U.S. officials and scientists unveiled a plan Thursday to pursue what they called one of the most important technological frontiers of the 21st century: building a quantum Internet.
Speaking in Chicago, one of the main hubs of the work, they set goals for forging what they called a second Internet - one that would function alongside the globe's existing networks, using the laws of quantum mechanics to share information more securely and to connect a new generation of computers and sensors.
Quantum technology seeks to harness the distinct properties of atoms, photons and electrons to build more-powerful computers and other tools for processing information. A quantum network relies on photons exhibiting a quantum state known as entanglement, which allows them to share information over long distances without having a physical connection.
David Awschalom, a professor at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, called the network project a pillar of the nation's quantum-research program.
"It's the birth of a new technology. It's becoming a global competition. Every major country on Earth has launched a quantum program . . . because it is becoming clearer and clearer there will be big impacts," he said in an interview.
China, the United States' top technology rival, is investing heavily in quantum technology, a field that could transform information processing and confer big economic and national-security advantages to countries that dominate it.
The Department of Energy and its 17 national labs will form the backbone of the project.
How exactly the work will be funded was not clear. The Energy Department did not announce a funding figure for the project Thursday. Speaking to reporters, Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the Energy Department, said the federal government invests about $500 to $700 million a year in quantum information technology, suggesting some of that money would fund the new network.
In an interview, Dabbar said there probably would be further funding announcements for the project in the future.
Panagiotis Spentzouris, head of quantum science at the Chicago-area Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, said in an interview that more resources, and a clearer project structure, will be needed to carry out the blueprint published Thursday.
The 38-page document lays out research priorities and milestones to aim for, but it does not assign detailed tasks to particular parties.
Initial users of a quantum network could include national-security agencies, financial institutions and health-care companies seeking to send data more securely, researchers said.
The networks promise to be more secure - some say unhackable - because of the nature of photons and other quantum bits, known as qubits. Any attempt to observe or disrupt these particles would automatically alter their state and destroy the information being transmitted, scientists say.
A quantum network could also be used to connect various quantum computers with each other, helping boost their total computing power. Quantum computers are still at an early stage of development and not yet as powerful as classical computers, but connecting them could help accelerate their use for solving complex problems such as finding new pharmaceuticals or new high-tech materials, Awschalom said.
Consumers might also tap into the quantum network to buy products with less risk of their credit card details being hacked, or to send and receive sensitive personal information such as health records or Social Security numbers, Spentzouris said. It is possible that consumers could surf seamlessly among the Internet and quantum networks as they make purchases and send information, without necessarily knowing that they are switching platforms, he said.
In a sign of the potential economic rewards that quantum technology could bring, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, both Democrats, spoke at the announcement Thursday, expressing hope that there would benefit the city's tech community.
Universities and labs in the region have established the Chicago Quantum Exchange to accelerate innovation and economic development.
Pieces of the network are up and running at national labs. In the Chicago area, Argonne National Laboratory has built a 52-mile quantum network that soon will connect to nearby Fermilab, to establish an 80-mile test bed.
In New York, Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Lab have built another 80-mile quantum network.
The plan is to slowly connect these local networks nationwide, using fiber-optic cable, satellites and drones fitted with quantum-communication hardware, Spentzouris said.
A key piece of hardware called a quantum repeater still needs to be developed, to amplify a quantum network's signal over long distances, researcher said.
Awschalom said the country needs to do more to educate a new generation of quantum engineers. "When you ask tech companies what is their number one concern with quantum information technology, the number one concern by far is the workforce," he said. Companies will ask him, "Where are we going to hire a thousand quantum engineers?"