LANL’s Entropy Engine Appears Perfectly Unpredictable

Quantum-Secured Communication team leader Ray Newell. Courtesy/LANL

Los Alamos Daily Post

The Entropy Engine, one of Los Alamos National Laboratories R&D 100 award-winning technologies this year, was designed to address a dangerous authentication crisis in the world today.

What computers need to know to ascertain who is talking to whom has come a long way from what was once quaintly termed a “handshake,” and yet there are still large holes and uncertainties in the distributed computing, as has been most conspicuous in the hacking related charges and suspicions surrounding the recent Presidential election. Thievery alone is costing the world economy something like $400 billion a year, according to consensus estimates.

On a personal level, most of us are protected by a laughable fig leaf of a password, that is either so easy to figure out that anybody could hack it or so hard to remember that few are prepared to sign in without some kind of flimsy cheat sheet. Going up the scale of communications from personal and private information to critical infrastructure and state security secrets, the risks and the potential consequences of tampering or failure are terrifying.

According to LANL scientists, help is on the way.

A team of researchers, led by Richard Hughes and Beth Nordholt and specializing in quantum communications, has been developing a portfolio of new hyper-secure technologies, including quantum cryptography that tech transfer officials consider among the most valuable intellectual properties at the laboratory. As the product now known as the Entropy Engine approached commercialization Hughes and Nordholt retired and became senior advisors to the Whitewood Corporation that licensed the patents for the Los Alamos invention.  

Entropy is a physical quality used to define  Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics referring to the irreversible loss of energy and heat that inevitably and sooner than later escapes from an isolated system.

In quantum communication the term refers to the disorganization or unpredictability of a signal.

“A good example — there are many more ways of having your clothes distributed around a room than folded and put away in a drawer,” said Ray Newell, who is now the Quantum-Secured Communication team leader. “So having all the clothes heaped up in various piles around the room is a greater entropy configuration than having them folded up in the drawer.”

In terms of quantum physics, Newell added, “Entropy is a rigorous mathematical way of quantifying the amount of unpredictability in a signal.” The more unpredictable it is, the greater the entropy.

The Entropy Engine invented by LANL can very quickly generate a stream of 1s and 0s that are completely unpredictable…  It can generate 200 million of these random “bits” each second.

“All cryptography is rooted in a computer’s ability to make random numbers come up with something your computer knows, but nothing else does,” Newell continued. “A computer runs math, only math, but it is impossible to create a mathematical algorithm that comes up with a random number, because it’s all math.”

The Entropy Machine creates indecipherably complex strings that can only be read by the recipient with a compatible key and that key can’t be tampered with without breaking the signal.

“We set out to develop this technology because we needed it for our own secure systems,” Newell recalled. And when the team discovered that it didn’t exist, they decided to invent it for themselves, knowing there would be a much larger application. “We chose 200 megahertz as a compromise between speed and cost,” he said, noting hertz electronics are significantly more expensive than megahertz.”

Circumspect about business prospects, Newell acknowledged that the first line of customers would most likely be cloud service providers, companies with large data storage facilities and thousands of servers.

“One of the reasons we’re excited about the technology is that the true final cost, if produced in large quantity, could be very low,” Newell said. “This could see widespread, near universal, deployment.”

Asked what stage the product development was in, he said, “We have a product for sale; we have made sales; you can order one today; how many should I put you down for?