Category Archives: Technology

Does Quantum Computing Kill Bitcoin?

Quantum Crypto Is Upon Us

We know it is coming. Probably.

For the last 25 years and more, we’ve known that quantum computing is coming, and that one of its first uses will be code breaking.

Much of the cryptographic infrastructure of the Internet is based on methods that are proven to be so hard to compute that a brute force or guessing attack is “infeasible”. Generally, this means that with current and projected technology, it would take a long time, years or centuries, to work it out.

But quantum computers should be zillions of times faster at certain kinds of computations, including the beating heart of key crypto algorithms. Uh, oh!

This cuts both ways. Quantum encryption might well be unbreakable by conventional computers (good for the defense, bad for the offense). But much of conventional computing and networks will be effectively clear text (bad for defense, good for offense).

I assume the NSA and all the other technically advanced powers are on the case, though I certainly don’t know exactly what is going on. We do know, for example, that there is a public effort in China to deploy quantum cryptography on a backbone network. Google has announced it has the technology. It is likely that high security nets have already got such technology, long before any public announcements. The future is already here.

Mark Kim writes this month in Quanta Magazine about these developments [3]. In particular, he discusses a paper by Bernstein, Daniel J. and colleagues, which looks at “Post Quantum RSA”, i.e., what happens to RSA encryption in a quantum computing world [1].

The thrust of this paper is proposals for “RSA parameters can be adjusted so that all known quantum attack algorithms are infeasible while encryption and decryption remain feasible.” ([1], p. 1)  As they say, their ideas are “not what one would call lightweight cryptography”. The case they analyze involves a 1 Terabyte key! This is expensive and awkward, but the point is that for cases that demand extreme measures (e.g., guarding root keys, critical backbones, and other vital secrets) there may be ways to protect against quantum decryption attacks, even with conventional computing.

This is a cool idea, assuming it bears out. If nothing else, it dilutes the aura of magical invincibility that surrounds quantum cryptography.

But these measures and other possible approaches, don’t really solve the problem for the bulk of the Internet. It may soon be true that well endowed actors, nation states and googles, can crack any crypto they need to.

What Happens to Bitcoin, blockchains, and other Cryptocurrency?

These developments potentially have serious implications for cryptocurrencies and blockchains, all of which depend on cryptography and, equally important, cryptographically-secured systems.

I’m not sure exactly what parts of the Nakamotoan mechanisms might be affected by quantum computing, some might even be improved. But the big two to worry about are the hashing scheme (the basis of ‘mining’) and the ‘addresses’ which are cryptographic public keys. These mechanisms are secured by algorithms that depend on the speed and cost of computing, so a major disruption of speed could breach the entire basis for Bitcoin.

I don’t know if there are ways to subvert the hashing scheme with quantum computing, and I certainly don’t know what the cost/benefit analysis might be for any such scheme. Quantum computing is likely to be more expensive, so who knows when it is cost effective? (Note that the argument that “it’s too expensive to be reasonable” simply does not apply to state actors.)

One potential problem is if it becomes reasonable for some wealthy miners to have systems that are much, much faster, and thereby to accumulate a large fraction of the total hashing power, then that would be a very serious problem.

An even bigger problem is that governments and large companies will soon be able to crack public keys, and therefore probably will be able to mess with Bitcoin addresses. Yoiks! Unfriendlies not only reading your mail, but manipulating your Bitcoins and your “smart contracts”, too. Again, arguments about supposed economic and cost barriers don’t apply to state actors.

Worst of all, anyone actually using Bitcoin or a blockchain for any normal purpose (i.e., other than mining or currency exchange), relies on the general security of the network and nodes. Even if the blockchain, servers, and wallets aren’t cracked (which they will be), the network itself is likely to be unsecure.

It’s hard to know what might happen, but if unfriendlies can insert man-in-the-middle attacks between nodes, then all bets are off. Anyone trying to actually use Bitcoin with a wallet and local connection would be vulnerable in any number of possible ways.

Game over.

