It’s 2020. Why don’t we have teleportation yet? Well, we kind of do.

The original “Star Trek” series saw Captain Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy beaming down to planets from the starship USS Enterprise through a device known as the transporter in the fictional 23rd century. Strange as it may seem, future teleportation is slowly becoming a workable technology today — and it could transform computer security.

Scientists have been experimenting with what’s known as quantum teleportation since 1997. The idea is that information about the state of a quantum system can be instantly transmitted over arbitrary distances through quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which paired objects such as photons reflect the changes in each other regardless of how far apart they are. In quantum teleportation, an entangled photon can be used to send information to its twin, which essentially becomes the first photon.

Quantum teleportation

Over the past two decades, the distances observed in quantum teleportation experiments have gone from tabletop to intercity scale. In July, however, Chinese researchers managed to teleport a photon of light from Earth to a satellite called Micius at an altitude of more than 311 miles (500 km). Not only was this a new record in terms of distance, the experiment marked the first time something was teleported from the ground to orbit. While that was a remarkable feat in itself, what the researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China and other groups were most keen on was the technology’s potential for networked computers.

“Our demonstration of a ground-to-satellite uplink for reliable and ultra-long-distance quantum teleportation is an essential step towards a global-scale quantum internet,” the researchers wrote in a letter published in Nature.

Computers on a quantum internet could exchange information through quantum entanglement. Researchers are conceiving it not as a replacement of the traditional internet, but a specialized layer offering premium security through quantum encryption. If a hacker tried to intercept an encryption key sent over the network, quantum mechanics principles dictate that the information would be destroyed.

“You will get a means of communication whose security is guaranteed by physical laws instead of [by] assumptions that no one is able to hack your code,” Ronald Hanson, a physicist at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, told the EU’s Horizon magazine. “That’s probably the first real application, but there are many, many more applications that people are thinking about where this idea of entanglement, this invisible link at a distance, could actually be helpful.”

Earth-Sized Telescopes

Chinese and European researchers have collaborated on further experiments in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a quantum internet. In late September, they held a quantum-secure call that, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “could not be wiretapped, intercepted or cracked.” China will likely produce national standards for quantum key distribution equipment, the academy said.

Meanwhile, astronomy is another field that could benefit from teleportation in a quantum internet. Telescopes located far apart from one another could share entangled particles in order to increase their effective resolution. It could be possible to build a telescope with an aperture the size of the Earth.

“You could not just see planets,” Paul Kwiat, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, told Nature News, “but in principle read license plates on Jupiter’s moons.”

Companies such as Google and IBM are also interested in quantum entanglement and the potential of quantum computers. Such machines, which already exist for specialized but not generalized purposes, can process all possible solutions to a problem because their “quantum bits” (qubits) can be both partly one and partly zero at the same time.

While a classical computer would try to navigate a maze one path at a time, a quantum computer can try all paths simultaneously. Such machines are expected to accelerate the development of artificial intelligence because they’re well suited to applications such as machine learning.

So while we can’t yet beam down to distant planets, future teleportation in the form of quantum communications will likely take us to many strange new worlds of a different sort. It may not come for a while, but the quantum age will create enormous new challenges and opportunities for everyone, and we’ll need more than a few engineers like Scotty to help us.