Is IOTA’s Tangle Really Quantum-Proof?
IOTA claims its Tangle is “quantum-proof.” What do premises & promises like these teach us about broader DLT development aims?
The Crypto/Blockchain/DLT community is made up of some of the world’s smartest and most innovative tech people. This community has already given the world a slate of revolutionary platforms, data structures, and technologies.
By all measures, the BlockTech/DLT projects we’ve seen through 2018 are just the tip of the iceberg of the true disruptive potential of DLT.
But as smart as they are, DLT developers have made some pretty big conceptual mistakes in describing their technologies. This includes flawed usage of legal forms and legal concepts, with serious negative consequences.
Because CleanApp’s success hinges on overall DLT success, we have been very vocal about the costs of conceptual slippage. The single biggest investment that crypto/DLT teams can make today is to: (1) open themselves up to external critique; (2) undertake rigorous conceptual audits; (3) perform some much needed conceptual CleanApp.
The question above — whether IOTA is really “quantum-proof” — is a good illustration of the problem and the ease of the proposed solution.
What’s In a Name?
DLT stands for Distributed Ledger Technologies. As a term and organizing concept, it’s popular within the growing global IOTA community (appearing frequently in IOTA Foundation publications).
We like this term because it avoids the speculative crypto-financial connotation that often accompanies the word “crypto” and it goes beyond simplistic linear connotations that attach to the term “Blockchain.”
IOTA’s usage of terms like “DLT” seems like a deliberate attempt to maintain conceptual rigor, which we applaud wholeheartedly.
This goes without saying, but the reason words and terms matter is because how DLT teams describe their core products, services, and approaches to data processing directly translates into how regulators, peers, and future adopters will view that particular product, service or novel approach to data processing.
How IOTA Describes Tangle
IOTA’s smart approach to conceptual design and knowledge production extends to the way the IOTA Foundation and IOTA developers describe their core innovation.
Instead of appropriating existing terms like “coin/token,” “Blockchain” or “smart contract,” etc.—and then building a conceptual architecture solely around those terms — IOTA embraced a sui generis term that elides easy categorization (and, hence, kneejerk attempts at regulation): the Tangle.
Here’s how IOTA describes its Tangle:
The IOTA Foundation has sunk extraordinary effort into translating and introducing its unique approach to DLT. For instance, here’s a blog series by the IOTA Foundation that introduces the logic behind the Tangle.
IOTA’s Quantum Claims
One of the ways that IOTA’s Tangle differs from well-known Blockchain platforms & instruments like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and so forth is IOTA’s claim that Tangle is quantum-proof.
What’s typically meant by this is that Tangle represents a data structure that is immune to attacks by quantum computers.
In fact, the claim of quantum-proof-ness seems to be one of IOTA’s main differentiators and competitive advantages in today’s ultra-competitive crypto development space.
Tangle’s viability in a quantum computing world is so central to its DNA that it’s literally the note on which the Tangle whitepaper concludes:
One of the most anticipated, and probably one of the most unique, modules for IOTA is Masked Authenticated Messaging. MAM makes it possible for sensors and other devices to encrypt entire data streams and securely anchor those into the IOTA Tangle in a quantum proof fashion.
To see how these suggestions that Tangle is quantum-proof then enter industry and popular discourse, here’s a Google News search with the words “IOTA” and “quantum.”
The way IOTA’s quantum-proof-ness is described internally and externally should make everyone a bit uncomfortable: it’d be akin to Bill Gates releasing a Windows NT whitepaper, and claiming that Windows NT was “hack-proof” or “immune to attacks” from, say, “Apple computers.”
Tangle Is NOT “Quantum Proof”
Here’s the proof that Tangle is not “quantum proof:” because we don’t know the current and future capabilities of quantum computing, the only way to prove Tangle’s quantum-proof-ness (or lack thereof) is to await the outcome of every possible attack in an infinitely long future.
That’s why the probability that Tangle is quantum-proof is always less than 1, which means that it’s not quantum-proof.