Time’s Up For Cryptocurrencies?

The official Bitcoin wiki pages have a short note on “Quantum computing and Bitcoin”, which whistles past the graveyard. They suggest that there is a decade or more to do something, which is probably optimistic. But even this Pollyanna-ish page notes that there aren’t any solid solutions known at this time.

This isn’t great news, especially given Bitcoin’s disfunctional governance system, which has been spinning its wheels for two years over much simpler technical issues. How in the world will the crypto community cope with the existential threat of QC?

Obviously, I’m far more concerned about the collapse of the whole Internet.

Perhaps Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might turn out to be canaries in the coal mine, keeling over just before the the big explosion.


  1. Daniel J. Bernstein, Nadia Heninger, Paul Lou, and Luke Valenta, Post-quantum RSA. Cryptology ePrint Archive: Report 2017/351, 2017. https://eprint.iacr.org/2017/351
  2. Bitcoin Foundation. Quantum computing and Bitcoin. 2016, https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Quantum_computing_and_Bitcoin.
  3. Mark H. Kim, Why Quantum Computers Might Not Break Cryptography. Quanta magazine.May 15 2017, https://www.quantamagazine.org/why-quantum-computers-might-not-break-cryptography-20170515

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Blockchain Use Cases: Theme Parks?

Jegar Pitchforth writes in Coindesk about “5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain” [1]. His basic idea is that theme parks are historically “early adopters” and pioneers of technology, and should pioneer the use of blockchain technology.

He specifically identifies five use cases:

  1. Ticketing
  2. “Fastpass tickets” (i.e., specific deals)
  3. Theme Park Currency (Branded)
  4. Audience Surveys
  5. Pay audience to advertise

Hmm.

These are scarcely new ideas. Indeed, the entire article refers to existing programs. The point must be, and the question is, what does blockchain technology bring to the table? How would a blockchain be better than current technology?

Let’s look at his use cases to see what value blockchain brings, if any.

In the case of ticketing, it seems that the main advantage is that a blockchain system can be securely accessed by any smartphone.   Current systems work fine, as far as I know, and wearable technology makes it even more convenient than a smartphone.

The “Fastpass” use case has the potentially interesting wrinkle of using “smart contracts” to implement markets for these ‘rights’. Guests could trade and bargain for seats on rides, and so on.  Or there could be various conditions attached (“You can ride if you and 3 of your friends show up in 15 minutes….”)

Assuming that this kind of activity is a desirable feature (and for some fantasy worlds, I’m not sure that you want people diverting attention to such matters), it isn’t clear that blockchain is any better or worse than any other technology. After all, so called “smart contracts” are really, really simple logic, which can easily be built into a conventional database.

The idea of Theme Park Currency is nothing more or less than digital tokens or coupons, with a ton of general purpose overhead. Since these ‘coins’ are essentially private tokens issued by the park, they aren’t “decentralized” at all. In that sense, blockchain is a terrible choice, completely incongruent with the use case.

The last two hinge on using the cryptocurrency as loyalty points to incentivize the victims guests. This may or may not be desirable thematically (and is certainly ethically problematic when children are involved), but you don’t need a blockchain or private cryptocurrency to make it work.

Overall, there is little technical or logical reason why blockchain technology is especially well suited for any of these use cases. Indeed, to the degree that blockchain is generic and invites attention to commerce it is interfering with the effort to create a magic world and to command total attention and immersion.

It is true that a blockchain-based solution might be cheap and easy compared to creating a secure private network. However, much of the cost and effort must go into the user experience not the back end details, so I’m not sure if there would be much cost savings.

Most of the features of the blockchain are actually irrelevant to these use cases. The data systems of a theme park are extremely private and highly localized. What is the advantage of using an open, internet-wide data system?

Above all, the entire theme of a “theme park” is trust. We hand over part of our life to the designers, trusting them to give us a safe and enchanting experience. Ticketing, tokens, and whatever else must all be integrated to be part of this trusted experience. What is the advantage of using a “trustless” technology to implement this deeply trustful system?

