Quantum communication from aliens could travel across the galaxy

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Foreign resident (now streaming on Peacock or the SYFY app!) sees Harry Vanderspeigle – an alien in disguise, whose real name is unpronounceable – grapples with the conflict between his mission to wipe out humanity and his budding connection with the people around him. In a 2022 episode, Harry attempts to use ‘Oumuamua to connect with his people and delay humanity’s destruction. It’s unclear how alien communication technology works, but it’s certainly more advanced than what we’re used to on Earth.

In real life, we’ve spent the better part of 80 years searching for extraterrestrial radio signals using a variety of radio telescopes as part of the SETI program. So far, we haven’t been able to find any evidence of extraterrestrial communications, but we may have been looking for the wrong things. In a recent study, scientists from the University of Edinburgh propose that extraterrestrials can send quantum communications across the entire galaxy without losing any information. Their findings were published in the journal Physical examination D.

Quantum communication is a relatively new endeavor for humanity, and we still have a lot of bugs to work out, but it seems reasonable that an extraterrestrial intelligence even a little further along the technological path than us could have solved it.

Where conventional computers use bits to indicate a 1 or 0, quantum computers use quantum bits, commonly called qubits, to carry information in more complex ways. In addition to enabling theoretical computers far more powerful than even our best supercomputers, quantum communication could also offer vastly improved security. That said, it’s not without its challenges. In fact, as things stand, quantum communication is mostly a challenge with little success.

One of the biggest obstacles is decoherence. Since quantum signals depend on the state of an individual particle, and reading this information requires interaction with that particle on the other end, there is considerable risk that data will be lost along the way. Essentially, if a quantum particle interacts with other particles on its journey between sender and receiver, it will decohere and any information it is carrying will be lost. This makes it difficult to build networks over long distances, although we have made progress in this regard lately.

Despite the considerable obstacles on Earth, quantum signals sent through space have a smoother path to travel. This is mainly because the space is almost entirely empty. In the space between stars, there is only about one atom for every cubic centimeter on average, and in some regions it gets much lower. This means that a signal sent through the galaxy has a decent chance of passing without interference from other particles.

The researchers calculated how far a signal sent by X-rays could travel through interstellar space without succumbing to decoherence. Their findings were staggering to their hope. While quantum communications on Earth struggle to travel very far, they discovered that a signal through space could travel farther than the full length of our galaxy.

If there are extraterrestrials trying to reach us, searching for quantum interactions might be the best way for us to receive their call. Of course, quantum communications still don’t allow us to cross the light-speed barrier, so any conversation would remain long distance and slow to develop. Let’s just hope that when and if we finally connect, they invite us to a party instead of a massacre.

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