Security: Designing the unpickable lock
As businesses and consumers accumulate ever more digital data, protecting that data has become a paramount concern. Cryptography remains one of the key tools for securing data. But as computer processing power continues to increase, the arms race between encryption methods and the tools used to break them is heating up. That's why mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists are hard at work on new methods of data encryption that lack the old vulnerabilities.
The most discussed of these is quantum cryptography. Seen as the first "killer app" for quantum computing, quantum cryptography takes advantage of the fact that merely observing a system of quantum particles disturbs the system. Anyone who observes a message encrypted using quantum cryptography -- by reading the message -- leaves an irrevocable fingerprint on the message itself. Thus, it is theoretically impossible to eavesdrop on a channel that is secured via quantum cryptography without alerting the participants to your presence. As mentioned earlier, however, quantum computing remains largely experimental, and commercial applications of quantum cryptography are a long way off.
A recent discovery by IBM researcher Craig Gentry could be the next best thing -- and it will work with today's computer systems. Gentry has discovered an algorithm that performs a feat long thought impossible by top cryptographers: It allows a computer system to perform operations on encrypted data without decrypting it first. The data arrives encrypted and the result of the calculations goes out encrypted the same way; there's no intermediate step where the data is exposed to prying eyes. Gentry's discovery could have significant implications for a wide variety of digital security systems, from online banking to digital media delivery, even if it does take several years to put into practical applications.
Displays: New ways of seeing
When IBM first popularized the PC, green-screen monitors were the norm. Later, as graphics cards improved, those monochrome screens gave way to color. Today, bulky color CRT monitors are things of the past, replaced by thin, power-efficient LCDs. Further advances, such as OLED backlighting, are making modern flat panels brighter and crisper than ever. But this is hardly the end of the road for display technology.
For one thing, current-generation LCD panels tend to be fragile, as anyone who has dropped or sat on a mobile phone can tell you. To that end, Sony is developing flexible LCD technology that it hopes will yield not only more durable devices, but ones that are less costly and cleaner to manufacture. Current prototypes, while low-resolution, are so flexible that they can be rolled around a cylinder 4mm thick.
Another idea is to get rid of the monitor altogether. LCD projectors are commonplace enough, but they tend to be bulky and require expensive bulbs to operate. Also, their image quality varies greatly depending on ambient lighting conditions. That could change, however, with the introduction of digital projectors based on laser technology. Traditional monitors produce color using a combination of red, green, and blue light. Because reliable green laser light has proved difficult to produce, manufacturers have thus far been unable to use lasers in projection devices. Corning claims to have solved that problem, meaning it may soon be possible to project brilliant imagery from a device as small as a mobile phone.
Displays that perform equally well in daylight remain a challenge, but given the growing popularity of e-readers, it's one that scientists and engineers are eager to solve. A promising technology from Qualcomm called mirasol produces vibrant color imagery by reflecting ambient light from layers of tiny electromechanical mirrors; it should be available in consumer products in the coming year. Meanwhile, a Philips spin-off called Liquavista is a little further off, but it works either with reflected ambient light or a self-contained backlight.