were never assured that your letter made it in the first place. So, yeah, faster communication has always been something that we, as a race, have been interested in.

The pony express.
The telegraph.
The telephone.
Fiber optics.

First limited by physical travel times, then limited by the speed of sound (and if you've ever spoken to anyone on another continent over the phone, you'll know what that's like), now, limited by the speed of light. Let me say that again, "Limited by the speed of light." That's like buying a new iGadget and looking at the memory and thinking, "I'll never use all of that," and, then, three months later wondering how you ever used up all of your memory.

As I said, science fiction has long said "phooey" with all that communication nonsense, because you can't have a story out in space where you have to wait, not just years, but hundreds of years to communicate.

And, now, we are on the edge of a breakthrough that could take communication out of the equation of what's holding us on Earth.

Just, by the way, I find what I'm about to tell you fascinating. (And this is also where I found out that scientists are clever fellows, too.)

Some time ago, I read an article about a breakthrough in communication. In fact, I've read several. In my mind, I started calling this communication system "quantum communication." The articles I read, though, never gave this stuff a name; it was just my name for it. I knew from the very beginning of this series of posts that I wanted to cover this, but I had no idea how to look it up. After expressing this, my wife, in her wisdom, said to me just look up "quantum communication" and see what you get. heh As it turns out, "quantum communication" is what this is coming to be known as, and I discovered that I'm not the only one that can think of the obvious name for something and decide to call it that.

But what is quantum communication? I'm going to leave most of the science out of this, because, honestly, it gets a bit complex, so in simple terms:
Subatomic particles (the little bits that make up atoms) have quantum states. If you get a pair of particles in matched quantum states (this is called entangling) what you do to one of them instantly affects the other of them. Basically, the unaffected particle will change its state to match the one that it's paired with. As long as you keep these particles isolated. However, distance doesn't seem to affect this at all. So, hypothetically speaking, you should be able to have a particle on Earth and a particle on, say, Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter and, minimally, 45 minutes away by light communication) and affect a change on one of the particles and have an immediate change of state in the second particle. Basically, through effecting a series of changes by, say, typing out a message on a keyboard, you should be able to receive that message more quickly than talking to someone anywhere on Earth via our current methods of communication.

Of course, it's all a bit more complicated than I've made it sound as it involves photons and quantum mapping and polarization and all sorts of other things, but those are the basics. Einstein actually predicted all of this almost 100 years ago, and even he didn't really believe it. He called it "spooky action at a distance."

And in breaking news, it was announced just a few days ago that the very first prototype quantum network has been established at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany. Not only are they looking at communication over vast distances, but there is talk of a quantum Internet. There is also work being done on quantum computing that uses some of these same ideas and many believe is the next step toward artificial intelligence.

But, you know, science fiction had it first... even if they didn't know how it was done.


  1. Ha, so I'm not the only one using "quantum" for Q. (I literally had nothing for this particular post.)

    But seriously? They've already made a quantum network prototype? Where have I been? I'm not sure whether to be impressed or terrified by all these amazing advances. Though I tend to lean toward wary. Maybe I'll just go with Einstein on this one and call it spooky. But potentially very convenient.

  2. Wait... those were the simple terms? Do you have anything maybe in a simpler term?

    Oh wait. Spooky action at a distance. Now that I understand. And agree with.

  3. So we're one step closer? Wonder if communication will eve have to be faster than that?

  4. I was reading an article the other day about someone discovered some kind of quantum particle that had long been theorized. Not a Higgs-Boson but some other kind of particle that starts with an F.

    Anyway, quantum computers make me think of "Quantum Leap" where Sam Beckett used cells from his own brain to make the quantum computer called Ziggy that allowed him to leap around through time.

  5. I really shouldn't read your blog until after the second cup of coffee. Wow. That's crazy.

    In my novels I'm pretty much relying on someone on horseback to carry the mail. I might try to figure out a telegraph type system now that I realize how lame I'm being.

  6. Impressive stuff on the horizon. Too bad no one communicates well. I think we should solve that before tackling the distance thing. I really don't think anyone wants to be on a moon of Jupiter just to get a message that says, "LOL U R DUMSAUCE"

  7. Heh, q is for Quantum of course!

    Incidentally, I use quantum entanglement as an explanation for instant communication in my WIP, so reading your post painted a wide smile on my face.

