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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June 2004, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
The super-fast future of computing
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

The teleporter table
Teleporting a beam of light was possible with this table
One of the scientists who helped pioneer Star Trek-style teleporting in a ground-breaking experiment says he hopes we will see a ultra-fast quantum computer in action by 2035.

"The Moore's Law for computer technology states that in every 18 months, there will be a doubling of computer memory, speed and other performances," Dr Ping Koy Lam explained to BBC News Online.

"In a few years' time, this law will have to confront quantum theory when transistors are shrunk to the size of a few atoms."

He is talking about a very small science, at the sub-atomic and atomic scale, but physicists and technologists have very big ideas about it for the very long term.

Australian physicist Dr Lam, and fellow Australia National University (ANU) colleague Warwick Bowen, made their breakthrough with a beam of light in June 2002.

In their experiment, they perfected the procedure of destroying a beam of light and successfully putting it back together a metre away.

It was achieved because of a process called "entanglement", whereby two particles - in this case photons of light - have related properties even when they are far apart.

A 1998 experiment at the California Institute of Technology had already shown that this should be possible, and since then over 40 laboratories had been racing to teleport a beam.

Physics ahead

For their breakthrough, Dr Lam and Mr Bowden won global recognition and the first British Council Eureka Prize for Inspiring Science.

Part of their prize was a trip to the UK - they were not beamed over, but flown over - to share their quantum secrets with other physicists.

"Our experiment alone would not have amounted to anything to an ordinary person," Dr Lam explained modestly.

Dr Ping Koy Lam
Quantum computation is still in its infancy. Teleportation so far is only restricted to the teleportation of information
Dr Ping Koy Lam, Australia National University

"However, there is a collective international effort in the area of quantum information."

Physics, in Dr Lam's view, has always been decades if not centuries ahead of possible applications in the engineering world.

When electricity was discovered, it was a novelty to many, and it was not until several decades after the invention of laser technology that its potential was realised.

"Quantum physics, although formulated in the 1920s, and although being one of the most successful theories, still has relatively few applications.

"That is why many physicists believe that the quantum revolution is imminent."

In the long run, quantum physics can be exploited for several applications, Dr Lam explained, from ultra-sensitive sensor technology to computing and communication.

Essentially, what it means for computing and communication is that the transfer of data would be extremely fast - potentially trillions of times faster - and secure, using encryption techniques that are unbreakable.

Security excitement

Government and military organisations around the world are already getting excited about the possibilities because the security of communication is guaranteed by the laws of physics.

Quantum cryptography scrambles data in a different way to conventional cryptography, because the information about security keys is encoded on to a single photon of light.

Star Trek's Spock
No beaming up like Spock and co just yet
"Quantum cryptography is already in use," said Dr Lam. "Its popularity at the moment is very modest. However, I believe this will change in the next few years.

"We can prove that, if done right, it is absolutely secure against eavesdroppers. A 'disembodied' transmission of information is therefore a good starting point for crypto-communication."

For the past year, Dr Lam and his ANU Quantum Optics Group have used the same teleportation experiment to develop a communication protocol called "secret sharing".

The protocol would have huge benefits for corporate, banking and military institutions where more than one authentification is needed to access top secret information.

"In this protocol, a dealer of information divides her message and sends it to multiple players.

"Individually, the players cannot retrieve any information. Only when a majority of them get together would the message be revealed."

Sorry Scotty

As for other, wilder dreams of using quantum physics in order to beam yourself from A to B, the possibility is rather less exciting, and would disappoint Spock and Scotty.

"Quantum computation is still in its infancy. Teleportation so far is only restricted to the teleportation of information."

So, the possibility of sending yourself instead of an e-mail to someone is limited. What is clear, however, is that the next 30 years will be an exciting and challenging time in the field, according to Dr Lam.

"Information technologists, mathematicians, engineers and physicists will have to do a complete re-think.

"But the reward will be orders of magnitude faster computation power."

Q&A: Teleportation
14 Jun 04 |  Science/Nature
Scientists freeze beam of light
10 Dec 03 |  Science/Nature
Quantum computer draws closer
21 May 03 |  Science/Nature
Quantum leap for secret codes
05 Jun 03 |  Technology
Australian teleport breakthrough
17 Jun 02 |  Science/Nature


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