Computer science professor David Zuckerman and graduate student Eshan Chattopadhyay from the University of Texas (Austin) developed a new method of generating truly random numbers by combining two “weak randomness” sources such as the stock market and weather temperatures. The method is considered a breakthrough because it could have a significant positive impact on all types of encryption, making systems, communications, and data more secure.
Random numbers are important for encryption because without them, encryption keys could be easily “guessed.” Because encryption is used for everything from securing private communications to protecting credit card numbers both in transit over the internet but also on the companies’ servers, having a good random number generator is important to protect all of that data.
Current methods of obtaining truly random numbers are either not high quality, or it’s difficult to obtain a source of true randomness such as a measurement of background radiation or variations in atmospheric noise for most devices. The latter methods are also computationally demanding, which means they can’t be implemented in all types of devices for either performance or cost reasons.
Dr. Zuckerman said that he has been working on this problem for over 20 years and is now “thrilled” to have finally solved it. Other computer science academics are just as ecstatic about the discovery.
Oded Goldreich, a professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, said that even if this was a moderate improvement over what currently exists, it would’ve still been worthy of a “night-long party.” However, this goes much further than just a moderate improvement.
"When I heard about it, I couldn't sleep," said Yael Kalai, a senior researcher working in cryptography at Microsoft Research New England who has also worked on randomness extraction. "I was so excited. I couldn't believe it. I ran to the (online) archive to look at the paper. It's really a masterpiece."
Zuckerman and Chattopadhyay's research paper currently shows how to create only one random number at a time, such as flipping a coin, but Xin Li, one of Zuckerman's former students, has already expanded the method to generate a series of random numbers. Other researchers can also review his draft and suggest improvements before publication of the final version of the paper in the coming months. The two researchers will also present the paper at the annual Symposium on Theory of Computing in June.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.