Sep. 6, 2012 at 3:38 PM ET
Scientists have taken a quantum step on the road to the future of cyber security that will keep our digital data transmissions safe from the most sophisticated cyber criminals imagined.
The step involved running an algorithm on a custom-built solid state quantum processor to determine —with 48 percent accuracy — that the prime factors of 15 are 3 and 5.
While 48 percent is a failing grade at school, it is nearly as good as theoretically expected when dealing with quantum states where answers are parsed in probabilities. Fifty percent is a “perfect” score.
The feat took Erik Lucero five years while he was pursuing his Ph.D in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The accomplishment earned him the degree and paved the way to his current gig as a post-doctoral researcher in experimental quantum computing at IBM.
The findings are reported in the advanced online issue of the journal Nature Physics.
Practical applications of the research concern cyber security. Factoring very large numbers, ones with 600 digits, is at the heart of the most common form of encoding, called RSA encryption.
“Anytime you send a secure transmission — like your credit card information — you are relying on security that is based on the fact that it’s really hard to find the prime factors of large numbers,” Lucero said in a news release.
How hard is really hard? On a classical computer, longer than the age of the universe, which is 14.6 billion years, noted Lucero. In theory, a quantum factoring algorithm formulated by mathematician Peter Shor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can do this in a matter of minutes.
Lucero’s quantum computer showed the algorithm works. “We just need to scale up the size of this processor to something much larger. This won’t be easy, but the path forward is clear,” Andrew Cleland, a professor of physics at UCSB and experiment collaborator, said in the release.
If it can be shown that quantum computing can render RSA encryption insecure, quantum cryptography is the likely replacement, according to Lucero.
“Imagine someone wiretapping your phone, but now, every time that person tries to listen in on your conversation, the audio gets jumbled,” he said. “With quantum cryptography, if someone tries to extract information, it changes the system, and both the transmitter and the receiver are aware of it.”
For more information, check out the video below from UCSB.