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10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

(Page 11 of 11)

Quantum Cryptography

The world runs on secrets. Governments, corporations, and individuals-to say nothing of Internet-based businesses-could scarcely function without secrecy. Nicolas Gisin of the University of Geneva is in the vanguard of a technological movement that could fortify the security of electronic communications. Gisin’s tool, called quantum cryptography, can transmit information in such a way that any effort to eavesdrop will be detectable.

The technology relies on quantum physics, which applies at atomic dimensions: any attempt to observe a quantum system inevitably alters it. After a decade of lab experiments, quantum cryptography is approaching feasibility. “We can now think about using it for practical purposes,” says Richard Hughes, a quantum cryptography pioneer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Gisin-a physicist and entrepreneur-is leading the charge to bring the technology to market.

The company that Gisin spun off from his University of Geneva laboratory in 2001, id Quantique, makes the first commercially available quantum-cryptography system, he says. The PC-size prototype system includes a random-number generator (essential for creating a decryption key) and devices that emit and detect the individual photons of light that make up the quantum signal.

Conventional cryptographers concentrate on developing strong digital locks to keep information from falling into the wrong hands. But even the strongest lock is useless if someone steals the key. With quantum cryptography, “you can be certain that the key is secure,” says Nabil Amer, manager of the physics of information group at IBM Research. Key transmission takes the form of photons whose direction of polarization varies randomly. The sender and the intended recipient compare polarizations, photon by photon. Any attempt to tap this signal alters the polarizations in a way that the sender and intended recipient can detect. They then transmit new keys until one gets through without disturbance.

Quantum cryptography is still ahead of its time. Nonquantum encryption schemes such as the public-key systems now commonly used in business have yet to be cracked. But the security of public-key systems relies on the inability of today’s computers to work fast enough to break the code. Ultimately, as computers get faster, this defense will wear thin. Public-key encryption, Gisin says, “may be good enough today, but someone, someday, will find a way to crack it. Only through quantum cryptography is there a guarantee that the coded messages sent today will remain secret forever.”

Gisin has no illusions about the challenges he faces. For one thing, quantum cryptography works only over the distance a light pulse can travel through the air or an optical fiber without a boost; the process of amplification destroys the quantum-encoded information. Gisin’s team holds the world’s distance record, having transmitted a quantum key over a 67-kilometer length of fiber connecting Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.

The work of Gisin and others could usher in a new epoch of quantum information technology. Ironically, it is in part the prospect that superfast quantum computers will someday supply fantastic code-breaking power that drives Gisin and others to perfect their method of sheltering secret information. In the coming decades, Gisin contends, “e-commerce and e-government will be possible only if quantum communication widely exists.” Much of the technological future, in other words, depends on the science of secrecy. - Herb Brody

Others in
IBM Quantum key exchange through optical fiber Richard Hughes
Los Alamos
National Laboratory Ground-to-satellite optical communications John Preskill
Caltech Quantum information theory John Rarity
QinetiQ Through-air quantum-key transmission Alexei Trifonov and
Hoi-Kwong Lo

MagiQ Technologies Quantum-cryptography hardware