Quantum Key Distribution Gets a Speed Boost

A method for scrambling data to protect it from the super powerful computers of the future has received a speed boost from a team of researchers from Duke and Ohio State universities and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The method uses quantum key distribution to guard data from prying eyes. The problem in the past with the technology is it’s slow. Transfer speeds typically are measured in kilobits per second. However, the researchers found a way to increase key transmission rates between five and 10 times, bringing them into the megabit per second range.

The Future of Cybersecurity Is in High-Speed Quantum Encryption

A New Level of Cryptography

The advent of functioning quantum computers has been considered to present a threat to today’s encryption methods. On the other hand, these quantum systems might hold the key to keeping computers and the internet secure, thanks to quantum cryptography. A team of researchers from Duke University, Ohio State University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have tackled quantum encryption on a whole new scale.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers demonstrated a system that uses quantum key distribution (QKD), creating and distributing encryption codes at megabit-per-second rates. The secret lies in putting more information on the photons — light particles used in QKD and in most of today’s quantum networks — and combining it with high-speed detectors.

Quantum communication device that can stream encrypted video
Illustration of a high-dimensional quantum communication device that can stream encrypted video. Image Credit: Agheal Abedzahdeh/Duke University

The feat was achieved by adjusting the moment when photons are released, making it possible to encode two bits of information on a photon instead of just one. As a result, their system can transmit keys five to ten times faster than current methods, which only allow for between tens to hundreds of kilobits per second. Running several systems that use their new method in parallel  creates current internet speeds.

This is important, because most of today’s existing “quantum-secure encryption systems cannot support some basic daily tasks, such as hosting an encrypted telephone call or video streaming,” Nurul Taimur Islam from Duke said in a press release.

Securing a Quantum Future

QKD requires a set of encryption keys sent separately from the encrypted message. In principle, the information becomes “hack-proof,” because tampering with the message or the encryption key would alert both the receiver and the sender. However, QKD cannot work flawlessly, because it requires equipment that is still imperfect. This makes QKD vulnerable to hacking.

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“We wanted to identify every experimental flaw in the system, and include these flaws in the theory so that we could ensure our system is secure and there is no potential side-channel attack,” said Islam, explaining how they had to identify and incorporate the limitations of the equipment they used.

In any case, QKD is still currently the best chance we have for improving today’s cybersecurity measures, which have been proven — time and again — to be inadequate to deal with hacks and breaches. And because this new system used equipment that’s mostly commercially available, it would be easy to integrate into the current framework of the internet.

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The Future of Bitcoin is Threatened by Quantum Computers

A Different Kind of Computing

While much of the world is captivated by the meteoric rise of bitcoin’s value, others are focused on the technology behind the cryptocurrency: blockchain. The decentralized digital ledger tech is built upon a peer-to-peer network, and it is far more secure than the centralized systems used by traditional banks and financial institutions. However, another revolutionary technology is now threatening Bitcoin’s security.

In a recently published paper, Divesh Aggarwal and his colleagues from the National University of Singapore (NUS) examined how quantum computers could undermine and even exploit Bitcoin’s security protocols.

As explained by the MIT Technology Review, these protocols use algorithms to turn data into mathematical functions. Every transaction is recorded into “blocks” using these functions as part of the computationally demanding work of cryptocurrency mining.

These cryptographic protocols make cracking a blockchain using today’s computers practically impossible, but the system does have weak points quantum computers could exploit.

Cryptography Gets Busted

For their paper, Aggarwal and his colleagues examined how quantum computers could break through Bitcoin’s security in two ways: by mining more than classical computers can and by cracking Bitcoin’s cryptographic keys.

If a miner controls more than 50 percent of the computational power on a blockchain network, they can use that majority control for malicious activity. The researchers found that the application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) currently used by most cryptocurrency miners should be able to maintain a speed advantage over quantum computers for the next 10 years, so miners likely won’t be able to use quantum systems for nefarious purposes in this manner for at least a decade.

