David Mitlyng, CEO of Speqtral Quantum Technologies (SQT), shares news about their satellite currently on orbit testing Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) with Myrna James Yoo, Publisher of Apogeo Spatial. SQT is the only commercial company to be testing QKD on orbit right now — the only others doing quantum technologies in space are the Chinese government.
Learn more about this, and how “flying qubits” will work to create secure transactions from space, using the laws of physics! They also discuss Google’s announcement of reaching Quantum Supremacy in partnership with NASA, which was announced in late October 2019.
Enjoy the podcast above, or read the transcript below.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Thank you for joining us, David.
DAVID MITLYNG: Well thank you, Myrna. It is my pleasure to be here. I’m happy to talk to you today about our company SpeQtral and tell you all about the world of quantum communications.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Very exciting. First let’s share a little bit about your background.
DAVID MITLYNG: My background is with the space industry. I’ve spent over 20 years working at major satellite manufacturers, including big corporate giants like Hughes (now Boeing), Orbital Sciences (now Northrop) and SSL (now part of Maxar), before transitioning about six years ago to a startup called BridgeSat – now renamed BridgeComm, by the way.
There’s this explosion in the space industry in what we call ‘NewSpace’ where there’s venture capital coming into new and innovative ideas around space. So it was a good opportunity to come in and work at a startup that was commercializing optical communications, also known as laser communications. So I was the first employee of BridgeComm back a number of years ago. Now the company’s grown and done very well around commercializing optical communications for satellites. They closed their Series B, a year or so ago. They’re growing, getting very good business.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: That’s great. Now you’ve switched over to this mindblowing new field of quantum communications and how that’s going to be needed and addressed – even in space. So your new company is called SpeQtral – with a Q of course for the quantum aspect.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, has to have a Q!
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Share with us a little bit about how this came about.
DAVID MITLYNG: Well, so it turns out that optical and quantum communications are very similar technologies. At the time when I was working at BridgeComm, we would go to these conferences where they were focused on free-space optical communications, and they’d always have these sessions where they talked about quantum communications. At the time it was very fascinating, but it was a bit early – a lot more focused on research and scientific papers. It definitely seemed like a very new and interesting field that provides a very important capability for future satellites. So that was how I originally started getting knowledgeable about this new field.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Before we talk more specifically about SpeQtral, I understand that computing is going to be switching over to quantum computing in general, eventually. But you’re not a quantum computing company, right? It’s actually about quantum communications and the applications here, and the important thing is that it will be keeping quantum computers safe. It’s really about security, right?
DAVID MITLYNG: That is absolutely correct. You know your stuff. Quantum computing and quantum communications both fall under this broad umbrella of what they call quantum technologies. We get a lot of confusion with people thinking we are a quantum computing company. We are not. Quantum computing very basically is taking particles that are entangled and they are trapping them. There are a number of ways they do that and they manipulate them to get what they call qubits. These qubits are a new way of processing information to do very complex problems. That’s a whole different field. A lot of major companies and major investments are working on this.
We’re in a different field where we use entangled photons. Photons are particles of light and because they’re particles of light, they move at the speed of light. My colleagues like to call them “flying qubits.” They both rely on manipulating the quantum properties of small particles. So that’s why they both got that label of quantum: quantum computing, quantum communications.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Now let’s talk a little bit more specifically about SpeQtral. You’ve launched out of a university in Singapore.
DAVID MITLYNG: Quantum communications was invented roughly 30 years ago, with some groundbreaking papers written in the 80s and 90s. There were a number of research labs, research groups, and universities that started with these papers. One of the leaders was the National University of Singapore. Around the year 2000, they set up a quantum research group that eventually became the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT). It got very well-funded by the government of Singapore. They brought in Artur Ekert to run it. He’s one of the original inventors of the quantum communications QKD protocols. They put together a very advanced lab and research group around doing some groundbreaking work with this new technology.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: So is your company a tech transfer company from that university?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, we like to think we’re a spin-out. I look at it similar to how Google was a spin-out of Stanford. All these great startups start with researchers that see a commercial application for their research and form a start-up around it.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Right. So you’re commercializing this technology. QKD is quantum key distribution. How does that fit?
DAVID MITLYNG: So quantum key distribution is an application for quantum communications. The way quantum communications works is similar to optical communications where you start with a laser. Optical communications modulates a laser to send a high data rate, 10 gigabits per second across great distances. With quantum communications, we essentially turn down the power of the laser. So you’re getting streams of individual photons and then you manipulate the quantum properties of those photons.
