Are Chinese Close to Allowing Scottie to Beam 'Em Up?

Thanks to physics, and the truly bizarre quirks of quarks, Chinese scientists may be perfecting completely spy-proof communications.

In May, a team of Chinese scientists announced a successful demonstration of "quantum teleportation," beaming a message more or less instantaneously 10 miles through the air -- a message that's virtually impossible to spy on.

It's the ideal medium for ultra-confidential military communications -- guaranteed by the laws of physics -- and the latest in an international race to perfect the technology.

In the Chinese experiment, 15 researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences transmitted one of a pair of related photons -- the elemental particles of light -- through empty space to a base station miles away. Because of the connection between the two photons, changes to one were almost instantaneously reflected by changes in the other particle.

Imagine the potential: Create a data link and the message a military commander writes on a piece of paper at headquarters could instantly appear, as it is written, on the desks of his generals miles away. They call it "quantum teleportation" because of the tiny scale of the experiment, and because the information transmission occurs so quickly.

Military correspondence on troop movements and raids simply must be secure, and that's where quantum communication really shines. Messages sent in this fashion are theoretically uncrackable due to the mind-warping realities of physics: One aspect to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that observing a particle changes its state. In other words, if eavesdroppers try to listen in, the sender and receiver should know in real-time.

Quantum communication had been technically possible before, and has even been tested in the past, the group of scientists noted, but never demonstrated via wireless communication.

"Although the first proof-of-principle demonstration was reported in 1997 … long-distance teleportation has so far only been realized in fiber with lengths of hundreds of meters," the paper explains. That's not entirely accurate, pointed out Matthew Luce, a researcher at the Defense Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis.

"In 2005, a group of universities and defense corporations under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant and led by BBN Technologies, the company responsible for developing the precursor to the Internet, succeeded in transferring cryptographic keys over a free-space link of 23 km in Cambridge, Massachusetts," he said.

He pointed out that the difference between the Chinese experiment and DARPA's lies mainly in the transmission mechanism: The new researchers opted for blue lasers, rather than infrared ones. But both groups are racing to perfect the technology, which Luce says could transform future warfare.

"It could revolutionize secure communications for military and intelligence organizations -- and may become the watershed of a research race in communication and information technology," Luce wrote.