Get Curious, Not Furious

Saving Personal Relationships and The World

What do nuclear disarmament, the dark web and good marriages have in common? To find out, just ask Marty Hellman, Marconi Fellow, Turing Award winner and co-inventor of public key cryptography.

Much of the connected world that we know and love today is due to Hellman’s innovation. Together with Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle, Hellman created a key exchange technology that spawned a whole new class of encryption algorithms, which enable security for everything from online financial transactions to e-mail for business, government and consumer applications.

As a long-time leader in the computer privacy debate, Hellman advocates for strong encryption and effective communication to ensure the commercial and national security interests of countries. While encryption and interpersonal communications may seem like an odd combination, they are based on powerful insights from Hellman’s personal and professional lives and can be applied to security hotbeds globally.

Cyrpto-Wars: The Tech Community vs. Law Enforcement

Hellman has been a central player in the long-standing battle between the tech community and law enforcement over “exceptional access,” the level of access that law enforcement, specifically the NSA and the FBI, should have into highly secure systems. These “crypto-wars” are chronicled in a Stanford alumni magazine article.

Currently, once a device has ten unsuccessful password attempts, it closes down and erases the information on the device. Exceptional access would allow law enforcement to make many more attempts to open these devices while keeping the information on them intact.

This is a hot issue again in the wake of the Paris bombings, San Bernardino shootings and other terrorist activity. The FBI is asking the tech community to provide exceptional access to phones and other devices. Hellman believes that these “backdoors” would expose government, business and consumers to security breeches that could have untold consequences, as described in a letter that Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Ronald Rivest and Martin Hellman published in The Hill. Hellman continues to advocate for strong security in all systems.

Adding Interpersonal Communications to the Mix

While Hellman was developing public key cryptography in the 1970’s, his marriage to his wife, Dorothie, was falling apart. Committed to finding a way to make the relationship work, Dorothie searched for catalysts and eventually found Beyond War, a group that started the Hellmans on a path to repairing the damage they had done to their relationship. They worked with the group from 1980 to 1988, at which time they left to take the process to the next level. A sequence of such steps – and Dorothie’s persistence – allowed them to eventually recapture the true love they felt when they first fell for one another.

Over the past ten years, Hellman developed a way to quantify the risk of nuclear war, yielding a devastating conclusion: Depending on nuclear weapons appears to be far riskier than playing Russian roulette with the life of a newborn child. At the same time, he found that the techniques that he and Dorothie had created to restore their relationship were the same ones countries needed to use to reduce the threat of war.

Hellman also found that while many more people were interested in improving their interpersonal relationships than in improving international ones, the two goals complement each other well. As people see the direct benefit and impact of these techniques in the interpersonal sphere, it gives them motivation to carry them into the larger international environment. The positive response to these ideas led Hellman and his wife to write the book, A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet.

Bridging the Communications Gap

Curious about how the Hellmans repaired their own marriage and how we can try to save the world from nuclear war? Here are some concepts to try both in your everyday relationships and in a global context:

  • Compassion – Thinking deeply about what it’s like to live in the other party’s skin, including their history, their hopes and their fears.
  • Holistic thinking – Seeking solutions that benefit all parties.  This includes the hard work of finding these win-win proposals since they often do not seem to exist at first glance.
  • Get curious, not furious – When the other party does something that’s upsetting, ask why they did that, rather than reacting immediately in anger.
  • Critical thinking – Recognizing the unstated assumptions that underlie our worldview, both interpersonally and internationally.
  • Conflict resolution as a process – It’s unrealistic to expect quick solutions to deep interpersonal differences, let alone conflicts with other countries.  Seeing conflict resolution as a process that takes time changes what might seem impossible into a reasonable sequence of steps.

The Hellmans are using their $500,000 share of this year’s Turing Award to create a more peaceful and sustainable world by showcasing how the changes that saved their marriage are the same ones that will reduce global conflict. While the world’s problems can seem too big for individual action to make a difference, applying the Hellmans’ lessons in our own relationships will create a circle of good that will spread faster than we think.

The Discovery that Continues to Change the World

As we marvel at the accomplishments of this year’s Nobel Prize winners, it’s worth taking a quick trip back to the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics.  The discovery behind that prize, jointly awarded to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy,” is the foundation for today’s connected world and is responsible for changing lives more quickly than any other innovation.

Fittingly, the most comprehensive biography ever written about Marconi, called Marconi:  The Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy, was just announced as a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award by the Canada Council for the Arts.   Raboy will also be attending the upcoming Marconi Society Awards Ceremony this year.

Chronicling Marconi’s fascinating life as an inventor, entrepreneur and politician, the book creates a complete profile of Marconi and the company he created at the age of 23, which led to communications and the Internet as we know it today.