Overall, it looks to me like you could use blockchain technology, but there is hardly a compelling case to do so. And if you do, it will be necessary to integrate it into the overall magic, which likely will mean that the blockchain should be invisible. If it is done right, you’ll never know it is there.

Actually, a successful deployment would be very good for blockcahin technology in general, because it would have to create a safe and wonderful user experience.  To data, the “user experience” with blockchains is very, very weak. A Disney quality interface would lift all boats.

For example, a blockchain system requires guests (including children?) to manage cryptokeys  In the theme park this must be safe, intuitive, and generally invisible.  Developing cool metaphors and UI to do this would be a great thing to see, and would advance the whole field.


  1. Jegar Pitchforth, 5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain (And Why They Should) May 16 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/5-ways-theme-parks-embrace-blockchain/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

CuddleBits: Much More Than Meets The Eye

Paul Bucci and colleagues from University of British Colombia report this month on Cuddlebots, “simple 1-DOF robots” that “can express affect” [1] As Evan Ackerman says, “build your own tribble!” (Why hasn’t there been a zillion Tribble analogs on the market???)

This caught my eye just because they are cute. Then I looked at the paper presented this month at CHI. Whoa! There’s a lot of interesting stuff here.[1]

First of all, this is a minimalist, “how low can we go” challenge. Many social robots have focused on adding many, many degrees of freedom, for example, to simulate human facial expressions as faithfully as possible. This project goes the other way, trying to create social bonds with only one DOF.

“This seems plausible: humans have a powerful ability to anthropomorphize, easily constructing narratives and ascribing complex emotions to non-human entities.” (p. 3681)

In this case, the robot has programmable “breathing” motions (highly salient in emotional relationships among humans and other species). The challenge is, of course, that emotion is a multidimensional phenomenon, so how can different emotions be expressed with just breathing? And, assuming they can be created, will these patterns be “read” correctly by a human?

This is a great piece of work. They developed theoretical understanding of “relationships between robot behaviour control parameters, and robot-expressed emotion”, which makes possible a DIY “kit” for creating the robots – a theory of Tribbleology, and a factory for fabbing Tribbles!

I mark their grade card with the comment, “Shows mastery of subject”.

As already noted, the design is “naturalistic”, but not patterned after any specific animal. That said, the results are, of course, Tribbleoids, a fictional life form (with notorious psychological attraction).

The paper discusses their design methods and design patterns. They make it all sound so simple, “We iterated on mechanical form until satisfied with the prototypes’ tactility and expressive possibilities of movement.” This statement understates the immense skill of the designers to be able to quickly “iterate” these physical designs.

The team fiddled with design tools that were not originally intended for programming robots. The goal was to be able to generate patterns of “breathing”, basically sine waves, that could drive the robots. This isn’t the kind of motion needed for most robots, but it is what haptics and vocal mapping tools do.

Several studies were done to investigate the expressiveness of the robots, and how people perceived them. The results are complicated, and did not yield any completely clear cut design principles. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering the limited repertoire of the robots. Clearly, the ability to iterate is the key to creating satisfying robots. I don’t think there is going to be a general theory of emotion.

I have to say that the authors are extremely hung up on trying to represent human emotions in these simple robots. I guess that might be useful, but I’m not interested in that per se. I just want to create attractive robots that people like.

One of the interesting things to think about is the psychological process that assigns emotion to these inanimate objects at all. As they say, humans anthropomorphize, and create their own implicit story. It’s no wonder that limited and ambiguous behavior of the robots isn’t clearly read by the humans: they each have their own imaginary story, and there are lots of other factors.

For example, they noted that variables other than the mechanics and motion While people recognized the same general emotions, “we were much more inclined to baby a small FlexiBit over the larger one.” That is, the size of the robot elicited different behaviors from the humans, even with the same design and behavior from the robot.

