The chip uses pulses of laser light to generate truly random numbers, the basis of encryption. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Random numbers are hugely important for modern computing. They're used to encrypt credit card numbers and emails. To inject randomness into online gaming. And to simulate super complex phenomena, like protein folding or nuclear fission.
But here's the dirty secret: a lot of these so-called random numbers are not truly random. They're actually what’s known as "pseudo random numbers," generated by algorithms. Think of generating random numbers by rolling dice. If you know the number of dice, it’s simple to figure out something about the realm of possible random numbers—thus putting probabilistic limits on the randomness.
But truly random numbers can be generated through quantum mechanical processes. So researchers built a photonic chip—a computer chip that uses photons instead of electrons. The chip has two lasers: one shoots continuously; the other pulses at regular intervals. Each time the two lasers meet, the interference between the light beams is random, thanks to the rules of quantum mechanics. The chip then digitizes that random signal, and voila: a quantum random number generator. The study is in the journal Optica. [Carlos Abellan et al., Quantum entropy source on an InP photonic integrated circuit for random number generation]
It's not the first time this sort of thing's been built. But compared to old prototypes, this chip is much smaller—a sixth the size of a penny—and works at high speeds. Meaning small and fast enough for a smartphone? The researchers say that's an entirely predictable outcome.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]