To whet your appetite, check out Oxford University Press’s blog post on 15 Surprising Facts about Guglielmo Marconi.  You might be surprised to learn that:

  • Marconi had no formal higher education. He did poorly in school as a child and his parents hired private teachers to tutor him in chemistry, math, and physics. His most important mentor was a high school physics teacher in Livorno by the name of Vincenzo Rosa. He was an avid, self-guided reader of popular scientific journals, where he learned of the discovery of radio waves by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
  • Marconi was twice engaged to American feminists: Josephine B. Holman, a graduate of the Indianapolis Classical School for Girls as well as Bryn Mawr, and Inez Milholland, a Greenwich Village social activist who famously led a 1913 suffragist parade riding a white horse. Marconi’s two wives were more conventional women but Marconi was forever becoming romantically involved with artists, film stars, opera singers, and journalists.
  • Marconi was the first inventor-entrepreneur to win a Nobel Prize, for Physics, in 1909 (he shared the prize with German physicist Ferdinand Braun). The Nobel Committee had never before awarded the prize for a practical application rather than theoretical accomplishments. In 1909, it considered giving the prize to the Wright brothers, but decided on Marconi because of public concern about the safety of airplanes.
  • Marconi was the first person to speak publicly about what we now call cellphones, tasers, and radar. He was forever being egged on by the press to make outlandish predictions, but he refused to forecast anything he was unable to demonstrate empirically. “Spiritualists”, such as the writer A. Conan Doyle, considered wireless communication a form of mental telepathy but Marconi insisted that it was rooted in the natural universe.

“Marconi was, quite simply, the first person to develop a practical system for using the radio spectrum to communicate. He was a precursor of the way we live today,” said Raboy.

So when you send that e-mail, watch that video online, make that call on your mobile phone or land safely at the airport, say a quick thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

Quantum Communications: Using the Laws of Physics to Find the Holy Grail of Security


“I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”

Richard Feynman
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics

Innovators often see opportunities where others see problems. Take the matter of light: intuition about classical physics does not hold true when it comes to light. Light comes in particles called photons, which lack even the simplest common-sense properties, such as specific location. They are difficult to isolate and difficult to measure.

While the randomness of light makes it impossible for us to apply our tried and true intuition from the everyday world, these properties also can be used to our advantage because of their complexity and unpredictability. Nowhere could these innovations be more important than in security. Given the amount of information on the internet and the highly connected nature of our world, we are more vulnerable than ever to security breeches. In fact, rarely a week goes by when we do not hear about a major commercial or government security break. While today’s security is based on complex codes, all of which could be hacked with current or future code-breaking algorithms, tomorrow’s security will likely be based on the laws of physics, which are complex enough to keep us safe against the most sophisticated threats.

This is the world of quantum communications. It is a world inhabited by scientists who live to understand that which defies explanation, such as the researchers in the Quantum Information Science Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This team includes Joe Lukens, 2015 Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar with a PhD from Purdue University and a BS from the University of Alabama. Lukens, who has focused on security for years, was recognized as a Paul Baran Young Scholar in part for his research to create highly secure quantum key distribution. He has expanded this work as a Wigner Fellow at Oak Ridge.

Quantum physicists identify and solve problems anywhere there is room for improvement by using quantum properties. The random characteristics of light become opportunities for improved security. For example, one of the strange consequences of quantum mechanics is that a measurement disturbs the system being measured. In the case of a single photon, this means that it is impossible to figure out its properties from one measurement, since the measurement itself changes the original state forever. While long-viewed as a problem (how can something that is so uncertain be useful?), researchers have turned this idea on its head. Because measurement disturbs the system, anyone who tries to tamper with a photon intended to be sent secretly to someone else will change the photon’s properties—therefore it is known for sure whether an eavesdropper is tapping into these communications.

Researchers are testing and applying quantum communications to applications that make sense now, without adding a lot of cost or unnecessary limitations to the solution. One example is the electric grid, which could be a commercial application in the near future. The stability of the current grid relies on being able to distribute very accurate GPS timing signals in order to synchronize and respond to demand fluctuations or supply interruptions over large distances. Lack of signal or accuracy can cause a serious loss of power on the grid, affecting businesses and consumers over a wide area. Today, it is possible to cause blackouts by spoofing a signal, making the electric grid a potential target for hackers. Rather than using GPS timing signals, researchers are investigating quantum keys to ensure that the grid is communicating only with the right partners. Since quantum key generation and exchange is highly secure but not yet very fast, this is a perfect application since securing the electric grid does not require high speeds.

Another area where the properties of light will make us all more secure is through quantum sensing. Today we use optical sensors to look for dangerous materials, such as toxic chemicals or materials being smuggled into the country. These sensors use laser beams and the sensing accuracy of those lasers is limited by something called shot noise.  Since each photon arrives randomly, the photons create statistical noise, causing a variety of unpredictable results unless they are averaged over a long period of time. But quantum properties make it possible to generate “squeezed” light to beat this limitation. Squeezing reduces the noise from one of the photon’s properties (such as intensity) by increasing the noise somewhere else (such as the phase). Doing this significantly lowers the noise in a given optical measurement, vastly improving the speed and accuracy of a particular sensor.

Researchers are doing table top experiments using components available in today’s communications systems to understand how we can start using quantum communications in practical ways to solve today’s security problems. Because security guaranteed by the laws of physics1 should always beat security based on even the most sophisticated code.

