In July 1969, astronauts landed on the moon for the first time. In December, just five months later, another momentous first occurred, though the world mostly ignored it. The internet was born after a new computer network, “ARPANET,” successfully linked four separate computer network nodes—at the Stanford Research Institute, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.

More than 50 years later, as the human race sets sights on Mars, there’s another looming rise of communications technology. The quantum internet promises to again transform how the world lives and works. While the prospect of a quantum internet has, unlike its predecessor, been much-hyped, we don’t yet know what precisely the quantum internet might do, nor when it might be widely operational.

Sensitive, Secure, Smart

Contrary to popular perception, the quantum internet is not a superfast version of today’s internet. Instead, the quantum internet will work fundamentally differently by enabling quantum computers to connect and distribute information using quantum signals, not the radio waves that connect traditional computers.

The quantum internet must abandon familiar computing principles, such as the binary system, in favor of quantum “qubits” that obey the head-twisting laws of quantum mechanics. Many experts believe the quantum internet will eventually intertwine with the classical internet as part of a new hybrid internet.

Still, in the beginning, at least, the quantum internet is more likely to be used as a specialized branch of the internet, one that people connect to for highly complex tasks. For example, improving earthquake detection or sharpening images from linked, distant optical telescopes.  

But where will the quantum internet impact the most? In Accenture’s latest research, Untangling the future of quantum communications, we set out what we foresee as the three most relevant areas of opportunity:

  1. Distributed quantum computing. While a classical computer’s power is roughly proportional to the number of central processing units (CPUs) it contains, a quantum computer’s power grows exponentially with the number of qubits it processes. Networking quantum computers to form a quantum internet will allow individuals and organizations to solve larger, more complex problems, such as molecular simulation to discover new drugs or design new materials.
  1. Secure communications. Since qubits cannot be measured without being disturbed, data in motion in a quantum internet will be immune to the widespread “man-in-the-middle” eavesdropping attacks experienced on the traditional internet. The quantum internet holds the potential for truly unhackable communications—from the transmission of confidential health records to financial transactions.
  1. Quantum sensing. Not only does quantum “sensing” offer much more accurate and sensitive measurements, but it also provides an opportunity to measure things never before measured. Quantum sensors, for instance, could allow scientists to remotely observe, analyze and measure previously undetected activity below the earth’s surface, thereby improving early-warning systems for threats like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Save the date

How soon might quantum internet be available at scale?

Despite significant unresolved engineering challenges, numerous experts predict a global quantum network will be online by 2030. One such challenge involves building yet-to-be-created quantum “repeaters” (the technology enabler of long-distance, quantum-powered communication).

Others believe it will happen much faster.

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Countries that pioneer the quantum internet will enjoy significant geopolitical and commercial advantages, as with the traditional internet.

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Still, various breakthroughs suggest that quantum repeaters may not be far off. For instance, scientists at QuTech, a Dutch research group, recently created a multi-node quantum network with the ability to link any two locations in the Netherlands. At the same time, researchers from Spain and China (separately) also demonstrated vital technical advances.

Countries that pioneer the quantum internet will enjoy significant geopolitical and commercial advantages, as with the traditional internet. That’s the impetus for initiatives such as the European Quantum Internet Alliance; in the U.S., meanwhile, the greater Chicago region has emerged as a global hub for quantum communications research.

However, governments and businesses must collaborate even more to accelerate their countries’ quantum-related R&D efforts to make the most of the quantum internet. The Chinese government, an early leader, has already launched a quantum satellite into orbit and has also connected Beijing to Shanghai with a 4,600-kilometer quantum network. Such government-financed experimentation is reminiscent of ARPANET and the early internet.

The development of robust quantum communication “ecosystems”—composed of telecom providers, startup firms, established businesses and research institutions—will also be critical to set standards, develop novel solutions by pooling resources and cultivate relevant skills for workers. Telecom providers play a critical role within those ecosystems. They should start building their capabilities and testing their performance in quantum network simulators and network testbeds to prepare for the many opportunities ahead.

Building quantum-related intellectual property (IP) should be another priority. Here, too, China is widening its lead.

Quantum internet’s future is now

There’s much uncertainty, as well as much justified excitement, about the quantum internet. But one can make two predictions with confidence. Like its predecessor, the quantum internet will change the world in far-reaching, unpredictable ways. And that day will come sooner than you think.


Read our related blog How to build a quantum computing workforce.

Laura G. Converso

Senior Principal – Thought Leadership Research

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