Let’s say I’m on a satellite and you’re at a ground station. If I’m sending you those photons, and a bad guy, an “eavesdropper,” intercepts those photons instead of you, the quantum properties are broken and we both know it. So it’s a low data rate, but a very secure application. It’s the only type of communication where we would both know if somebody tries to eavesdrop or intercept the link, the message.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: It’s very difficult for the communication to be intercepted in the first place, right? It’s not like RF where the receiving area is a very broad one.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes – well, absolutely. For people who are very worried about security, this is the ultimate in security. It’s guaranteed and backed by the law of physics.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: You’re guaranteed by the laws of physics!
DAVID MITLYNG: Yep. The protocols that were written have undergone nearly 30 years of scrutiny within the security and scientific community and no way to overcome this has been found yet. It’s considered very secure.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: What is the problem that QKD solves?
DAVID MITLYNG: Quantum key distribution is a way to securely distribute encryption keys. Now, the way keys are distributed today is through public key encryption. The vast majority of encryption keys are submitted through this algorithmic cryptographic method. And then those keys are used to encrypt your messages, your very valuable and sensitive data. So far, public key encryption has not been cracked. It’s computationally intensive and it’s very difficult. But quantum computers, once they reach a certain capability, will be able to crack existing public key encryption protocols within seconds. And this is a known issue. A number of groups are aware of it. It’s just a matter of when quantum computers are going to get to that point. Is it five years away? Is it 10 years away?
QKD is a method of replacing public key encryption, which will be much more secure.
“LET’S SAY I’M ON A SATELLITE AND YOU’RE A GROUND STATION. IF I’M SENDING YOU THOSE PHOTONS, AND A BAD GUY, AN ‘EAVESDROPPER,’ INTERCEPTS THOSE PHOTONS INSTEAD OF YOU, THE QUANTUM PROPERTIES ARE BROKEN AND WE BOTH KNOW IT. SO IT’S A LOW DATA RATE, BUT A VERY SECURE APPLICATION. IT’S THE ONLY TYPE OF COMMUNICATION WHERE WE WOULD BOTH KNOW IF SOMEBODY TRIES TO EAVESDROP OR INTERCEPT THE LINK, THE MESSAGE.”
MYRNA JAMES YOO: You’re talking about what’s going to happen after computing switches to quantum computing, which is really inevitable, so you’re really thinking ahead about security.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes. We want to get this up as an infrastructure to offer to anybody who needs secure communications well ahead of what is being called the “Quantum Apocalypse.” However, before we reach that point, there’s a point called “Quantum Supremacy,” where quantum computers have advanced up to the point where they are more capable than the most advanced supercomputer available today. You may have seen this in the news. Google announced on Oct. 23 that they reached that level.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: They were working with NASA on that project, right?
DAVID MITLYNG: That is correct. NASA inadvertently released the paper announcing this a few weeks prior, and it was retracted, but the news is out. It spread like wildfire. Quantum Supremacy has been reached. Now that quantum computer, according to the paper, is roughly around 50 qubit capability and you roughly need around 4,000 qubits before you hit Quantum Apocalypse, before public key encryption could be easily cracked. So, it’s just a matter of time before Google, Alibaba, IBM, Intel – all these groups that are working in quantum computing in their race to reach that level – achieve that point.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: This is all happening a lot more quickly than we realize, I have a feeling.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes. I think that is another reason why there’s a lot of interest in the system we’re developing because there’s a concern that quantum computing is racing forward much quicker than Moore’s Law predicts. And then we may be reaching Quantum Apocalypse before people expect.
“THIS IS THE ULTIMATE IN SECURITY. IT’S GUARANTEED BY THE LAW OF PHYSICS.”
MYRNA JAMES YOO: So your satellite went up to the International Space Station in April?
DAVID MITLYNG: That’s correct.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Then in June the astronaut Nick Hague, who is featured in this magazine with his photos of the earth, coincidentally was the one who actually launched your satellite from the space station. So it’s been on orbit since June, is that right?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes. The satellite name is SpooQy-1, again with the Q. It is named from the famous Einstein quote where he called quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” SpooQy-1 was built and developed as a research project at CQT. A lot of the engineers at my company worked on it when they were researchers at CQT to do some demonstration of this quantum payload, what we call an entangled photon source. The professor Alex Ling is the lead researcher at CQT. They run through the payload. They’ve done a number of tests on it, so keep an eye out because they’ll release a scientific paper on this with the results probably next year sometime. I’ll give you a little spoiler: the payload performed well.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: That’s really great! So it’s actually on orbit. It’s actually testing and things are looking great.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: My understanding is that you’re the only commercial company currently testing QKD on orbit in the world?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes. Now, I’d like to point out here too, that there is one other group that has on orbit demonstration of QKD. That’s the Chinese government. They launched a satellite called Micius a few years ago that made a lot of headlines. When people search QKD, that’s the first hit that comes up because that satellite did three groundbreaking experiments, including various flavors of QKD. Because of the success of that satellite, the Chinese government has now committed many more billions of dollars into launching more satellites as part of what they call a “QKD Internet” or the “Quantum Internet.” So they’ve definitely got a very advanced design and a very advanced system.
