Richard Wu ’16 is working this summer on a computer program that reintroduces linguistics to modern cryptography by exploring and combining the two fields’ theoretical backgrounds. Working with Associate Professor of Japanese Masaaki Kamiya, he seeks to create a program that can parse the sentence structures of a given message and encrypt them through a combination of the public-key cryptosystem RSA and transposition.
Historically speaking, linguistics was once the pillar of cryptography,” explained Wu. “However, modern cryptography is now mainly supported by mathematics and computer science.” More specifically, he said, the goal of his project is to determine the viability of using phonetics and language syntax to create an encryption algorithm that possesses security comparable to modern algorithms. “This is a rather lofty goal,” Wu admitted, “but I hope that I can take this experience with me to my future career after graduating from Hamilton.”
Wu’s interest in cryptography can be traced to the singular importance of informational security in almost every field in the modern age. From private enterprises to all levels of government, cyber-security firms and experts are hired to help protect valuable and classified information. “I wanted to do this research project because I was interested in taking a creative spin in cryptography,” he said.
Wu said mathematics has always been aligned with his academic interests, but now linguistics has gained his interest as well. After taking both a cryptography and a linguistics course last year, Wu became fascinated by the concept of combining the two distinct fields in the hopes of creating something new and interesting.
Even after only a few weeks of involvement with this project, Wu said, its impact has already been felt. “This project has taken turns that veered far away from what I originally planned,” he remarked. “Problems that arose midway have forced me to abandon some ideas that I really wanted to follow through with, but they have also provided me with opportunities to take up new ideas that are just as interesting.”
One such turn was born from the difficulties associated with automating the analysis of phonetics; a feat that even professionals have yet to succeed in. However, now dealing with linguistics, Wu is able to focus more on efficiently parsing sentence structures and grammars, leading to greater productivity. “People always say that things never go as you originally planned it, but I never really completely understood that sentiment until I personally experienced myself. I feel like this is something to always remember whenever I work on new projects in the future.”
As cyber-security only grows in importance, finding new and novel methods of protecting data and information will become even more vital. To that end, Wu said, there lies an infinite number of possibilities, should one put their mind to it. “The demand for new encryption algorithms is constantly growing as old algorithms are broken,” he claimed, concluding that “finding secure algorithms is definitely difficult, but I believe that as long as you are creative enough, the source of these new algorithms could come from anywhere.”
Wu’s project is funded through an Emerson Summer Collaborative Research Award.