Scaling blockchain is much more than money, trading and NFTs. It’s about a high ideal: integrity. Eli Ben-Sasson, co-founder and president of Starkware, explains.
We are increasingly convinced that blockchain will be the basis for financial transactions. In a recent survey conducted by my company, Starkware Industries, some 53% of US respondents agreed that “cryptocurrencies will be the future of finance.” For the 25 to 34 age group, the figure was around 70%.
But blockchains cannot cope with demand, which means they are slow and have high gas fees. We are deciding how much these decentralized networks can process. The solution is to reduce the amount of work the blockchain’s computers – or “nodes” – do for each transaction.
It’s really easy to do if we compromise on some of the founding values of blockchain. Yet if we hold them tight, it is very difficult.
Algebra is in the limelight
The past week has been surreal for me. The algebra research I did years ago with other computer scientists suddenly led to an $8 billion business, the largest “Layer 2” scaling solution for Ethereum. Starkware, a company of only 80 people, received this valuation in a Series D investment round. When people asked my reaction to this statistic, they were astonished by my response. “We expected you to talk crypto, and instead you move to philosophy,” laughed a friend.
I said the following to provoke this reaction. The great CS Lewis said that honesty is “doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Imagine if the world ran on this principle! It does this on a smaller scale – on the blockchain, where every node is watching everything.
For the past five years, I’ve been working with my old college friend Uri Kolodny, Starkware’s CEO, and a talented team to enable blockchain to happen on a large scale so that the whole world can use it. It’s not just about enabling transactions; It is about providing integrity. That’s why Lewis’ quote has become my company’s unofficial motto.
Different routes to scale
There are various options for creating scale. Let’s consider some of those that I and others have taken before looking further into the algebra-based approach.
One is that traffic is routed to lots of connected networks called sidechains to take some of the stress off the nodes of a well-established blockchain like Ethereum. In theory it’s a tempting idea, but in practice, something valuable is lost.
Once you leave Ethereum for the sidechain, you also step out of its robust security perimeter, which is overseen by a large number of nodes. Each sidechain decides and implements its own security protocol, which is essentially overseen by fewer nodes than Ethereum – the equivalent of an under-polished neighborhood.
Blockchain Scaling: Chips
Another eye-catching solution has a major security flaw. Chips called TEEs (Trusted Execution Environments), proposed by some companies and academia, can outsource most of the computations currently performed by blockchains. Such chips can spit out a signed key that is written down the chain, in essence certifying that all calculations done on the chip out of the blockchain have been done correctly.
Yet even the most secure chips are at risk of being hacked, as a long list of breaches testify. They include a weakness in Infineon’s “unhackable” SLE66 CL PE chip in 2010, and the identification of flaws in 2020 Intel Software Guard extensions that allegedly created enclaves whose content is not considered readable beyond the enclave. .
Returning to our initial claim, we urgently need to reduce the burden per transaction on blockchain nodes to make crypto mainstream. But as we are beginning to see, a road paved with good intentions can lead to hell.
I think we have the same enormous obligation to the billions who will hand over their money, other assets, data and more to the blockchain. It scales using the most objective and uncontested definition of truth—that given by mathematics. I want a reality whereby you cannot cheat the system as much as you can argue with the mathematical fact that 1 + 1 = 2.
using math to scale
It sounds abstract to talk about proofs, so let’s be more specific. They are protocols designed to convince anyone that the calculation was done correctly, even when no one was watching. It is much like a geometry proof convincing us that two triangles are similar. But, unlike the proofs we used in high school, our proofs for computers are easily verifiable. In fact, using the same computational effort that would be used to mint a single NFT directly on Ethereum, the proof-based technology mints thousands.
We are living through the Cambrian explosion of mathematical proof systems, with SNARKs, BulletProofs, PLONKs and Halos being tested and deployed on the blockchain. The system I co-invented, STARK, requires the prover to submit a proof that is an annotated log of the computations performed, in order to certify the integrity of multiple transactions.
A small piece of software, the validator, now checks that the calculation is valid, but is not required to repeat the computation conducted by the prover, nor to read the submitted log. Instead, the verifier performs a random sampling of entries from that log and the number patterns in those samples provide all the information needed to ascertain computational integrity.
Blockchain scaling: valid calculations
If the computation is valid, and only if it is valid, the validator will consider the proof valid and agree to the blockchain to accept the transaction. Before being added to the blockchain, a single proof of 80 kilobytes could “roll up” hundreds of thousands of transactions – much less than the size of a smartphone photo.
There is no hardware that can be hacked, just peer-reviewed and publicly tested math and its implementation in publicly available software code. This software alone verifies the evidence, and in simple ways, it is the only thing to enforce integrity on a large scale.
There is no doubt that blockchain will become more widespread. But there is a big question about what tomorrow will look like. Will it reflect the founding vision well? Or will it take major compromises to become mainstream?
I believe we can stick to our basic guns, and we have the scale. Or as I like to put it, we can have our crypto cake and eat it too.
What’s more, build a scaling system on math and you make it ultra-secure not only for today, but for tomorrow as well. Because computers will move forward, and perhaps even evolve to exploit quantum phenomena that will break many prevalent encryption schemes. Quality cryptographic systems like Stark would have permanent validity, of course pi would remain (just to quote the first 10 digits) 3.1415926535. They have the power to provide integrity today – and for generations to come.
About the Author
Eli Ben-Sasson Stark is a co-inventor of the FRI and Zerocash protocols, and a founding scientist at the Zcash company. Over the years he held research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Harvard and MIT, and most recently, was Professor of CS at the Techno-Israel Institute of Technology. He left this position as a co-founder of Starkware. Today he leads the company as chairman, with co-founder and CEO Uri Kolodny.
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