Now our strength really is, number one, we are more commercial, as you said. We’ve got a commercial focus on what we’re offering. The other thing we have is our team, the CQT team, who has spent a lot of time and effort taking a very large and complex set of quantum optics and miniaturizing it to fit on a cubesat, roughly the size of a loaf of bread.
The Chinese launched a very large satellite that was 630 kilograms. So their system is bigger, heavier, but more capable.
So we went a different direction where we’re getting the technology to fit in a small size compact package and something that is inexpensive because we feel that for a commercial solution, that’s the key. You have to offer something that can be launched very rapidly at a good price point.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Who are your potential customers?
DAVID MITLYNG: Honestly, we have two groups that we’re talking to. The long-term plan is to offer this as a capability for banks and financial institutions, telecommunication companies, other groups like that who need very secure links with their communications.
Then on the other side of that is – who else needs secure communications – but the government. Military organizations, state department, organizations like that. So we’re getting good traction with both groups. Though to be honest the government agencies are the most near-term because again, they’ve been working on this and they understand the need for security.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: You know what’s really impressive about our government is that they really are pushing the envelope, testing things. They’re aware of what’s coming. I’ve been doing this for 16 years now and before attending conferences like GeoInt (The Geospatial Intelligence Symposium), I was not aware of that.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah. One of the things we did is that we were formed and funded (we got seed investment from Space Angels and six other investors), and with that we stood up a U.S. office specifically to address the U.S. government market and business. That company is called Speqtral Quantum Technologies (SQT) and was selected for an Air Force sponsored accelerator called Catalyst Accelerator.
That accelerator was there specifically to connect interesting technology with the Air Force and the DOD community.
That’s really been a great opportunity for us to go and show off this system and design to the U.S. government. Now that being said, there’s a lot of interest in quantum with different organizations within the government, but I think they were all very surprised at the capabilities of the Chinese when they launched that satellite.
There was a bill that was passed at the end of December 2018 called the Quantum Initiative Act that allocated $1.2 billion, as a response to that Chinese mission. That’s there to help bring up the U.S. capabilities and to benefit a number of agencies and also private companies like ours. So we’re now very actively talking to a number of different groups about supporting their missions and planning and getting a quantum communication system on their satellites very rapidly.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: That’s great for you. I do think sometimes we get in our silos and we forget to watch what these other countries are doing. China’s really one of those that in technology is really pushing the envelope.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah. Give credit where credit’s due because they invested in a good design, in a good team, and they’re putting a lot more investment into it. So I like to tell people that they are the leaders and they plan to be the leaders in this. My colleague was at a conference about a month ago where they announced they’re putting out four more LEO satellites and a GEO satellite, as well as terrestrial fiber optic QKD links as part of a broader vision for this quantum internet. So they’re committed.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: So that’s fascinating, when at this very moment, One Web and SpaceX with Starlink and other companies are working towards global internet with satellites – but not quantum. Correct?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: This is the first time I’ve ever heard that the Chinese are thinking of doing that with quantum technology. That is fascinating.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, this is fresh news. This was at a conference just a few weeks ago that they made these announcements. I think that’s the other thing that’s surprising people too, is that they are very open about their ambitions around quantum.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Well, I think that what you’re doing is really, really cutting edge with the entangled photon source on small satellites, addressing the future need for security once Quantum Supremacy is reached. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
DAVID MITLYNG: Like I said, quantum key distribution is one application for this technology, what we call broader quantum communications, which is also a part of broader quantum technologies. When you do research on this topic, you’ll see QKD, or quantum cryptography described a lot.
Just to be clear, that is an application where you use quantum communications to distribute securely encryption keys and
then these encryption keys will be used for encrypting normal communications. That being said, we’re also excited because under quantum communications with these entangled photons, there are some pretty incredible additional future applications besides just delivery of encryption keys. This is maybe the first time your readers are hearing about this, but it won’t be the last. This will be more and more in the news in the next decade as more of these breakthroughs are made – so very fascinating stuff.
MYRNA JAMES YOO: Thank you so much, David.
DAVID MITLYNG: My pleasure.