Quantum teleportation record broken: Can life imitate Star Trek?

Quantum leap: Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have successfully transferred information from one photon to another across 60 miles of fiber-optic cable.

Elliott Marks / Paramount
Cast members of "Star Trek Generations," a 1994 Paramount Pictures film. L. to R.: Walter Koenig (Chekov), William Shatner (Kirk), James Doohan (Scotty).

Physicists broke the record for quantum teleportation this week, transferring information from one photon to another across 60 miles of fiber-optic cable.

In their paper published in Optica, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), outline how their newly designed photon detectors allow accurate measurements to be taken even when the light particles emit weak signals.

"We report on quantum teleportation over optical fiber using four high-detection-efficiency superconducting nanowire single-photon detectors (SNSPDs)," the report details. "These SNSPDs make it possible to perform highly efficient multifold photon measurements, allowing us to confirm that the quantum states of input photons were successfully teleported."

But how is this even possible?

“While most of physics has to follow the same rules – planets and apples are subject to the same laws of motion – all of those rules fall away when you get down to the subatomic level,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor’s Liz Fuller-Wright.

“For instance, these vanishingly small particles can become ‘entangled.’ When two particles are entangled, then whatever you do to one particle instantaneously affects its entangled twin, regardless of the distance between them,” she said.

This idea of “entanglement” is how the NIST physicists were able to “transfer an unknown quantum state to a remote location,” as detailed by their paper.

Unfortunately, teleporting photons isn't the same as teleporting people, so we won't be barking "Beam me up, Scotty" anytime soon. But this development does have real value.

The science behind quantum teleportation is incredibly technical, but in theory, quantum teleportation can help scientists learn about quantum encryption, effectively a method for making information unhackable.

If two photons could create and share a secret key, then messages could be encrypted using the key and exchanged by conventional means, explains Physics World. This would essentially ensure complete security.

“It goes without saying that plenty of people are very interested in making that happen,” reports the Washington Post. “But first we're going to need quantum teleportation to work more reliably – and at longer distances.”

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