To use this gate, Kumar needs photons that are identical in every way except polarization, or the orientation of their electromagnetic fields.These “identical” photons are sent through optical fiber to the gate itself, a small maze of devices that route photons in different directions depending on their polarization. Passing through the maze causes certain photon pairs to become entangled. But not all photons make it through the gate; only when photons reach detectors on the other end, and the researchers can measure whether or not they are entangled, do they know the gate succeeded.
The only way to know whether or not the gate worked is to wait until a collection of photons has been fired at it, says Carl Williams, coordinator of the quantum information program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Most of the time the gate fails,” he says. “It’s a probabilistic thing.” But when the gate fails, the researchers simply disregard the unentangled photons.
“The great thing about this work,” says Williams, “is that it’s in fiber. This is a big deal because it could lead to distributed networks. … The obvious application is for long-distance quantum communication between two smaller quantum computers.” One of the crucial elements in a conventional optical network is a device called a repeater, which amplifies signals that have degraded over distance. Williams says that a quantum logic gate, such as the one that Kumar built, could be used in a circuit that amplifies a signal without losing the entanglement of the photons.
“This is an important step toward constructing a quantum Internet,” says Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a leading researcher in quantum computation. “Such a network would have powers that the ordinary Internet does not,” he says. “In particular, communication over the quantum Internet would be automatically secure.”
Lloyd notes that Kumar’s paper illustrates how a simple quantum logic operation can be performed using individual photons. “The current paper represents a significant advance in the technology of quantum computation and quantum networks,” he says.