Researchers have developed a "quantum entropy source" for random number generation that can fit into a phone or tablet, potentially offering new levels of safety and encryption for mobile transactions.
Random number generators today are not entirely random because every "random" number starts somewhere. A computer takes a random "seed" number, like the time that the computer last rebooted, and then does some other math to it to shake it up. This is generally good enough for most purposes, but it means that a random number generated this way can actually be reproduced if you know the starting point and the math that happened afterwards. If hackers can figure out even one of those two things, they've got a leg up on stealing data.
That's where quantum mechanics comes in, as shown in a research paper published in Optica
. Quantum mechanics, as developed by Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg, is based on the behavior of energy at the scale of atoms. Electrons, it turns out, absorb random amounts of energy from impact with photons. Truly random. The seed number a computer used to generate a number is discoverable, but these aren't due to the laws of nature.
"We have previously shown that the quantum processes taking place exhibit true randomness," said Valerio Pruneri of the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona (ICFO), who led the research team.
Using that measure of quantum randomness, researchers have been able to develop true random number generators, but none have been particularly fast or small. The devices developed by Pruneri his team, however, run fast enough that they can encrypt gigabytes of data every second, fast enough to encrypt things like voice calls, video, or financial data in real time. And they're small enough that two of the generators put together only measure 6 by 2 millimeters, small enough to conceivably include in a phone without considerably bulking up its size.
To do this, researchers used photonic integrated circuits, which incorporate lasers, to keep the size small. "We've managed to put quantum-based technology that has been used in high profile science experiments into a package that might allow it to be used commercially," said the paper's first author, Carlos Abellan, a doctoral student at ICFO.
"This is likely just one example of quantum technologies that will soon be available for use in real commercial products. It is a big step forward as far as integration is concerned."
The battle between codemakers and codebreakers has gone on for centuries, dating as far back as the Babington Plot in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. With hacking of government agencies, major corporations, and personal information becoming a daily occurrence, it's easy to think that the codebreakers are winning this war. But this new research could offer a new weapon on the side of security.