Israeli based Eli Ben-Sasson is the founder of StarkWare, a company whose technology is making blockchain-based transactions up to 20,000 times cheaper.
Blockchain-based transactions have often been described as a “solution in search of a problem,” especially by their detractors. A big part of this is that each transaction is very expensive, compared to traditional means.
Blockchain technology enables a database that records and verify values. What makes it unique is that it splits this information into lots of computers controlled by different people in different places.
Each of these computers solves a set of mathematical puzzles, to crack a code that verifies the information recorded in the database. Solving the puzzle verifies the data is true.
The beauty of splitting all this up is that no one computer (called a “node”) can change the information on its own. This makes the history of transactions irreversible.
If you think this sounds like a lot of work to verify a transaction, you’d be right. All those calculations require vast amounts of computer power and electricity. This has been a block to rapid adoption of the technology – each transaction is simply too costly.
Enter Ben-Sasson. Tinkering away with mathematical formulae in Israel, he is applying a solution that can reduce the cost of each blockchain-based transaction by up to 20,000 times. He does so using a form of mathematics known as zero-knowledge proofs. These are a way of proving to someone that you know a value, without having to show your calculations. This reduces all the calculations required by each of the nodes, saving oodles of money.
Little wonder that StarkWare has already raised US$123 million and secured a contract to plug into one of the biggest cryptocurrency networks, Ethereum. With lower transaction costs, StarkWare can be the plumbing that enables rapid verification of almost any record, from property to healthcare records, transforming the way people trust and interact with each other, and unlocking a huge amount of value created by greater human co-operation.
I sat down with Ben-Sasson to hear about the cutting edge of blockchain research.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did that prepare you for where you are now?
I come from a family of academics. I was always very curious. It was clear to me that I would go into academic studies. I didn’t anticipate I would go into maths. I thought I would go into humanities and biology. I was pleasantly excited to get into maths.
What is an elegant equation for you?
For a mathematician, it is when you view these 3D kind of images, and suddenly a bear (the animal) pops up in 3D. These equations sit and stare at you and all of a sudden a beautiful structure just emerges in your mind, and you put it down to paper, using an equation in your language.
Suppose you see some gorgeous scenery. You put it down to writing. The description is not the experience, it only reflects what it is.
Underpinning zero-knowledge proofs are a lot of beautiful and abstract mathematical proofs. It’s a very new branch of mathematics. The questions we are asking are very new and contribute to these fundamental mathematical questions.
How would you explain zero-knowledge proofs?
We’re using cryptographic proofs to exponentially decrease the number of computational proofs required to ensure that another party can verify a piece of information.
Think of a kaleidoscope, or a mirror maze. These are objects or tools that have a lot of mirrors that reflect light that amplifies or refracts anything from an infinitesimally small point. Most times you’ll see this sort of whiteness (of light). But if there is some sort of blemish on the floor it will be immediately amplified.
There is some geometry explained by physics and equations that is making this happen. There is a sort of amplification of computation into a mirror maze.
You’re on the cusp of extraordinary success. What are some of your daily challenges as a founder?
You’re at the edge of knowledge and the countless experiences are ones of failure. The daily experience is that you sit with a piece of paper, or in front of a whiteboard, and then you throw most things into the trash can.
There have many time when I had a breakthrough, and went to sleep and immediately after I woke up, found a bug.
Then after you find a bug, you have a fix. That’s the routine.
There was like this one point, many years ago, around 2003-2004 where I was working with Prof Madhu Sudan on trying to get these proofs much shorter, and some patterns emerged. We started seeing some things and there was this very vivid experience, and the next morning there was some new recursive pattern that just broke. Two days after, after thinking about it some time, and then you start the recursion again with some other options.
We were thinking very hard about the number of times where you have to reduce the amount of computation. There was this vague idea of breaking the range, and you realise that if you extended the vision, you got this much better protocol.
What are some of the real-world applications you see for StarkWare’s protocols?
You look at the valuation of all these companies that profit off data. All this information resides with central sources.
What if you could make the individuals themselves the source of truth?
One could look at health insurance. A combination of blockchain and technology proof can create more understanding, and make decision-making fairer.
You could even have an insurance company stating, “This is the algorithm used for pricing our products,” and then you have people being the source of the information (for the algorithm).
Suppose you were the one recording your medical history privately and you could use blockchain for some other public ledger. You could run that computation. You’d get a fairer system. You also protect people’s data.
Blockchain technology has been around for a while now. Why aren’t we seeing enough currently working applications?
The real world has high volumes of transactions. One of the main advantages of our technology is being able to exponentially increase the scale of blockchain, enabling each human on earth to anchor their data and identity.
The centralised parties of today, be they governments or monopolies, don’t have any interest in benefiting from this. One would hope that citizens can take back control.
I’m an optimist; I hope it does change. Right now, our technology in blockchain is on the sidelines. We’ll see some applications soon.
What new forms of organisational structures are going to emerge from blockchain?
It’s definitely going to change. There are already a variety of decentralised autonomous organisations that do not rely on traditional company structures. This is already happening massively on existing blockchains. Things like the limited liability company and the shared issue stock company, they all started small.
Our own contribution of this will likely be through StarkNet – turbo-boosting the scale of Ethereum. We also hope that this will be a vibrant form of organisation.
Why has Israel been so progressive at supporting companies like yours? Is it the regulatory approach?
I really love my country, but I’m not sure if it’s the regulatory environment. Its not that better than most other places.
Are you getting government buy-in?
No. They move too slow.
What was it like transitioning from academia to becoming a founder?
I was not interested in anything even remotely related to business and entrepreneurship. For me this was a natural evolution in making science.
There is only so much you can do (within academia) and you want to take it one step further and put it in the hands of people. Entrepreneurship allows for that.
There are many challenges. It’s very hard to start and build a company.
I just think of it as a lot of satisfaction and joy and it comes from the fact that there’s this huge team and we – not I – assemble excellent. And excellence begets excellence. It’s really exhilarating. The challenge is to focus.
What are your personal productivity hacks?
This is very personal. What works for me is relaxing, having confidence in the ability to a waste time, and having this sort of stream of consciousness. This is what works for me. I don’t plan meticulously. I know people who work that way, and they are very successful.
My personal thing is much more of vague optimism.
I work often on the treadmill. I often lie down for long periods of time. Power naps are really important for creativity. It should be enforced.
What advice would you give to someone starting out today?
It’s extremely important to almost be foolishly optimistic in setting your goals and it’s very important that you have confidence in yourself, love yourself and find a good environment to be part of. It sounds to me very bland, but it is true.
What’s next for Eli?
Right now, I am focusing all my personal efforts on StarkWare. I think our next biggest challenge is to roll out the very best decentralised Stark-based network that will really give blockchains the scale that we need so that all those grand things, such as the ability for citizens to be the source of truth, get their power back, and transact free and transparently, can happen.
This is so much more than just currencies. Keeping and maintaining records reliably is one of the most ancient things we do. Record-keeping goes hand in hand with advanced societies.
There is now a new way for keeping records, agreeing on truth, and that new way also needs scale, which is what we are providing. Records of currency are just one thing, but records of any kind. This is, of course, good for people of all nations, all countries.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is an economist and co-founder of medl, an IDB & Microsoft-backed social impact health tech company