As for cracking today’s cryptographic keys, part of Bitcoin’s security protocol involves every bitcoin owner possessing two encryption keys: a private one and a public one. The latter can be easily generated using the former, but the reverse is far more difficult. An owner’s signature is verified without revealing the private key using a technique called elliptic curve signature scheme.

While conventional computers don’t possess the necessary computational power to derive a private key from a public key, quantum computers could do it rather easily. “The elliptic curve signature scheme used by Bitcoin…could be completely broken by a quantum computer as early as 2027,” Aggarwal and his colleagues wrote.

Cryptography Gets Boosted

This security threat isn’t unique to Bitcoin. Just about everything on the internet and every computer system with a modicum of security uses the same cryptographic principles. To that end, quantum computers put anything using today’s encryption methods at risk.

“[T]here is little doubt that the power of quantum computing could be used to ‘crack’ current encryption methods,” William Hurley, the chair of the Quantum Computing Standards Workgroup of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), told Futurism.

“Encryption methods like RSA are based on the simple premise that factoring large numbers is computationally unattractive,” said Hurley, who has previously written about the threat quantum computers pose to today’s encryption methods. “RSA and other encryption methods essentially make it so time and resource intensive that it becomes undesirable to invest in breaking the encryption. With the advent of quantum computers, the factoring of these two large numbers now becomes more of a reality.”

Quantum computers could potentially become so powerful they require their own kind of cryptography, but that doesn’t mean Bitcoin and today’s encryption methods must be scrapped entirely. With some reworking, they could be made more secure.

For starters, Hurley suggests doubling or tripling the length of cryptographic keys. “Doubling the length of the encryption key is even more effective in a symmetric encryption scheme,” he said. “Quantum computers could use Grover’s Algorithm to break symmetric keys in quadratic time, but that’s not nearly fast enough to overcome a longer key.”

According to MIT Technology Review, Bitcoin doesn’t have any plans to revise its current security protocols just yet, but with usable quantum computers still a decade or two away, cryptocurrency platforms have time to reconsider their encryption methods.

“It’s easy to romanticize quantum computing. And while the technology is closer than you think, it’s not magic,” said Hurley. “It will not be the end of encryption, as many propose.”

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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Quantum Physicists Conclude Necessary Makeup of Elusive Tetraquarks

Quark Quirks Called Tetraquarks

Everything in the universe is made up of atoms — except, of course, atoms themselves. They’re made up of subatomic particles, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. While electrons are classified as leptons, protons and neutrons are in a class of particles known as quarks. Though, “known” may be a bit misleading: there is a lot more theoretical physicists don’t know about the particles than they do with any degree of certainty.

As far as we know, quarks are the fundamental particle of the universe. You can’t break a quark down into any smaller particles. Imagining them as being uniformly minuscule is not quite accurate, however: while they are tiny, they are not all the same size. Some quarks are larger than others, and they can also join together and create mesons (1 quark + 1 antiquark) or baryons (3 quarks of various flavors).

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In terms of possible quark flavors, which are respective to their position, we’ve identified six: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. As mentioned, they usually pair up either in quark-antiquark pairs or a quark threesome — so long as the charges ( ⅔, ⅔, and ⅓ ) all add up to positive 1.

The so-called tetraquark pairing has long-eluded scientists; a hadron which would require 2 quark-antiquark pairs, held together by the strong force. Now, it’s not enough for them to simply pair off and only interact with their partner. To be a true tetraquark, all four quarks would need to interact with one another; behaving as quantum swingers, if you will.

“Quarky” Swingers

It might seem like a pretty straightforward concept: throw four quarks together and they’re bound to interact, right? Well, not necessarily. And that would be assuming they’d pair off stably in the first place, which isn’t a given. As Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University explained to LiveScience, two quarks aren’t any more likely to pair off in a stable union than two random people you throw into an apartment together. When it comes to both people and quarks, close proximity doesn’t ensure chemistry.

“The big open question had been whether such combinations would be stable,
or would they instantly disintegrate into two quark-antiquark mesons,” Karliner told Futurism. “Many years of experimental searches came up empty-handed, and no one knew for sure whether stable tetraquarks exist.”

