Senior Associate Editor Samuel K. Moore

What do online poker and weird physics have to do with each other? More than you'd think.

Samuel K. Moore

Last September, I went to Geneva to visit ID Quantique, one of three startup companies developing an unbeatable form of encryption that is guaranteed to be unbreakable by the laws of physics (see "Commercializing Quantum Keys" in this issue). It turns sensitive data into impenetrable gibberish for transportation over gigabit-per-second optical fiber lines and then, crucially, turns the gibberish back into data.

You'd expect that kind of cutting-edge technology to be in the works at a state-of-the-art industrial lab, but ID Quantique is on the third floor of an otherwise nondescript building across from a car dealership. In my opinion, though, ID Quantique's low-key digs are a testament to the frugality needed to get a new technology to market. Another testament to that frugal spirit is that the company has made a business out of selling the parts of its quantum cryptography machine, even before it has orders for the whole.

ID Quantique supports itself mainly by selling one component of a quantum key distribution system, the random number generator. This is a quantum optics module that does the equivalent of tossing a coin millions of times per second. Sending a stream of photons of a certain polarization through a type of beam splitter randomly reorients them into one of two polarizations, providing a perfect bunch of random bits.

There are, CEO Gregoire Ribordy told me, lots of uses for perfectly random numbers beyond generating cryptographic keys. "What really is driving this market right now is gaming and online lotteries," he says. "We did not expect that." His company sells four-megabit generators and boards with four generators each, and it does so well from them that the revenue covers all operations except R&D. So for a business born to temporarily turn clear information into gibberish, it turns out that the gibberish itself is quite valuable.


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