NIST machine for generating quantum-based random numbers (Shalm/NIST)

NIST generates quantum-based random numbers

Researchers claim to have developed a way to use quantum mechanics to generate truly random numbers, potentially enhancing security and cryptographic systems.

It turns out the real challenge in generating random numbers is ensuring their randomness. A random-number generator based on a physical phenomenon, such as electromagnetic noise, requires not just the numbers created by the source, but also a detailed model describing the unpredictability as well as a statistical way to verify it. No statistical test can absolutely guarantee that the output was unpredictable, especially if an adversary has tampered with the device, officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology said in their announcement.

NIST's quantum-based random number generator, on the other hand, creates random numbers by shining an intense laser into a crystal that converts laser light into pairs of photons that are entangled, a quantum phenomenon that links their properties. These photons are then measured to produce a string of truly random numbers.

“Something like a coin flip may seem random, but its outcome could be predicted if one could see the exact path of the coin as it tumbles," NIST mathematician Peter Bierhorst said. "Quantum randomness, on the other hand, is real randomness. We’re very sure we’re seeing quantum randomness because only a quantum system could produce these statistical correlations between our measurement choices and outcomes.”

The new quantum-based method is part of NIST's work to improve public randomness beacon, which broadcasts random bits for applications such as secure multiparty computation.

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