When you're this smart, who needs computers? Researchers at MIT's intriguingly named Centre for Bits and Atoms have created a powerful method of encrypting data -- without the help of a single laptop.
The process involves a token, about the size of a quarter, made from epoxy which is manufactured for about a cent. Each token contains a unique constellation of miniature glass spheres. Beam a light (think supermarket bar-code reader) through the token and those spheres scatter the light in a unique "speckle" pattern. Convert that speckle image into a fixed-length string of bits and you have a unique numeric identifier, according to Neil Gershenfeld, cofounder and director of the centre.
Gershenfeld says these devices have many potential uses. For example, you could affix a token to a sealed instrument that captures data from a weapons program that must report its work to an international watchdog agency. When the agency comes calling, it runs the token through a scanner and can verify that the instrument is valid and has not been tampered with. To that end, the token can be manufactured in such a way that small surface scratches and dirt don't affect the authentication process.
Gershenfeld says each token holds about a terabit of data, making it very difficult to emulate. Compare that with standard credit card transactions, he says. Credit card data is contained in a magnetic stripe, which is easy to replicate. It may not be long before these tokens appear in the real world. The research aspect of the project is complete, and the idea has been turned over to MIT's technology transfer group for commercialisation.