Next, (1) the Tangle whitepaper does not claim that Tangle is “quantum-proof,” (2) the Tangle whitepaper does not set out to prove that Tangle is quantum-proof, (3) nor does the Tangle whitepaper need to prove that Tangle is quantum-proof in order to establish its extraordinary efficiency gains vis-a-vis existing more linear Blockchain architectures.
So, if the Tangle is not quantum-proof, and presents no formal logic for quantum-proof-ness, how did “quantum-proof” enter IOTA discourse? How did it take hold so that IOTA & “quantum-proof DLT” are now nearly synonymous?
Quantum Immunity as Ideology
In our view, there are two explanations for how flawed “quantum-proof” logics enter DLT imaginaries and start rooting: (1) “quantum-proof” is really good marketing, allowing IOTA to set itself apart from, but also in relation to, other Blockchain platform developers; (2) “quantum-proof-ness” is a form of getting high on one’s own supply, aka irrational faith in the integrity & internal coherence of one’s own logic.
Claims of Immunity Feel Nice
The two reasons are discrete but they reinforce one another. The first is just an observation of market-based behavior. “IOTA is quantum-proof” has caught on as a market mantra to the benefit of IOTA; and, there are few immediately apparent incentives to correct popular misconceptions. Why bite the hand that feeds you?
Of the two, the second reason is especially interesting because it suggests some sort of a normative or ideological orientation — that “quantum-proofing” isn’t just an attribute of IOTA, but that it’s a desirable, net-positive outcome.
As an ideological and ontological posture, this is fascinating. It’s Tangle trying to untangle itself from quantum entanglement, by … resorting to a quintessential binary logic of (0) honest nodes/nonces/network actors protecting themselves from (1) quantum attackers.
The Enemy Is Always At The Gates
Of course, everyone following the crypto story knows that the “Us v. Them”/“Honest Lamb v. Attacking Wolf” binary goes to the heart of the Blockchain origin story — the Bitcoin whitepaper.
We get that protecting data from would be manipulators and attackers is kind of crypto’s raison d’être. But despite explosive growth of DLT pluralism, the crypto community doesn’t seem to want to transcend this decade-old simplistic binary of an arms-length contest between “good guys” v. “bad guys.”
An explicit binary oppositional dynamic continues to structure BTC, ETH, ETC, EOS & many other crypto communities with respect to another grossly inflated potential external threat — law.
IOTA labors under the anxiety of quantum computing, and thus seeks to “quantum-proof” its algorithms & implementations. Many Blockchain development teams labor under the anxiety of trust and regulation, and thus seek to “trust-proof” and “law-proof” their algorithms & implementations.
Fear Distorts Vision
What explains really smart people working so hard to immunize themselves from a deeply felt, but objectively benign and, in any event, incurable “threat”? Perhaps nothing more than primal fear and the human quest for total control.
It’s like (a) learning that bacteria can be deadly, and then (b) preemptively taking regular progressively higher doses of antibiotics to get rid of bacteria, which, in turn, (c) creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and (d) ultimately debilitates and potentially kills the body.
In this analogy, “trust,” “quantum computing,” “attacker nodes,” or “law” are forms of bacteria. The body is crypto. The antibiotics are the ideological myths we tell ourselves that we can code our way around social points of failure.
We can’t create “quantum-proof” or “hacker-proof” data structures, just like we can’t create “law-proof” supposedly “self-contained legal structures” (e.g., so-called “smart contracts”).
What more, if we’ve designed our processes well, we shouldn’t need to fully immunize or completely insulate ourselves from an uncertain world!
The Enemy Is Also Scared
Here’s the rub: “quantum attacks” don’t just happen (at least not yet, but AI is changing that calculus quickly). “The Law” doesn’t just regulate. “Attacker nodes” don’t just attack.
At the attacker end of these various potential threat vectors are human actors pursuing human agendas. They may be attack agendas, but so far they are human agendas — playing out along recognizable lines. And human resilience to attack is a function of our flexibility and adaptability, not immutability.
The genius of IOTA is its apparent rejection of simplistic #CodeIsLaw-esque immutability. IOTA’s biggest weakness is a projected fear of quantum.
