Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Randomness as a solution

"Across all industries, total losses due to counterfeiting in 2017 was a staggering $1.2-trillion and is expected to reach $1.82-trillion by 2020. Online counterfeiting accounted for $323-billion worth of losses last year," according to Business Tech.

Anti-counterfeiting measures are a huge and costly undertaking. A lot of money has been spent on developing and implementing product authentication and supply-chain tracing methods. Currently, markets use bar codes, RFIDs, alphanumberic serial numbers, and blockchain technology. The goal of an optical anti-counterfeiting solution is to have the end user of a product scan a unique code with their phone and check it against the manufacturer's database to confirm their product is authentic.

Bar code and RFID from Wikimedia Commons

But given the relatively slow adoption rate of blockchain as an anti-counterfeiting measure and the replicability of serial codes, there needs to be another solution. And maybe there is an ingeniously simple one.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen reported the results of their new idea in a paper titled Versatile and Validated Optical Authentication System Based on Physical Unclonable Functions published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. What did they do? They created unique QR codes by throwing sand onto it, generating random patterns.

Sand from Public Domain Pictures

Well, they didn't literally throw sand, but they did the equivalent, which was spraying microparticles (titanium dioxide with PVA) onto QR codes printed on office paper. Or in the words of the paper, they used a combination of scattering-based PUF-tags, where PUF means physical unclonable functions.

The important part is that they've validated this low-manufacturing-cost method of authentication that can generate up to 2.5 x 10^120 unique patterns (according to a 200 x 200 pixel matrix). For reference, an 11-digit UPC code can generate 10^11, or 1 trillion, unique codes. Standard RFIDs can store either 96- or 198-bits of data. Assuming the data is alphanumeric (62 possible characters) and that 8 bits make up one character, a 198-bit RFID can store up to 3 x 10^44 unique patterns. If this technology is implementing and process perfected, then maybe we can solve the counterfeiting issues that plague, most importantly, the drug market, especially in less developed countries.

Real vs. counterfeit Orlistat drug from Wikimedia Commons

Randomness is a beautiful process. Randomness sounds diametrically opposed to design, which is generally a highly deterministic and controlled system, but I wonder if there exists other design solutions that could stand to benefit from the concept of randomness.

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