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Past Winner
2006 NSERC Award of Excellence

Gilles Brassard

Founding Director, Institut transdisciplinaire d'informatique quantique (INTRIQ)

Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing

Université de Montréal

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A century after his Annus Mirabilis, Albert Einstein would be impressed. His 1905 pioneering work on the theory of quantum mechanics, which may be the most successful scientific theory of all time, is being taken to the next level by Gilles Brassard of the Université de Montréal. Prof. Brassard is applying that theory to information processing, and his groundbreaking research could be just as revolutionary for 21st century computer science as Einstein's work was for 20th century physics.

Prof. Brassard began his quest for research excellence early – he entered the Université de Montréal at age 13 and completed his Ph.D. at Cornell University by age 24.

Considered to be the founder of quantum information processing in Canada, and one of its earliest pioneers worldwide, Prof. Brassard has been pushing the frontiers of knowledge for nearly three decades. He studies novel uses of quantum mechanics for the enhancement of information-processing capabilities, covering the range of research from pure theory to actual experiments. The potential results include profound consequences for the security of transactions on the Internet, essential for secure electronic commerce.

His two best-known achievements are the invention of quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation, which may evoke images of Star Trek, but are strictly based on established science. His early influence in computer science circles has been largely responsible for sparking the interest of many other leading computer scientists in the broader field of quantum information processing.

Until the late 1970s, the theory and practice of computer science and information theory were firmly rooted in the classical physics of Sir Isaac Newton. Even though quantum mechanics had played a major role in technological improvements, such as the invention of the transistor, electronic computers have remained essentially classical creatures.

That all started to change at a beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico, leading to a completely new information-processing landscape. In 1979, a stranger unexpectedly swam up to Prof. Brassard and began explaining how to fabricate unforgeable banknotes via the clever use of quantum mechanics.

"This was probably the most bizarre, and certainly the most magical moment in my professional life," Prof. Brassard recalls. The stranger was Charles H. Bennett, a physicist at IBM Research, who was talking about an unpublished theoretical idea of his friend Stephen Wiesner, then at Columbia University, from almost 10 years earlier. After swimming back ashore, they worked out the main ideas for their first joint paper, in which the term "quantum cryptography" was coined. Little did they suspect on that day that they would come to share the Rank Prize in Opto-Electronics with Dr. Wiesner more than a quarter-century later. Thus was born a wonderful collaboration that would also spin out quantum teleportation, entanglement distillation and many other wonders.

Quantum cryptography makes it possible to communicate in perfect secrecy with no need to establish a shared secret key that would be as long as the message to be transmitted. To counter the skepticism of the international research community, the collaborators built a working prototype in 1989. On the 10th anniversary of the San Juan encounter, they made history with the world's first transmission whose secrecy was guaranteed by quantum mechanics.

Quantum entanglement, which was predicted in 1935 by Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, is the least classical of all quantum phenomena. In collaboration with Bennett and other colleagues such as Claude Crépeau, Prof. Brassard has discovered a completely unexpected way to harness it for the transmission of quantum information through a classical channel. The result was quantum teleportation, invented the morning after a brainstorming session that took place in Prof. Brassard's office in 1992. Quantum entanglement also enables the accomplishment of some distributed tasks with a vastly reduced communication cost.

"In extreme cases, we can have non-communicating participants react jointly to private stimuli in a way that would be classically impossible. This is the mysterious realm of pseudo-telepathy, a term coined by my colleague Alain Tapp," says Prof. Brassard.

Although their implementation is still elusive, quantum computers can in principle perform exponentially more parallel computation in a single piece of hardware than would be possible with a classical approach. It follows that more computation could occur in one thousand quantum bits than would be possible with a classical computer in which each elementary particle in the known universe would have been harnessed as a data processing unit!

"Quantum computers have the potential to bring to their knees most classical cryptographic schemes currently used on the Internet to protect transactions such as the transmission of credit card numbers," Prof. Brassard notes. "Fortunately, quantum cryptography fights back by making it possible to fulfil the cryptographer's age-old dream of unconditional confidentiality in communications."

Prof. Brassard carries on his pioneering work with an extensive group of international graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, including former postdoc Christopher Fuchs, with whom he is involved in his most ambitious and speculative research project yet. They dream of recasting the entire foundation of quantum mechanics in the light of quantum information. Indeed, they postulate that the truly fundamental laws of nature concern not waves or particles, but information.

Prof. Brassard recently returned to research on classical cryptography, which is where he began his career as a doctoral student 30 years ago. He and colleague Esma Aïmeur are working on using classical cryptography to protect privacy in the context of electronic commerce.


A true visionary, Prof. Brassard has made fundamental and long-lasting seminal contributions to the sciences of quantum information processing and cryptography. He is the first Canadian to be elevated to the rank of Fellow by the International Association for Cryptologic Research, a distinction shared by just 14 people in the world at present.

As one of the most respected computer scientists in the world, he has played a pivotal role in turning quantum information processing from a fringe pursuit into the exciting and vigorous scientific research topic it has become today. Now that the field is well-established, his influence continues to be felt everywhere through his discoveries, talks, and former students and postdoctoral fellows, 15 of whom have moved on to become faculty members and several of whom are themselves already internationally recognized.

His papers have been cited more than 4,000 times, including over 2,000 citations for his original 1993 paper on quantum teleportation (the citation rate of that paper in the past year approaches an average of one new citation every day). He has been recognized by Thomson Scientific's Web of Knowledge as an ISI Highly Cited Researcher.

Prof. Brassard also invented entanglement distillation. Combining it with quantum teleportation, he and his colleagues developed the first method to faithfully transmit quantum information over imperfect channels. He contributed not only to the development of quantum algorithms that provide unprecedented speed-up for an eventual quantum computer, but also to the first demonstration that they are not always much more powerful than classical computers.

In its February 2003 issue, Technology Review (published by MIT) highlighted quantum cryptography as one of the "10 Emerging Technologies that will change the world." Prof. Brassard's development of quantum teleportation was chosen by Discover magazine as being among the world's top science stories of 1993. The prestigious journal Science called quantum teleportation's first implementation one of the 10 most important scientific breakthroughs of 1998.

Author of three books translated into eight languages and Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Cryptology (1991-98), Prof. Brassard has won many awards, notably an NSERC E.W.R. Memorial Steacie Fellowship (1992); the Prix Urgel-Archambault (1992); the Université de Montréal Teaching Prize (1993); the National Research Council's Steacie Prize (1994); a Killam Research Fellowship (1997); and the Prix Marie-Victorin (2000), which is the highest award given by the Government of Québec in the natural sciences and engineering. He was named Scientist of the Year (1995) by La Presse newspaper; elected to the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada (1996); and named a foreign member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences (1998). Awarded the first Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing (2001), he was named a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (2002) and of the International Association for Cryptologic Research (2006); and was awarded the Rank Prize in Opto-Electronics (2006). He is the Founding Director of the Institut transdisciplinaire d'informatique quantique (INTRIQ) involving 17 faculty members from four Quebec universities and has just been appointed the 2008 International Association for Cryptologic Research Distinguished Lecturer.

Biographical Overview

Prof. Brassard was born in Montréal in 1955. He received his B.Sc. (Computer Science) and his M.Sc. (Computer Science) from the Université de Montréal in 1972 and 1975, respectively. He received his Ph.D. (Computer Science) from Cornell University in 1979. He was Assistant Professor at Université de Montréal from 1979 to 1983, then Associate Professor from 1983 to 1988, and Professor since then. He has been a visiting researcher at various universities and research centres in the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Australia. He has given well over 200 invited talks in more than two dozen countries on four continents.