The first data ever transmitted over Arpanet, the precursor of the internet, blipped from a computer at the University of California, Los Angeles to one at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto on Oct. 29, 1969.

That evening, the team at UCLA got on the phone with the SRI team and began typing “LOGIN.” “We typed the L and we asked, ‘Did you get the L?’” the UCLA computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock recently recalled. “‘Yep’ came the reply from SRI. We typed the O and asked, ‘Did you get the O?’ ‘Yep.’ We typed the G and asked, ‘Did you get the G?’ Crash! The SRI host had crashed. Thus was the first message that launched the revolution we now call the internet.”

The ability of networks to transmit data — as well as their tendency to crash, or otherwise behave unpredictably — has always fascinated Stephanie Wehner. “On a single computer, things will happen nice and sequentially,” said Wehner, a physicist and computer scientist at Delft University of Technology. “On a network, many unexpected things can happen.” This is true in two senses: Programs on connected computers interfere with one another, with surprising effects. And users of networks get creative. With the internet, Wehner noted, initially “people thought we would use it to send around some files.”

Wehner first got online around 1992, a few years before it was easy to do so. A teenager in Germany at the time and already a deft computer programmer, she soon became a hacker on the fledgling internet. At 20, she got a job as a “good” hacker, sussing out network vulnerabilities on behalf of an internet provider. Then she grew bored with hacking and sought a deeper understanding of information transmission and networks.

Wehner is now one of the intellectual leaders of the effort to create a new kind of internet from scratch. She is working to design the “quantum internet,” a network that would transmit — instead of classical bits with values of either 0 or 1 — quantum bits in which both possibilities, 0 and 1, coexist. These “qubits” might be made of photons that are in a combination of two different polarizations. The ability to send qubits from one place to another over fiber-optic cables might not transform society as thoroughly as the classical internet, but it would once again revolutionize many aspects of science and culture, from security to computing to astronomy.

Wehner is the coordinator of the Quantum Internet Alliance, a European Union initiative to build a network for transmitting quantum information throughout the continent. In a paper in Science last October, she and two co-authors laid out a six-stage plan for realizing the quantum internet, where each developmental stage will support new algorithms and applications. The first stage is already underway, with the construction of a demonstration quantum network that will connect four cities in the Netherlands — a kind of Arpanet analogue. Tracy Northup, a member of the Quantum Internet Alliance based at the University of Innsbruck, praised “the breadth of Stephanie’s vision, and her commitment to building the kind of large-scale structures that will make it happen.”

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