The researchers are tempted to add more DOF, or perhaps “layer” several 1-DOF systems. This might be an interesting experiment to do, and it might lead to some kind of additive “behavior blocks”. Who knows

Also, if you are adding one more “DOF”, I would suggest adding simple vocalizations, purring and squealing. This is not an original, this is what was done in “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967) [2].


  1. Paul Bucci, Xi Laura Cang, Anasazi Valair, David Marino, Lucia Tseng, Merel Jung, Jussi Rantala, Oliver S. Schneider, and Karon E. MacLean, Sketching CuddleBits: Coupled Prototyping of Body and Behaviour for an Affective Robot Pet, in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2017, ACM: Denver, Colorado, USA. p. 3681-3692.
  2. Joseph Pevney, The Trouble With Tribbles, in Star Trek. 1967.

 

Robot Wednesday

Mauritius Invites Blockchain Ideas for Offshore Finance

From the very first, cryptocurrency and the underlying blockchain technology was designed to offer the benefits of offshore finance via the Internet. Nakamoto’s “decentralized” design is effectively “offshore from everywhere”—accessible anywhere, but resident nowhere. This central purpose has been dressed up ad spun in many ways, but in the end, “trustless” really means “out of the reach of governments”.

It is no surprise, then, that among the usual crypto stories about exchange rates and frauds there is news about physically offshore, hot-money centers that are very interested in cryptocurrency and blockchains. It is a perfect fit.

This spring, the infamous Indian Ocean pirate lair business friendly island paradise has been encouraging blockchain projects to set up in Mauritius, using their laissezfaire Regulatory Sandbox License process. Officials and promoters have been touting Mauritius as a great place to do this kind of business in Coindesk and many other outlets.

I have never been to Mauritius, so I mainly know about it from news headlines about mercenaries, Russian arms dealers, and baffling big power jostling to secure a navy base there. For a tiny little island, far from anywhere, Mauritius seems to enjoy a robust financial system, as well as a reputation as the suspected destination of cash.

The financial industry is very interested in blockchain for many reasons, so there is every reason for Mauritius to get in the game. But I’m sure that they will be very eager to develop easy to use financial instruments and distributed autonomous organizations. This will automate (and harden) the swift movement of money “off shore” and DAOs are ideal for the formation of opaque shell companies.

Naturally, this isn’t what their public relations offensive talks about. The promoters tout Mauritius as being close to India and Africa, which is true but irrelevant for blockchain technology. They recount how Mauritius has a great reputation for clean government, though they are playing in the Africa league, and globally, 49th in the world ain’t that great (that’s just behind Mexico in the league tables).

There is also some smoke about how Mauritius is ideally situate to “jump into new markets on the African continent – where many of the world’s largest unbanked populations exist.” Mauritius may be politically focused on African markets, but there is no reason to locate a blockchain business there rather than anywhere else in the world.

Well, there is a reason: it is a “business friendly” government out of the reach of local regulators in notoriously the difficult African nations. I completely understand why a company would prefer to be in Mauritius that, say, Kenya.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that having the financial system controlled by an unaccountable off shore company, with its own very cozy government, is going to be good for the “unbanked” or anybody else on the continent, except for tax avoiders and fraudsters.

And, of course, this won’t be Mauritians running things, but Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and who knows, exploiting Africans through opaque cut out companies hosted by Mauritius.

Blockchain: the next phase of colonialism in Africa?


  1. Aaron Stanley, Mauritius: The Tropical Paradise Looking to Become a Blockchain Hub. Coindesk.May 7 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/mauritius-the-tropical-paradise-looking-to-become-a-blockchain-hub/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Roomba’s Successful Multispecies Interface

In home robotics are still struggling with trying to interface with humans, but it will surely be necessary to coexist with our co-species.

Roomba robot vacuum cleaners has pioneered many aspects of home automation, achieving the exalted status of being a generic term for this class of device (like “Kleenex” or “Bandaid”). Their cultural status is marked too, by pioneering the “cats riding roomba” video genre.

Now that we know that cat videos are as sneaky as the little feline varments themselves, let’s just do a “cute dog” video, which should be safe to use, right?

