Big Interview

Keys to the quantum internet

Andrew Lord.jpg

BT is set to play a significant role as quantum technology develops. Andrew Lord, senior manager of optical research at BT, talks about the company’s quantum R&D, QKD and the quantum internet

In April, BT, Toshiba and EY collaborated in a trial of the world’s first commercial quantum-secured metro network. The infrastructure will connect numerous customers across London, helping them to secure data transmissions between physical locations using quantum key distribution (QKD) over standard fibre optic links.

QKD is expected to play a fundamental role in protecting networks and data against the threat of quantum computing cyberattacks, and represents a critical step towards the UK government’s aim for the country to become a quantum-enabled economy.

Andrew Lord, senior manager of optical research at BT, says the company is working with Toshiba because it is the “best-in-class making QKD”.

“When you’re doing this kind of trailblazing science, and looking at how it might turn into something useful for BT that we can downstream and start to commercialise, you do need to have these sorts of relationships,” Lord says.

While QKD is still in its early stages, BT said earlier this year it will offer quantum-secure networks to large business, attracting them is key for BT in the future.

Investment in security

“At some point, quantum computers will have the capability of breaking our standard encryption. They don’t yet, but they will,” says Lord.

Given the huge investment in quantum computing technology, this could happen sooner rather than later. Last year, an Australian-led quantum computing start-up in Silicon Valley closed a US$450 million Series D fund raise, which valued the enterprise at $3.15 billion.

BT has been ahead of the curve regarding quantum communications. It has a broad R&D portfolio spanning components for quantum systems, secure networks, and new cryptographic and communications protocols. Its recent partnerships highlight its commitment to the technology.

Lord says that quantum communications will be a key part of BT’s future because of the plethora of benefits, direct and indirect, that it provides. “One of the direct benefits would be security,” he notes.

Quantum communication systems are more secure than regular networks as they rely on the quantum properties of photons, rather than computer code that can be cracked. Quantum information is stored in qubits. These can be used for encryption because they can generate a code when measured that will only be known by the person observing them.

But Lord maintains that BT is looking beyond security. Its grand vision is to use qubit transmissions to connect quantum computers, creating the ‘quantum internet’.

A new internet

The ‘quantum internet’ is a (so far theoretical) network in which quantum devices exchange information within an environment that harnesses quantum mechanics.

“You’d do this because the power that you can get from bringing

multiple quantum computers together gives you incredible speed of processing,” says Lord.

Lord believes that this is plausible, as quantum technology is improving “almost weekly and monthly”. But the key for BT would be getting quantum devices to talk to “classical” IT infrastructure.

“How do you do that? Well, you have to talk to the guys that are supplying the data columns,” says Lord. “We’ve spent quite a few years with Toshiba and Adva Optical Networking in order to bring that together.”

Both Adva and Toshiba are long-term partners of BT. But Lord says the telco “talks to everybody” in the space to get a greater understanding of the quantum landscape.

As quantum communication moves ahead, Lord’s big question is whether it will remain a niche product. “There are so many variables to deal with: requirements, demand and customer appetite,” he says.

Lord believes next three years will be key in answering this question, because while investment in quantum communications makes it seem as though the sector is exploding, it is not ready for the mainstream.

“That’s what we’re at the cusp of discovering,” Lord says. “Will it stay niche or will the momentum continue?”