COMMENTARY

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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