    You're absolutely right, sci-fi writers always see it first, though when it comes to the quantum realm, I've yet to see a writer that comes up with how things work before the scientists do.

    Great choice for Q, Andrew! Cheers to particle physics and quantum communication!

  8. If we communicate any faster it will be received before we say it. Love "Spooky action at a distance"! This post, seriously, was so interesting to read and ponder.

  9. This is a really interesting subject. I can't wait to find out what they do with that quantum network . . . and if it will ever reach the point of having applications in everyday life. I'm thinking it's likely.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  10. I hope this comment posts because blogger has been acting like a jerk.....anyway I am thinking your next book should be a science fiction story. I can almost feel your interest in this subject with every post in this A to Z challenge. Great job I will be sorry when its over because I have learned so much.

  11. YEAH it looks like it took that comment!

  12. It's about time we finally get an ansible. I've been waiting for a long time. The only way we'll see a difference would be in deep space communications - we could steer rovers in real time and not have to worry about all that autonomy AI folks work so hard to program into them. Well, all those computers that are limited by the speed of light when making stock market transactions are free to screw us over even faster now. That would actually be a very big deal there.

    I don't want to touch on all the causality violating scenarios that brings up.

  13. I'm forwarding this post to the CEO of Verizon. Because, theoretically, I shouldn't have to stand in my closet, with my phone held at a 45 degree angle, upside down, just to get freaking service. Everywhere coverage? That's what I call science fiction.

  14. I've heard of quantum communications (and quantum computing, but I don't understand how quantum computing could work) and it always sounds pretty interesting.

    Sonia Lal @ Story Treasury

  15. Great post.

    The simplest example of "spooky action at a distance" is gravity. Two objects in space exert gravitational pull one one another proportional to the square of their distance apart, which is the inverse square law (double the distance, you get 1/4 the force).

    So planets that are lightyears apart are constantly subtly affecting each other in real time as they orbit their stars.

    Never thought of is as a basis for communication!

  16. @Author - I hate it when other people quibble at things I say, so don't get mad. But I'd think Gravity is a bad example to use. It propagates at the speed of light just as everything else in the cosmos does. The gravitational effects of other stars and planets over interstellar distances are real, but they're aren't instantaneous like what Andrew was talking about in his post.

    The idea of using quantum entanglement for communication is as big a deal as I can imagine. This would have Einstein rolling over in his grave.

  17. Er, I meant that last comment to be directed at Arthur, not Author. Sorry.

  18. S.L.: I actually saw quite a few quantum themed posts.
    Yeah, the first prototype network is just from the last few months.

    M.J.: Actually, no, I don't think I can get it simpler than that. Spooky works, though!

    Alex: You mean where the message is sent before it's even formed?

    Grumpy: Okay, now I'll have to see if I can look that up.

    L.G.: LOL! I'm a two-cup blog! I wonder if I can market that...?

    Michael: Yeah, no kidding. Twitter's bad enough. Just wait till it's instantaneous -anywhere-!

    Vero: Hey, nice! Quantum entanglement's pretty interesting stuff. Sorry about the paint, though.

    Donna: Oh, heh, I was just saying that to Alex. They get the "tweet" before you even think it!

    Golden Eagle: I think quantum networks may be the next big leap.

    Jennifer: Most of what's in my head is fantasy oriented; although, there is one sci-fi/fantasy and one sci-fi. I have too much in my head!

    Rusty: Of course, all this quantum networking could also be the answer to AI.

    ABftS: LOL We dropped our cell phones years ago because we couldn't get reception at the apartments we moved into. I've never been sorry we got rid of them.

    Sonia: It's about complexity in the system. To boil it down. The human brain is a very complex system; we need to be able to develop an artificial system that has similar complexity. Thanks for visiting!

    Arthur: Glad you liked it!
    And to agree with Rusty, gravity's actually pretty simple based on the idea of the curvature of space. Einstein didn't see it as spooky at all. But the quantum stuff he couldn't figure out even though he predicted it.

    Rusty (again): Yeah, it's a pretty big deal. I'm kind of not understanding why it hasn't been bigger news. Well, other than most people won't really get it, especially since there's no gadget to show at the moment.