Quantum chip offers 'security guaranteed by the laws of physics'

By Danny Palmer
04 Sep 2012 View Comments
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Scientists from the University of Bristol have developed a quantum silicon chip that they say guarantees "absolute security" for computers and smartphones. The technology could be available commercially in less than five years.

Unlike conventional chips, the quantum chip runs on photons – particles of light – instead of electrons, allowing it to perform tasks that aren't possible for regular computers. Doctor Mark Thompson, deputy director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol, told Computing this has huge benefits for computing security.

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"In terms of communications we can use these quantum technologies to allow two people to communicate with each other with absolute security – I like to say security guaranteed by the laws of physics.

"It's a completely different way of communicating; it's not encrypted in the same sort of sense as a secure communication link. We're actually encoding information in quantum states and transmitting that," he added.

"It basically means if anyone tries to listen into that message then you know. If someone tries to measure your quantum state you can tell that's actually happened."

With the quantum chip, detection of security breaches happens at a photon level allowing a hack to easily and immediately be detected and prevented.

"We can monitor the system and in effect a red flag will go up when you know someone's trying to tap into your system and because we do this at the single photon level it's really obvious to see when someone is trying to tap your information," said Thompson, adding that while quantum communication is available now, logistics limits its use to a handful of organisations such as the military.

The University of Bristol's research will allow this technology to become commercially available, with several high-profile tech corporations already backing it.

"What we've done is taken that right down to the potential for mass market opportunities where we can make these tiny silicon chips, the idea being these chips may one day find themselves into your mobile phone. We're working with organisations like Nokia looking at the possibilities of getting this quantum-secure technology into phones."

Essentially, the technology will make everyday tasks, online banking or internet shopping for example, far more secure, and it could become available by 2017.

"We've shown now that we can use standard microprocessing techniques to make these devices, so as soon as we've got the right designs in place we can roll it out to all these big manufacturing plants," said Thompson.

"So in terms of routes to mass manufacture that's really what we've laid out. In terms of getting this technology into mobile phones, it could be within a five-year timescale."

And according to Thompson, quantum chip technology may enable computers to perform significantly better than today's supercomputers within a decade

"In probably about the same sort of timescale, we'll be making chips that can out-perform classical computers for very specific problems, and maybe on the 10-year timescale we'll have computers that can do significantly more useful problems better than any supercomputer that we might have today," he said.

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