Chicago High Schoolers Become First Members of the U.S. Public to Use Ultra-Secure Quantum Technology in Mock Voting Event

Kenwood Academy High School students visited the Chicago Quantum Exchange, where they cast unhackable votes over a quantum network—with a special visit from former President Barack Obama.

In a demonstration yesterday, more than 50 students from Kenwood Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side became the first members of the U.S. public to utilize new quantum technology to successfully conduct an important first step towards an ultra-secure vote on a modern hot topic: should social media companies be allowed to censor information/misinformation?

The first-of-its-kind event demonstrated foundational technology that could change the future of communications, with impacts on national security, banking, and privacy, while encouraging Chicago’s youth to learn more about quantum information science. 

As much of today’s national strategy surrounding quantum technology first began under his leadership, former President Barack Obama surprised the students at the event. He shared a few words about the dangers of disinformation online in an era where their attention is a prized commodity for businesses, which was the topic of their vote.

"Just because it's on TikTok don't mean it's true," he said, drawing chuckles from the audience. "Knowledge is power. And if you are getting bad knowledge, it will disempower you. It will confuse you, and it will lead you to make bad decisions. And if you know how to sort out good information from bad information, you will have more power to make good decisions that take you where you want to go."

The event took place at the headquarters of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a hub for the science and engineering of quantum information which is based at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and includes the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University.

The headquarters in Hyde Park hosts one node in a growing Chicago-area quantum communication network. The South Side node was activated this June in partnership with Toshiba Corporation whose quantum communication technology was used in the vote.

“This quantum network is platform for researchers to test their technologies, devise applications, and develop invaluable teaching tools for the next generation of quantum engineers,” said David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering and Physics at the University of Chicago, and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Through their votes, the students are participants in a real-world application of quantum technology, and we hope the experience inspires them to become members of a future quantum community.” 

The two-hour field trip gave students a chance to understand the potential for quantum technology to revolutionize computing, communication, finance, and more. Students also learned about quantum careers from local companies ColdQuanta and EeroQ, as well as national and international companies JPMorgan Chase and Quantum Machines.

After students representing each side of the topic presented debate-style arguments, each student privately cast their vote by waving their hands across optical sensors. Their vote was then securely transmitted via encrypted quantum keys to another node in the network in a lab about a mile away at the University of Chicago, where their votes were tallied.

The technology used to conduct the vote, called quantum key distribution (QKD), represents a real-world example of unhackable communication. Toshiba’s QKD technology used in the vote carries quantum information—in the form of uniquely encrypted quantum keys—over fiber optic cable at a rate of over nearly 1 million quantum bits per second. Because of the quantum principles involved, if a student’s vote was compromised or viewed by an outside party, the message received on the other end would have been flagged—because of this, it would be impossible for votes to be unknowingly altered by a hypothetical hacker.

The majority voted that social media should be allowed to censor information, and the scientists running the event announced to the crowd that there was no evidence of hacking. Students at the event expressed a newfound interest in quantum principles and in potential careers in the emerging field.

“The idea that quantum information can be a lot more secure than normal information, that was new to me,” said David Minor, a junior student at Kenwood Academy. “And it was cool to learn about careers that people might want to do, they just don't know about them yet” 

A physics teacher at Kenwood Academy, Joseph Blake, was involved in the organization of the event. He previously participated in the newly launched TeachQuantum program at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, supported by the National Science Foundation’s Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks, a UChicago partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The program brings STEM teachers from Chicago Public Schools into research lab spaces to help develop curriculum on quantum-focused concepts, and focuses on teachers from South Side schools serving mostly students of color in Kenwood, Woodlawn, Hyde Park, Englewood, and South Chicago.

“It can sometimes be hard in high school to have an idea of all the different options and careers that are out there,” said Blake. “So it's incredibly worthwhile to have a program like this that gives them a chance to be introduced to paths they might not have known about before.”

About the Chicago Quantum Exchange:

The Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) is an intellectual hub for advancing the science and engineering of quantum information among the CQE community, across the Midwest, and around the globe. A catalyst for research activity across its member and partner organizations, the CQE is based at the University of Chicago and is anchored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University.