Most discussions of tetraquarks up until recently involved those “ad-hoc” tetraquarks; the ones where four quarks were paired off, but not interacting. Finding the bona-fide quark clique has been the “holy grail” of theoretical physics for years – and we’re agonizingly close.

Recalling that quarks are not something we can actually see, it probably goes without saying that predicting the existence of such an arrangement would be incredibly hard to do. The very laws of physics dictate that it would be impossible for four quarks to come together and form a stable hadron. But two physicists found a way to simplify (as much as you can “simplify” quantum mechanics) the approach to the search for tetraquarks.

Several years ago, Karliner and his research partner, Jonathan Rosner of the University of Chicago, set out to establish the theory that if you want to know the mass and binding energy of rare hadrons, you can start by comparing them to the common hadrons you already know the measurements for. In their research they looked at charm quarks; the measurements for which are known and understood (to quantum physicists, at least).

Based on these comparisons, they proposed that a doubly-charged baryon should have a mass of 3,627 MeV, +/- 12 MeV. The next step was to convince CERN to go tetraquark-hunting, using their math as a map.

Smashing Atoms

For all the complex work it undertakes, the vast majority of which is nothing detectable by the human eye, The Large Hadron Collider is exactly what the name implies: it’s a massive particle accelerator that smashes atoms together, revealing their inner quarks. If you’re out to prove the existence of a very tiny theoretical particle, the LHC is where you want to start — though there’s no way to know how long it will be before, if ever, the particles you seek appear.

It took several years, but in the summer of 2017, the LHC detected a new baryon: one with a single up quark and two heavy charm quarks — the kind of doubly-charged baryon Karliner and Rosner were hoping for. The mass of the baryon was 3,621 MeV, give or take 1 MeV, which was extremely close to the measurement Karliner and Rosner had predicted. Prior to this observation physicists had speculated about — but never detected — more than one heavy quark in a baryon. In terms of the hunt for the tetraquark, this was an important piece of evidence: that more robust bottom quark could be just what a baryon needs to form a stable tetraquark.

The perpetual frustration of studying particles is that they don’t stay around long. These baryons, in particular, disappear faster than “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” speed; one 10/trillionth of a second, to be exact. Of course, in the world of quantum physics, that’s actually plenty of time to establish existence, thanks to the LHC.

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The great quantum qualm within the LHC, however, is one that presents a significant challenge in the search for tetraquarks: heavier particles are less likely to show up, and while this is all happening on an infinitesimal level, as far as the quantum scale is concerned, bottom quarks are behemoths.

The next question for Rosner and Karliner, then, was did it make more sense to try to build a tetraquark, rather than wait around for one to show up? You’d need to generate two bottom quarks close enough together that they’d hook up, then throw in a pair of lighter antiquarks — then do it again and again, successfully, enough times to satisfy the scientific method.

“Our paper uses the data from recently discovered double-charmed baryon to point, for the first time, that a stable tetraquark *must* exist,” Karliner told Futurism, adding that there’s “a very good chance” the LHCb at CERN would succeed in observing the phenomenon experimentally.

That, of course, is still a theoretical proposition, but should anyone undertake it, the LHC would keep on smashing in the meantime — and perhaps the combination would arise on its own. As Karliner reminded LiveScience, for years the assumption has been that tetraquarks are impossible. At the very least, they’re profoundly at odds with the Standard Model of Physics. But that assumption is certainly being challenged. “The tetraquark is a truly new form of strongly-interacting matter,” Karliner told Futurism,”in addition to ordinary baryons and mesons.”

If tetraquarks are not impossible, or even particularly improbable, thanks to the Karliner and Rosner’s calculations, at least now we have a better sense of what we’re looking for — and where it might pop up.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, as they say, and while the mind-boggling realm of quantum mechanics may feel more like smoke and mirrors to us, theoretical physicists aren’t giving up just yet. Where there’s a 2-bottom quark, there could be tetraquarks.

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