“Quantum-proofing” and “law-proofing” are just different variants of a #CodeAsLaw ideology that suggests we can “future-proof” ourselves by severely limiting future human choices — our own.
But here’s the thing. The human operators of “honest nodes” and “attacker nodes” live in a shared environment on a planet with finite resources. This should serve as a much needed reality check for crypto developers who are so deep in their search for trustlessness that they have forgotten than trustless worlds aren’t really fun, not to mention impossible.
As much as you may be scared of the enemy, the enemy is also Earth-bound and scared by you and by Nature. That’s a really reassuring thought because it can be operationalized to do powerful risk mitigation work.
Don’t “Quantum-Proof;” Just Minimize Risk
Therefore, while we can never build fully “attack-proof” structures (because of the persistence of psychopaths and Nature’s myriad ways of keeping us on our toes), we can minimize the probability of attacks.
As with infrastructure, an attack on a data structure is least likely when data structures offer so much material hyperutility to the attacker alongside honest actors, that an attack would destroy the attacker in a very real material sense.
The logic here is sound. Everyone should see the parallels to Nakamoto’s preemptive treatment of different attack logics in the context of Bitcoin.
Long before Bitcoin, we’ve been the beneficiaries of this logic (of making the benefits of not attacking far outweigh the would-be benefits of attack). Outside of the context of armed conflict, the best civilian examples of hyperutility from the material world are networks like power grids, transport webs, water treatment facilities — what we today often call “critical infrastructure.”
Our lived environments are full of danger and uncertainty. Over eons, humanity has evolved to deal with these dangers through remarkably diverse socio-legal adaptations. One of our smartest natural adaptations is conscious, intelligent adaptation to wildly unpredictable environments.
IOTA seems to get that the best way to minimize risk in an unpredictable world is to create fluid, customizable, and adaptable data structures.
The only thing constant in Nature is change; the dumbest thing humans do is fight Nature.
That’s why Tangle’s smartest feature may be its biological structure — the fractal-like elegance of “Help others, and others will help you”.
Now that IOTA developers have helped the world by introducing novel data structures and processes for efficiently managing the mind-boggling task of IoT interconnectivity, please welcome our help.
Our main suggestions for IOTA are four-fold:
(1) please delete all references to Tangle as “quantum-proof” on IOTA materials, for obvious conceptual, but also legal liability, etc. reasons;
(2) please abandon “quantum-proofing” as a development goal, as that is impossible;
(3) please take greater care in describing Tangle’s quantum-resistance properties so that nobody confuses “quantum-attack-resilience” (what IOTA seems to actually be doing) with #1 & #2 (immediately above);
(4) please continue to invest in material hyperutility use cases and projects, as they represent the easiest and fastest ways for the world to embrace IOTA & become even more en-Tangle-d.
Translating this into cryptonomics slang of efficiency and opportunity costs: the energy being spent to insulate code from the world would be far better spent on integrating the world into code.
From “Quantum-Proofing” to Quantum Utility
Everyone knows that we’re only at the start of the quantum computing revolution. That’s why everyone should see the folly of continuing to tempt the devil by claiming one’s data process is “devil-proof.”
Building on #3 & #4 (immediately above), it should be clear that the suggestion isn’t just a move away from claiming 100% quantum-attack-immunity. The theoretical data processing potential of quantum is so vast that it’s impossible to conclusively prove that particular Tangle structures are or will be “quantum resistant,” as well.
In this respect, the Tangle Whitepaper does an excellent job of hedging. Saving the best for last, the paper’s last sentence teaches:
The latter [constructive] part [of creating transaction records] is much more resistant against quantum computing, and therefore gives the tangle much more protection against an adversary with a quantum computer when compared to the (Bitcoin) blockchain.
For our purposes, the operative phrases are “much more resistant against quantum computing” and “much more protection against an adversary with a quantum computer” — suggesting a conscious move away from absolute claims, towards far more qualified and contingent engagement with quantum processes.
Nonetheless, as suggested above, there’s a deeper structural fault in a framework that posits algorithmic resistance against “an adversary with a quantum computer” as a logical end point.
