Portrait photo of Prof. Dr. Antonia Wachter-Zeh
Astrid Eckert/TUM
2024-04-01 VDE dialog

Science: Today for tomorrow

Prof. Dr. Antonia Wachter-Zeh studied electrical engineering and is a top academic in this field – for which she was recently also awarded the Johann-Philipp-Reis Prize. A conversation about quanta, codes and basic research.

By Martin Schmitz-Kuhl

Start thinking about tomorrow today! Some associate this slogan with retirement and financial security, others perhaps with environmental protection and sustainability. Meanwhile, Antonia Wachter-Zeh’s thoughts immediately turn to quantum computers. Not because the professor of electrical engineering at the Technical University of Munich develops them herself, but simply because she knows that once they are operational, they will turn a lot of things upside down: “A sufficiently powerful quantum computer could crack the classic encryption methods we use on the Internet today in next to no time,” the expert for coding theory and cryptography explains in an interview with VDE dialog. These methods are based on mathematical problems that would pose no real challenge for Shor’s algorithm. It‘s been 30 years since the American mathematician Peter Shor published this quantum computer algorithm. And today, we still lack a supercomputer capable of actually applying it. But this is very likely to change in the next 20 or perhaps 25 years – and as a result, many of the currently known encryption technologies would be rendered obsolete.

What needs to be done to ensure that online banking and every other form of secure communication over the Internet is still possible in the future? Scientists around the world are looking for answers. “This so-called post-quantum cryptography is a huge topic,” explains Wachter-Zeh. And because these new methods not only need to be developed, but also standardized, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the USA (NIST) has already launched a number of competitions. Very different approaches are competing with one another here, including a signature method developed by Wachter-Zeh and her team. “However, it’s not possible to prove whether a method really is quantum-proof,” she says. Despite this, a global research community is searching for weaknesses in the submitted methods, aiming to ensure that only the best will win through and become the standard. “That would be something huge,” she hopes, even if there are no actual prizes for this kind of basic research.

From math genius to electrical engineer

In fact, it is not strictly true to claim that there are “no actual prizes.” The 39-year-old has already won a number of awards in her scientific career, most recently the Johann-Philipp-Reis Prize awarded every two years by the Information Technology Society within VDE in conjunction with other partners. This award was made above all in appreciation of the practical benefit of her scientific work. While this work might not lend itself to being directly monetized with a cool start-up (Wachter-Zeh: “And something like that’s really not my thing anyway!), it certainly could help prevent major damage to the economy. Admittedly this damage will only occur once quantum computers have actually been developed, but measures to avert it still need to be in place today. After all, as Wachter-Zeh explains, you can’t simply import an update containing the encryption method to a car, let alone a satellite. “So we need to think about this today, otherwise it’s too late!”

Wachter-Zeh was fascinated by numbers even at an early age. While still in school, she put her flair and passion for mathematical problems to the test regularly in national competitions. For a long time, she was therefore certain she would study mathematics. At some point, however, the subject seemed to her too removed from the real world, and she decided instead to study electrical engineering. It was then that she became more and more interested in telecommunications. Her goal was to develop error-correcting codes from modern algebra on the basis of mathematical theories to facilitate efficient and error-free communication around the globe. Her doctoral thesis on highly efficient coding algorithms was awarded double honors, and was very well received in the international scientific community. As a postdoc, Wachter-Zeh then had her heart set on working abroad. She went to the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa to continue her research. In 2016, she accepted a post at the Faculty for Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at the Technical University of Munich,

where she is now working on a number of other topics in addition to post-quantum cryptography. One of these areas is long-term data storage in artificially produced DNA; another is data security in certain machine learning applications. It is a very broad field, but one linked by mathematical principles in general and coding theory in particular. “That’s the basis connecting all the topics,” explains Wachter-Zeh. But are there many people around her who really understand what she does at the university every day? “My husband is an engineer too,” she laughs, “so that helps of course.”

Then there is the fact that she is a young woman and mother of two children – not exactly the norm in her academic field, which is known for being extremely male-dominated. Wachter-Zeh rolls her eyes. “Of course the subject had to come up. Go on, ask away!” Well, maybe not this time.

Martin Schmitz-Kuhl is a freelance author from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and an editor for VDE dialog.

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