1. Quantum Information Science Group, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Beyond the Mapping Frenzy: Driverless Cars Will Depend on Highly Accurate GPS

The current money in the driverless car market is on mapping. Maps will play a key role in helping automated vehicles determine their exact location by comparing their sensor outputs (what they see) to this mapping data (what they should expect to see). With Uber spending $500M to create its own maps, Nokia’s HERE maps selling to Audi, BMW and Mercedes for $3B and Google spending undisclosed amounts to map the world, it seems like those with the best maps will win. When you dig below the mapping frenzy, though, there’s another piece of technology that has to go right for the driverless car market to happen. That’s centimeter-accurate GPS.

Pushing the Boundaries on Accuracy and Economics

Today’s autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles stay in their lanes and change lanes by relying on a suite of sensors consisting of cameras, lasers, and radar. These sensors determine what lane the car is in and are typically sensitive enough to determine where in the lane it is. But these sensors also require visual features, especially lane markings, to operate. So when the sun is setting and blinding their view, or when it’s snowing and everything looks the same, today’s sensors often break down and are no longer able to determine their lane whereabouts. Current sensors enable a vehicle to accurately navigate without human intervention about 95% of the time in pre-mapped areas. Although this may seem extraordinary, it is simply not good enough for driverless cars. That’s where centimeter-accurate GPS comes in. Through its ability to determine where the vehicle is to within 10 centimeters (about four inches), despite poor weather or the absence of lane markings, this technology is a must to achieve the safety levels needed for so-called Level 4 automation, where the car self-drives all the time and human intervention is strictly optional.

In addition, centimeter-accurate GPS will also underpin the economics needed to scale the mapping that supports these vehicles. Today’s mapping solutions are not only expensive to acquire – they are incredibly costly to implement. Fleets of vehicles equipped with specialized sensors are driving around cities to map them. This is unsustainable since roadways are constantly changing and companies like Google, Tesla and Uber would need to re-map cities every few months to keep their maps up-to-date. Because of this, mapping will eventually become crowd-sourced: the same sensors that our future automated vehicles will use to navigate by comparing what they see to these pre-made maps will simultaneously be used to update the maps. However, stitching together maps from million of vehicles will quickly become overwhelming unless algorithms know exactly where to put the data within the larger scale map and how much to trust data from each source. With centimeter-accurate GPS, each vehicle can attach its precise position and precise orientation at the time the data was taken to its mapping data. This will make map curation significantly easier than if these data were instead only stamped with meter-level accuracy that comes from standard GPS. This will allow map curation algorithms to distinguish good data from bad data: cars with better accuracy will have their data trusted more than vehicles with less accuracy.

From the Farm to the Car

Centimeter-accurate GPS is already in use today for applications like farming and surveying, but it requires expensive, purpose-built equipment. A couple of years ago, University of Texas professor Todd Humphreys and three graduate students discovered how to make this technology run almost entirely in software and on smartphones, thereby making it available to the consumer market. Ken Pesyna was honored as a Marconi Society Young Scholar for this work and he continues to be at the forefront of this technology with his company, Radiosense. Radiosense is bringing this highly accurate GPS capability to the suite of sensors that will become common in driverless vehicles. Through its software-based solution, Radiosense is able to provide a low-cost system capable of running on a vehicle’s existing computing platform.

Getting to Centimeter Accuracy

However, as with all new technologies, there are a couple of key challenges to be solved for centimeter-accurate GPS to be brought to the mass market.

In order to know where it is, a vehicle must connect to and difference its GPS measurements from those of a known reference station. To quickly get centimeter-level accuracy, a network of these reference stations, spaced by 20-to-50 kilometers, will be required. Radiosense has partnered with The University of Texas to create a low-cost, first-of-its-kind dense reference network in Austin. About 12 stations have been deployed, at $1000 each, to cover the entire city. The build-out of these networks will likely start in metro areas, such as Austin, and expand over time.

Additionally, centimeter-accurate GPS coverage in downtown environments is more difficult because the whole sky is frequently not visible. In order to provide centimeter-accuracy when the sky is partially blocked, companies like Radiosense are testing combinations of sensors, such as vision sensors that track nearby building facades as the vehicle moves, to make up for the lack of GPS signals. These sensors help provide information about how far the vehicle has traveled during periods in which there are not enough signals to compute a standalone GPS position. This is also where highly accurate maps come into play. It is very easy for a vehicle to recognize pre-mapped points of interest in feature-rich urban areas and use these to triangulate its position.

Despite the hype, it will be a slow transition from what we have now to fully-driverless cars. While today’s vehicles can warn us if we are drifting out of our lane or getting too close to another vehicle, the next generation will pull the car back into line if the driver does not respond to an audible warning. The jury is still out on whether we’ll get to mass use of driverless cars through incremental improvements, like those that Tesla is bringing to market, or through a huge technology leap with a whole new type of vehicle, as Google is developing. Either way, the next generation of highly accurate GPS will provide technology that is imperative for this market to scale.