Sunday, November 27, 2022

Truly Random: NIST Machine Points to the Future of Cryptography

Truly Random: NIST Machine Points to the Future of Cryptography

Generating truly random numbers has been a standing problem in cryptography — until now. That’s because researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have released a study in Nature detailing how quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity can be coordinated to create number sequences that are, for the first time, verifiably random. 

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Real Randomness Now Possible

Thanks to cutting edge research, NIST scientists have created a labyrinthine, photon-producing machine — complete with mirrors and lasers galore — that can slowly but surely pump out undoubtedly random numbers.

Peter Bierhorst, one of the authors who coordinated the study, recently confirmed to the press that the randomness generated by the machine is indeed uncrackable:

“If you sent in some team of people to examine our experimental components as closely as they wanted and then have them try to come up with a prediction for what these random numbers would be afterwards, there’s just no way they could predict them.”

The development has huge implications for the field of cryptography, to the extent that previous “random number generators” haven’t truly been random, and thus haven’t truly been secure in a perfect sense. Their underlying algorithms, if cracked or compromised, hold the keys to the kingdom, as it were.

The NIST machine, which for now can only produce 1,024 bits per every 10 minutes, points to a future where the subareas of cryptography — from cryptocurrencies to encrypted communications — will be able to rely on complete randomness.

First of Its Kind

Randomness machines based on photons have existed before. And they’ve worked well, or well enough. But they haven’t been provably random hitherto, due to the inability to eradicate all the forces that could influence the photons, e.g. ambient sounds.

The NIST’s machine is unique and revolutionary, then, in that it’s the first that can be used to verify randomness. Relying on the “spooky action” of quantum particles and highly-specialized sensors, the machine guarantees that these particles, which are being repeatedly measured under the same conditions, are producing random results.

To be sure, the machine is crude for now compared to what will come in the decades ahead. But its mere functionality is a breakthrough that will have widespread ramifications across many fields of human activity. As the scientists behind the recent Nature study put it:

“Future random-number generators based on […] tests may have a role in increasing the security and trust of our cryptographic systems and infrastructure.”

Digging Into Quantum Entanglement

When one photon is observed by the NIST machine, its position is guaranteed by its quantum partner, a process that is pivotal to verifying the randomness produced by the machine.

If you’d like a quick dive into quantum entanglement (why not?), check out this excellent infographic from LiveScience‘s Karl Tate:


What’s your take? Is this cryptography breakthrough going to be a game changer? If so, what do you project? Sound off in the comments below. 

Images via Karl Tate, Infographics Artist; Army Times

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