Transporting Quantum Data

Is teleportation the future of transportation?

Transporting Quantum Data

he idea of teleportation is so connected with Star Trek in the zeitgeist, that the phrase “beam me up, Scotty” isn’t usually far behind. Though we might be far away from beaming anyone anywhere, teleportation is a new form of transportation that is rapidly coming into view, challenging existing legal (and other) paradigms.

Primary considerations in data transfer include speed, reliability and security. We usually think of data being transferred through the internet, but your computer regularly transfers large amounts of data internally (e.g., between your hard drive, RAM and processor). For transferring data between computers, most of us prefer internet-based (cloud) solutions. But online data transfer isn’t the best option for every situation. Amazon Web Services (for example) offers Snowmobile, which transports traditional (non-quantum) data up to 100 petabytes (100,000 terabytes) by truck-pulled shipping containers. The process takes a few weeks, but transferring this same amount of data at the US average download speed of 207 megabits per second would take over 122 years (or about 2.5 years at 10 gigabits per second).

I’m now going to describe some quantum computing concepts at a high-level, but in sufficient detail to give you a sense of “wow, that’s cool [and/or weird].” Hopefully, it will be sufficiently accurate as well.

Quantum data is stored in quantum bits (qubits), and the data is encoded in a particle’s state (e.g., electrons spinning up or down). What’s especially arcane about quantum computing, also gives it power for certain computations: it can utilize the qubit without direct measurement of its state — like Schrodinger’s cat, the qubit is in both states, enabling multiple computations at once.

But what of teleportation?

Qubits were first teleported in 1997. Well, not teleported exactly, or at least not in the way most people think of it. Rather than teleporting matter, qubits are entangled, and then quantum information is transposed from one qubit to another — properties of the second qubit can be deduced from the original, but this process destroys the original qubit. What’s unintuitive about this, is that “a measurement [of the original qubit]… instantaneously affect outcomes in another region [the receiving qubit], even though light hasn’t yet had time to travel the distance.” Also interesting is that successfully teleported qubits depend on indirect measurements: a direct measurement causes a failed teleportation. Successful teleportations have included not only photons and electrons, but calcium atoms as well. So while the field is still nascent, we can imagine a future where teleportation of more and more particles occur this way.

Benefits of this approach include security (difficulty of information intercept, particularly without being noticed), fidelity, and the possibility of transporting quantum data without decoherence (losing the fragile quantum data). So while there is no viable way to teleport an object in the “move object from A to B” sense, we are moving quickly toward the sort of “disassemble and reassemble” teleportation belied by many of Star Trek’s transporter accidents (in particular, accidental duplication).

Though in November 2022, Google and CalTech published papers revealing their success in simulating, generating, and then sending a qubit through a wormhole. So maybe moving objects through holes in spacetime is closer than it seems.

Quantum teleportation requires a paradigm shift in our thinking about the way the world works, and law is going to have to keep up. Like artificial intelligence, quantum transportation technology is poised to advance at increasing rates, and it’s not clear teleportation easily maps onto existing legal frameworks. As technology continues to advance, the law will require increasing agility to effectively safeguard against risks while enabling us to enjoy the benefits, so that we may all live long and prosper.

Recommended resources for learning more about quantum computing and teleportation: