Ancient mathematical problems dating back to Babylonian times could hold the key to keeping our personal data and online payments safe from hackers in the future.
A new project by a University of Reading mathematician, in collaboration with Microsoft, will study equations that have fascinated mathematicians for thousands of years, and explore how they might aid the development of encryption software to protect data from hackers using more and more powerful computers.
Dr Rachel Newton was today (Thursday 15 October) announced as a recipient of a share of £109 million of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding. She was one of 101 recipients of Future Leaders Fellowships, aimed at establishing the careers of world-class research and innovation leaders at universities and businesses across the country.
Dr Newton said: "Recent advances in quantum computing, and its potential use by hackers in the future, pose a growing data security threat, at a time when more and more of our economic, administrative and social interactions take place online.
"The cybersecurity industry is appealing to mathematicians for support in developing new encryption systems based on harder mathematical problems. I plan to be part of this fight by using ancient mathematical problems in a modern context.
"Research in number theory could pave the way for advances that would make buying something online or withdrawing money from a cashpoint far more secure in future, and help us stay one step ahead of hackers."
The new project will look at Diophantine equations - mathematical equations with multiple unknown values that are named after the ancient Greek mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria, although their study has been documented thousands of years earlier in ancient Babylonia.
Previous research in this area has led to the development of elliptic curve cryptography, which is widely used today to encrypt data and protect our card details during online purchases. Users of this security system include the USA National Security Agency and Microsoft.
The cryptosystems that protect our data rely on the difficulty of solving mathematical problems, but with quantum computers being developed that can solve problems in seconds which would have previously taken 10,000 years, encryption systems must also make advances so as not to be compromised.
Dr Newton and her collaborators will use a range of mathematical techniques, including number theory, algebra and geometry, to study Diophantine equations. Alongside this, she will collaborate with Microsoft to investigate possible applications to cryptography.
The Future Leaders Fellows will each receive between £400,000 and £1.5 million over an initial four years to fund their research.
Announcing the successful fellows at Thursday's Future Leaders Conference, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: "We are committed to building back better through research and innovation, and supporting our science superstars in every corner of the UK.
"By backing these inspirational Future Leaders Fellows, we will ensure that their brilliant ideas can be transferred straight from the lab into vital everyday products and services that will help to change all our lives for the better."