Here's a Discovery That Could Lead Us To Lightsabers

Jeff Chiu/AP

A new form of light could lead to breakthroughs in quantum computing ... and maybe lightsabers.

Being a tech journalist, I tend to get excited about new things like advanced communications gear, new forms of cloud computing and, of course, the latest and greatest gadgets. Though I suppose, if I am being honest, that all these things are fairly inconsequential when compared with earth-shattering discoveries like fire or world-changing inventions like the wheel. It almost seems like all the really good stuff has already been discovered or created.

But perhaps not this time. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have discovered a new form of light. And beyond just the coolness factor of discovering something that has remained hidden throughout all of human history, are the implications of how this discovery could be used. This is certainly something that the government will be highly interested in pursuing.

Light is a unique form of energy that allows us to do things at night, like writing this column at 1:45 in the morning because I am not stuck in a darkened room. But light is also maddingly useless as far as energy beams go. If you take a flashlight and shine the beam at your friend who tries to block it with another beam of light from his own flashlight ... nothing happens. The light beams pass through one another without interacting in the slightest. Otherwise, they would be more like lightsabers from Star Wars and you probably couldn’t buy them at Wal-Mart.

What these clever physicists did was to find a way to force the photons that make up light to interact with one another, essentially pulling the force of light from the ethereal realm and giving it some weight. Granted, they did not change it very much, and getting to that point requires some very intense conditions. First, they cooled a cloud of radium atoms down to almost absolute zero, then shot a weak laser through it. On the other side, some of the photons had joined with others, forming a pair or even a triplet in a few cases.

A Quantum Leap

The reason why this discovery is so important is that it could be the breakthrough that quantum computing needs to really evolve into reliable machines operating in the real world. I explained how quantum computers work in a previous Nextgov column. They look pretty alien to most people, only work at close to absolute zero, and must be kept in soundproof, dark chambers in a vacuum. But their alchemy is real enough when everything is working properly.

What makes quantum computers special is that instead of circuits, they use quantum bits, or qbits. And while a traditional computer’s bits are either a one or a zero, a quantum computer’s qbits exist in a superposition where it is in every state from one to zero, and the infinite states in between, all at the same time. Quantum computers attempt to string together the qbits, so they can be compared and correlated.

In theory, a perfectly operating quantum computer, far more advanced than the experimental ones in use today, could answer questions in an instant that would take a traditional computer hundreds of years. How? Think of a library full of books, and one of them has a big red X printed on the inside cover. A traditional computer approach would be to send one person to the library to open up the first book, check for the X, and then move on to the next one until it’s located. Better traditional computers make the little scout move faster, but some libraries are going to be too large to get a result in any reasonable amount of time.

By contrast, a quantum computer, with qbits existing in every state of being, would instead be like instantly spawning millions and millions of scouts, with each one of them opening up a single book in the library. Every scout without an X in their book would disappear, leaving only the correct one holding the target. Meanwhile, the traditional computer’s scout probably hasn’t even cleared the bibliography section of the Dewey Decimal System.

Right now, most quantum computers achieve superposition of qbits by electrically exciting a quantum matrix. But what if it could be done with beams of light that we suddenly know how to make interactive? The result would likely not only be the fastest computer known to man but likely the fastest computer we could ever build given our current understanding of physics.

Why Should the Government Care?

I’ve talked with a lot of people in government, and while they often say they want quantum computers to succeed so that they can solve problems like climate change, the truth is many agencies are most interested in a more mundane use: codebreaking. Remember the library with the X hidden inside a book? Now replace that X with a password protecting a suspected terrorist’s computer or a rival nation’s encrypted communications. Having a computer that can shred any form of encryption would be a game-changing or even world-changing advantage to whoever controls it.

It’s no secret that encryption vexes both government and law enforcement, and many agency officials feel they need a way to crack it, especially when lives are in danger. FBI Director Christopher Wray again made this argument during his keynote address to the Fordham-FBI International Conference on Cyber Security in January.

The FBI’s inability to crack encryption, even with a warrant and full authority to do so, became apparent in the wake of the December 2015 shooting deaths of 14 people in San Bernardino. The FBI was unable to unlock the shooter’s phone to see how far the conspiracy went, or if other targets were planned. The FBI asked industry for a backdoor into encryption products, which was outright rejected.

At the conference, Wray said the FBI no longer wants a back door, but “the ability to access the device once we’ve obtained a warrant from an independent judge, who has said we have probable cause.”

Wray didn’t explain how that ability would work, or why it was different from a back door. But the FBI wouldn’t care if they had access to a quantum computer that could crack any password, with any level of encryption, in the time it takes light to cross through a supercooled radium cloud, which is to say, about a millionth of a second. That is what this new form of light could enable, and you can bet the government will be sponsoring the effort to integrate it into quantum computers.

Oh, and it could also perhaps enable the construction of real lightsabers, which actually has me even more excited. I will take mine in a dramatic cobalt blue, please.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys