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Quantum Teleportation Isn’t Really About Teleportation

It’s about communication and the future of the internet.

Researchers in China just teleported an object into outer space. It wasn’t a person, or a dog, or even a molecule.

It was a photon.

Or at least it was the information describing a particular photon.

So how can this be described as teleportation?

The fact of the matter is that quantum teleportation isn’t really about teleportation at all — it’s about making an unhackable internet.

But first, let’s talk about a paradox.

He thought it was a flawed theory, and in 1935 he wrote a paper describing a paradox that seemed to bring everything about quantum mechanics into question.

Quantum mechanics is the study of the very smallest aspects of our universe. Atoms, electrons, quarks, photons. And it reveals some unintuitive — even contradictory — facets of our universe.

For instance, measuring a particle changes the particle.

This is called the observer effect. The act of measuring a phenomenon irreparably changes or influences that phenomenon.

To observe an atom, we often have to shine a light on it. The photons in that light interact with the particle in a way that affects its position or momentum or spin or any number of characteristics. In the quantum realm, using photons to observe an atom is akin to using bowling balls to count the pins at the end of a pitch black bowling alley.

As a consequence, you can never know all the properties of a particle with any certainty because the act of knowing will affect the outcome.

The observer effect is often confused with the idea that consciousness can somehow affect or even create reality. But it isn’t all that supernatural.

Because the observer effect doesn’t require consciousness at all.

Photons running into an atom will produce the same observer effect whether or not conscious humans are driving those photons. To observe in this case merely means to interact.

In quantum systems, we are always active participants, mucking up the results.

That’s what Albert Einstein didn’t like. To him, this inherent uncertainty belied a flaw in quantum mechanics that must be remedied. Reality could not be so unreliable.

Or as he put it, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

And nothing illustrated the weakness of quantum mechanics more than the paradox of quantum entanglement.

At quantum scales, sometimes particles can become connected in way that measuring the properties of one particle affects the other — instantaneously — no matter how far apart they are.

This is quantum entanglement.

In Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Quantum entanglement seemed to violate that.

Because if one particle is entangled with another and any change on one will happen two its twin, some kind of communication must be happening between them. Otherwise, how could they affect each other? But if it happens instantaneously regardless of distance, then that communication would have to be traveling faster than the speed of light — which is impossible.

Thus, a paradox.

Einstein famously derided this as “spooky action at a distance.” To Einstein, the whole field of quantum mechanics seemed as sketchy as this supposed quantum entanglement.

And Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to correct for the perceived shortcomings of quantum mechanics — without success.

Because there was nothing to correct.

In the years after Einstein’s death, quantum mechanics has been proven right over and over again — although it remains stubbornly unintuitive.

Even Einstein’s quantum entanglement paradox has been proven to be a real phenomenon. It’s not a paradox at all.

While entanglement does happen instantaneously, no information can be transmitted between the particles faster than the speed of light.

And that’s just what a team of researchers at the University of Science and Technology in Shanghai did in June of 2017. While it has been widely described as teleportation, what the researchers actually accomplished was the transmission of information between two entangled particles.

By shooting a laser through a specialized crystal, the photons emitted become entangled. So once one photon is measured in the entangled pair, the state of the other is instantly known. By using their quantum states as the carrier signal, information can be transmitted between these photons.

This has been done before in labs all around the world — but never at this distance.

The researchers in China sent entangled photon particles to a satellite in orbit 1400 kilometers above the Earth. They then entangled the ground photon with a third photon, enabling them to send its quantum state to the satellite-based photon — effectively replicating the third photon in orbit.

But the third photon wasn’t physically moved to the satellite. Only information about its quantum state was transferred and reconstructed.

So it wasn’t teleported like in Star Trek.

A quantum internet based on entangled particles would be nearly impossible to hack.

We can thank the observer effect for this.

If someone tried to eavesdrop on one of these quantum transmissions, they would essentially be trying to observe the particle, and as we know, this changes the particle. A compromised transmission would be instantly recognizable because the particles would become unentangled or the transmission would be destroyed entirely.

Kinda like trying to observe a rival bowling league’s pins by throwing your custom monogrammed bowling ball at them.

A quantum internet would be a nearly 100% secure communications grid.

No one without access to the entangled particles would be able to hack it. And if someone did gain access to one of the entangled particles, it would be immediately obvious because your particle would be missing, and thus your internet would be down.

So you can see how this could of value as more than a photon teleportation device.

It took the researchers over a million attempts to successfully entangle just over 900 particles. Because the photons have to pass through our atmosphere, there’s a good chance they will interact with another particle, and thus be “observed,” breaking the entanglement and ending the transmission.

So we’re still a ways away from a fully functional, unhackable quantum internet.

Theoretically, yes.

But that would involve entangling every particle in your body with an equal amount of particles in another location. Every state and position of all of your particles would have to be scanned and transmitted to the other location. The awaiting entangled particles would be imbued with the transmitted information, instantly assuming a state identical to the original particles.

This is essentially what happened with the photons. But now we’re talking about every particle in your body.

But don’t get too excited. Teleportation is subject to the observer effect too. The scanning process that measures all of your particles would simultaneously change all of your particles. In essence, changing the original you into a pile of unrecognizable quantum goo. You would cease to exist in one location and appear in another — exactly the same — just with a whole new complement of particles.

Whether or not you’d still be you is a whole other debate and that’s spooky enough to make even Einstein keep his distance.

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