Like quantum computing, quantum communications is based on the theory of entanglement. Unlike quantum computing, which requires thousands of entangled pairs, quantum communications relies on just two or three. (With entangled pairs, actions on one affect the other despite the distance between them.)
Quantum communications is the holy grail for defence systems because it provides unconditional security.
“An adversary can’t listen in to the message,” Associate Professor Malaney says. “It’s a system conditioned on the laws of physics using photons. Traditional encryption is based on the notion your adversary doesn’t have a big enough computational system to crack your code. This new system is uncrackable.”
An unhackable communications system has obvious interest to the world’s defence forces, but like other discoveries that were developed with defence applications in mind – the internet, microwave ovens, drones and duct tape – its potential applications go far beyond into the everyday world.
It is entirely possible, he says, that the discovery will be able to fathom theoretical physics in a way that has been previously unthinkable.
While Associate Professor Malaney is working on communications that are unhackable, in another corner of UNSW, Nicole Kessissoglou and her research associate Gyani Shankar Sharma are working on materials that could make submarines undetectable.
Or as the heading of a research paper published Nature so neatly put it: “Active acoustic illusions for stealth and subterfuge”. Professor Kessissoglou is a mechanical engineer who works in the field of metamaterials, on acoustic coatings on submarine hulls that can make them quiet to help evade sonar detection from other marine vessels.
Metamaterials, she says, have properties that go beyond conventional materials.
In Kessissoglou’s case, “we take a rubber material with periodic voids – cavities – that are arranged in a certain way” so that the combination of the two manipulates soundwaves to be undetectable by conventional means. Alternatively, they may be steel spheres – known as hard scatterers – or a combination of both.
Either way the design is known as a phononic crystal.
The work at this stage is largely theoretical – more pure physics than mechanical engineering. “But you need to understand that before you can go ahead and design something,” she says.
Elsewhere at UNSW’s Kensington campus in Sydney, Lina Yao is working on futuristic computer networks.
Dr Yao’s research is in artificial intelligence; more specifically creating software to help computer networks self-heal.
In the parlance of the mindfulness movement, Dr Yao is working on how to make networks resilient. Ultimately, they will become their own diagnostician, healer and analyst.
“We are looking at not just malicious attacks but also passive mistakes made by human operators in the distributed networks,” Dr Yao says.
The latter may include accidents, operator mistakes, or failure or deterioration of the network’s hardware and software.
Dr Yao’s approach works on the theory of unknown unknowns. If a computer network is under attack or compromised by human error but the operators don’t know either that it has been imperilled or don’t know what specifically has happened, then it is almost impossible to know how to protect it.
In a defence setting, resilient networks are those that can detect and remedy problems.
“They also need to maintain functionality in adverse circumstances, such as in operationally contested environments,” Dr Yao says.
“Self-healing consists of self-monitoring, self-analysis, self-diagnosis and the ability to take actions for remediation,” she says.
“The networks are self-aware, sort of like a human.”
Unsurprisingly, Dr Yao sees artificial intelligence as a positive for humanity, not a threat.
“I am positive about AI. I think it can be a good assistant for humans. The name of my group is the Human Machine Corporation – AI and humans have their own distinct advantages,” Dr Yao says.
“AI can do much better than humans on patterned and repetitive tasks, calculations and the like. Humans are better at making use of our common sense, knowledge and reasoning. If we combine both together as joint forces to complete a task, it will be better.
“That means people have more time to do the things they are really interested in because machines can do the tedious tasks.”
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