The maximum protection against an adversary with a quantum computer is not algorithmic protection, but legal protection.
Quantum Law to the Rescue
Please recall the power grid example above.
A power grid’s resilience and resistance to attack isn’t solely algorithmic (although much of the front-line defense is algorithmic). It’s also a function of the level of social and material utility that the grid offers to everybody, including would-be attackers.
It’s a miracle that today’s power grids work as effectively as they do, given how vulnerable they are.
A big part of what assures the lights stay on are legal regimes and legal frameworks that make attacks on critical infrastructure serious capital offenses in many contexts (including, crucially, in jurisdictions that don’t technically have the death penalty). How so? Easy. An attack on a “hyperutility app” like a power grid is so disruptive and deadly that it is easily reclassifiable as a terrorist attack in appropriate cases, with severe extraterritorial and extrajudicial — yet legal — penalties.
The IOTA Foundation has made wise investments in the legal and regulatory engagement aspects of its growth strategy. Those efforts will repay themselves in multiple ways over the course of the next century.
In fact, we predict that one of the most direct effects of a successful IOTA regulatory/legal engagement strategy will be none other than protection of Tangle infrastructure from quantum attacks, particularly state-sponsored quantum attacks.
In light of its self-proclaimed aim to be the backbone of the 21st century’s transition to ubiquitous IoT, the IOTA community would be well advised to adopt a posture that doesn’t spook at the mere mention of a quantum ghost.
Cautious respect for quantum computing is one thing, but we must remember that at the end of the day, quantum computing is a human process that is run on human code — with all the pluses and minuses that entails.
Popovian Quantum Utility
There are a lot of things to admire about the IOTA Tangle, the IOTA Foundation and leadership, the IOTA vision and, most importantly, the global IOTA community.
In our view, the greatest attribute of the overall IOTA project is captured in a recent blog post by one of Tangle’s masterminds, Serguei Popov, titled, On the Tangle, White Papers, Proofs, Airplanes, and Local Modifiers.
We take the liberty of mashing two disparate thoughts from Popov’s post, insofar as they suggest what we think is the secret to even faster and safer IOTA scaling:
[…] the original white paper has gone through many revisions thanks to the many people who suggested numerous improvements […] Thus, if we want it to work, we need to incentivize the participants to collaborate and approve each other’s recent [contributions] transactions.
It’s an obvious point in academia, Popov’s original home turf (& CleanApp Foundation’s too). We love that collaboration and free exchange of ideas are also the norm in many tech settings.
But if we take an honest view of today’s crypto development space, there are fairly steep barriers to entry to full-fledged collaboration. Much of it is due to market influence, with downturns in volatile crypto markets unleashing torrents of suspicion and mistrust.
Well-meaning smaller developers who offer constructive critiques & novel developmental pathways to BigCrypto cats are often branded “shitcoins” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and effectively shut down and shut out as though they were attackers. In this climate, open dialogue is tough.
That’s why, against this backdrop, Popov’s strongest proof of Tangle’s quantum-compatibility and quantum-utility is the human factor — “Help others, and others will help you”.
IOTA’s Quantum Future
Herein lies an obvious closing point — one that controls the speed with which IOTA and other DLT developers will dispatch material hyperutility applications to eager global user bases:
One of the most-needed IOTA use cases today is a Tangle that can serve as an open conduit to IOTA Foundation & IOTA community developmental pathways, programs, and processes. Whatever form it takes, if this Tangle can serve as a secure networking and novel collaboration space that’s trusted by millions with input on how to improve & untangle particularly messy Tangle problems, it will provide proof-of-work that the same can be done with billions of our most sensitive IoT connected devices.
With crypto, as with any tech, the breakout moment won’t be a desktop or mobile wallet that allows you to spend or store this or that currency easier.
In the end, it’s all about trust in the openness, integrity, and capacity of an organizational process for incentivizing and unleashing material empowerment and emancipation. The end goals should be processes that allow billions of people to easily earn crypto, rather than just easily spend crypto.
IOTA is well on its way towards achieving these goals. Per its own logic, IOTA will get there much faster if you let us help you.
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