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Unbreakable: How Quantum Technology Is Helping Secure The Most Critical Data

Sharon Cleary
August 23, 2019
In “Avengers: Endgame,” the titular superheroes need to find a way to go back in time to a moment before half of the universe was wiped out with a snap. Their solution? Travel through the quantum realm, where subatomic particles bounce around like oil in a lava lamp.
While the time travel aspect is pure superhero-movie hokum, the filmmakers tapped into a branch of scientific research that has enormous potential for protecting blockchain: quantum mechanics.

Blockchain is an incredibly safe tracking method, but it’s not unbreakable. Cryptography scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before a hacker breaks into a blockchain using quantum computing. GE scientists have now found a way to use quantum mechanics to make blockchain safer.

Physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr once said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” That’s because, according to the strange laws of quantum mechanics, electrons can be in many places at the same time. Quantum physicists define these electrons with probabilities to indicate how likely it is that they’re arranged in a particular configuration at any given time. Over the last several decades, researchers have been trying to crack this quantum weirdness and harness the power of quantum mechanics to build computers that will be millions of times more powerful than today’s machines.

Many teams around the world are working on the technology, including one at GE Research’s Forge Lab in Niskayuna, New York. Specifically, these scientists are using quantum mechanics to devise better ways to safeguard information. “What’s really surprised me is how quickly the technology is maturing from a laboratory out into the world,” says John Carbone, a senior engineer at GE Research. “People hear quantum and think it’s 20 years out when it’s really more like 20 months out.”

Data being used — and created — by every industry needs protection, especially sensitive fields like healthcare, power, aviation and the military. A hacker could, for example, steal the design for a new airplane or find a way to black out half the country.

 width= Quantum-entangled particles can communicate with each other faster than the speed of light, no matter how far apart they are. It's like if you were in New York and your sister was in Paris; if somebody tried to pick your pocket, your sister would know immediately due to the entangled link. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

Enter quantum key decryption. QKD takes encryption — the science of scrambling and reassembling digital information — to the next level. Current encryption technology works by using such complicated mathematics to hide keys that the most powerful computers in the world can’t decode them in any kind of reasonable time frame. Quantum computing could make encryption more vulnerable.

Quantum computing is incredibly complicated but put simply, it uses qubits — subatomic particles such as electrons or photons — as building blocks. Because qubits, like electrons, can exist in multiple states simultaneously, they can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. (We told you quantum physics is weird.) This quality makes quantum computers incredible hard to build, but it also gives them an incredible power, effectively making today’s supercomputers look like children’s toys. Last year a team of scientists was able to prove definitively that a quantum computer could solve a math problem that would have been effectively impossible for a classical computer to solve in the same time frame.

Jim Bray, chief scientist at GE Research, believes that QKD can keep critical industries one step ahead of future hackers — essentially fighting quantum computing power with quantum computing power. QKD sends keys to users via qubits that are — in physics terms — entangled.

Quantum entanglement, as the property is called, is like a magical spider’s thread — really cool and also very bizarre. For reasons that scientists still don’t fully understand, entangled particles can communicate with each other faster than the speed of light, no matter how far apart they are.

If you were quantum-entangled with your sister and somebody poked you in New York, your quantum-entangled sister would feel it immediately — even if she were visiting Paris. This is helpful when it comes to encryption. In this analogy, if the protected encryption key was, say, a note in your wallet, and a thief tried to steal it in Central Park, he would unavoidably disturb the entangled link with your sister, immediately making himself known to her. “Successfully cracking or stealing becomes impossible,” Bray says.

As a first use case, GE researchers are testing QKD on an industrial blockchain for additive manufacturing — which uses finely powdered metal or plastics to 3D-print things like jet wings, fuel nozzles, even medical instruments. The manufacturing process relies on a consistent supply of high-quality powders that have a limited shelf life. Even the slightest problem with the powder can destroy a printed component. The blockchain — the same technology that makes digital currency such as bitcoin work — tracks the powder along the entire supply chain, from the time it’s made to when it’s used in 3D printing to the final product.

The GE team has successfully demonstrated its approach in the lab, and the work is getting attention from the broader logistics community: The team recently won the 2019 Manufacturing Leadership Award for Supply Chain Leadership from the National Association of Manufacturers.

While we may never use the quantum realm for time travel, it won’t be long until quantum technology leaves the world of science fiction for the world of reality.