Air Force wants unhackable comm, like in 'Mass Effect 3'

The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research is funding a group of scientists from seven universities to investigate the best way to develop “quantum memories” for securing long-range communications.

The team, led by scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology, will evaluate three ways of creating entangled quantum memories for enabling the secure transmission of information over great distances, according to an announcement from Georgia Tech. The five-year, $8.5 million project also includes scientists from Columbia, Harvard and Stanford universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin.

The basic idea of all three methods is to use “entangled photons” photons that are bound together and represent ones and zeroes according to their individual polarization. The difference in them is in the physical platforms that control the matter/light interaction used to generate them.

The research group’s task is to figure out which method or combination of methods will have the best application.

(Interestingly enough, this is exactly the same method of communication used in the “Mass Effect 3” computer game to talk securely from starships back to their home bases. One might wonder if that is where they got the idea, although Georgia Tech physics professor Alex Kuzmich said work in this field has been going on for the past 15 years.)

Ideally, the photons are manipulated into their entangled state. Then the data is converted to light and sent to the receiver, which reconverts and examines the photons to get the data.

Currently, there are a couple of obstacles to using this method for really long-range communication. One is that quantum memories generated with current methods have a lifespan of only about 200 milliseconds, which isn’t quite enough time to decode them before they go away. Kuzmich said one of the goals is to store quantum information for a matter of seconds.

The second is the loss of light when it is sent through optical fiber over great distances.

These two roadblocks will be the main topics of research for this investigation team. If they do get something operational out of their hard work, then the military would have a communication system that would be as-yet impossible to intercept. This is because the photons could not be observed while in light form.

But of course, we know how determined hackers and Rupert Murdoch can be, so I’m sure they’ll find a way eventually.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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Reader Comments

Sat, Apr 21, 2012 Kate

Willy while you are right in mass effect 2 each Quantum Communications Device is tied to a base station with a matching quantum signature I am not sure that still holds in mass effect 3 as they call Anderson on earth and Hackett who is out in space somewhere its is amazing how much of sci fi is real today or in the process of being real I mean just look at star trek in the 60s communicators and today we have them mobiles

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 Willy

The Quantum Communications Device in Mass Effect 3 is even more advanced than what the Air Force is trying, though also more restricted. It sounds like the AF one will use cables to transmit the data whereas the ones in ME3 (and Mass Effect 2) are point to point and work across the entire galaxy. However, in Mass Effect, each Quantum Communications Device is tied to a base station with a matching quantum signature, so each ship can only communicate using this method to one specific place per device.

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 CygnusX1 Chautauqua NY

Great Article! Actually I believe this to be a theory that has evovled for a while. I read a very good scifi book series by Ian Douglas AKA William Keith (actually there's 3 series that are tied together, 1998 through 2009. His research for writing these books must have been based on what true science theories existing during the writing period. The Mass Effect game series takes parts of books, movies, tv and scientific theories (BSG, Trek, ME3, etc) and puts them in a very good story line. The Quantum Communications Device is also Einstein's theory of "spooky-actions-at-a-distance" ( So once again this is Art imitating Science imitating Art.

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