There are several interesting things. First of all—aww, what a cute doggy, and so video friendly!

Second, it is interesting to see that Chester has figured out the stop button on the Roomba. It looks like the “intuitive” interface is, in fact, intuitive across species boundaries!   Well done, Roomba!

How ever he discovered the stop button, it’s no secret at all how he discovered that stopping the robot makes mom pay attention.

We can note the different understanding of the technology by the two species, and the different goals they pursue in their shared use of the device. Mom thinks she is vacuuming, Chester thinks he is playing with mom. They are both right.

This is an example of a deeper point for home robots: whenever there are more than one person (entity) in the home, operating the robot is a multiplayer game. So much of the literature is all about treating a personal robot as if it is a personal phone: controlled by and interacting with exactly one person, and customized to that person. The reality is otherwise. Robots need to understand, or act as if they understand, all the people and animals (and robots) in the situation.

 

Robot Wednesday

Natural Selection of Glider Drone Concepts

Evan Ackerman reports about yet another “disposable drone” project, similar to the ‘cardboard drone’ concept from OterhLabs. Great minds move in similar ways, and the U.S. Marines are testing the same concept only larger: plywood gliders. I’m sure there are other variations on this theme in the works, it is an idea whose time has come.

The Marine version (TACAD (TACtical Air Delivery)) is plywood and bolts, plus GPS and guidance. The glider is intended to be launched from an aircraft to glide many kilometers to the recipient. Crash landing within fifty meters or so, the airframe will be discarded.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

One reason that the time has come for this idea is that civilian, hobbyist-grade GPS and small aircraft controllers are widely available and cheap. In a sort of technological “circle of life”, these military technologies moved out to wide use, and developed to the point where they can work as well as special orders, and are, of course, vastly cheaper. They are now being picked up by the military, replacing custom built systems.

Using inexpensive materials is particularly important for unpowered gliders because they cannot fly home. For that matter, they have limited maneuverability, and relatively high probability of mishap. Pushing the cost down makes it a “throw away” craft, worth risking in more situations.

Between the TACAD and Otherlab, we can see that there is a certain evolutionary selection process going on there. The same underlying technology (GPS, digital guidance, stand off air launch) can be realized at a variety of scales. The USMC is planning one with a payload about the size of a microwave, OterhLab’s is smaller. We could imagine both larger and smaller versions, using appropriate materials.

There is a tradeoff here; the smaller the drone, they more of them that can be deployed. Otherlab’s cardboard packages could be dropped by the hundreds, The same aircraft could drop far fewer TACAD sized craft. Depending on the type of delivery, either mode might be better.

There are other tradeoffs related to the size. The OthereLabs is designed to be delivered as a compact flatpack, and also to biodegrade after landing. I imagine that TACAD might be flatpacked, but the initial design has foldable wings for up for compact transport. Flatpack design also enables a sort of just in time, on site construction that may be advantageous for some uses. For example, the plans could be delivered electronically, and constructed from local materials.

This evolutionary radiation of disposable drone gliders is an interesting reprise of military glider technology. At its peak, gliders were widely used for paratroops (for example, the movie “A Bridge Too Far” has some excellent recreations of allied glider operations). Dangerous, defenseless, and limited, gliders were surpassed by other aircraft, especially helicopters. Decades later, the concept of a cargo glider has returned, made possibly by model air crate technology.


  1. Evan Ackerman, U.S. Marines Testing Disposable Delivery Drones, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/marines-testing-disposable-gliding-delivery-drones

 

Robot Wednesday Friday

RoboThespian: Uncanny or Just Plain Unpleasant?

RoboThespian  is disturbing.

I think this particularly humanoid robot has climbed out of the uncanny valley of discomfort, and ambled out onto the  plain of extremely annoying coworker. Disney animatronics gone walkabout.

RoboThespian is a life sized humanoid robot designed for human interaction in a public environment. It is fully interactive, multilingual, and user-friendly, making it a perfect device with which to communicate and entertain.

Clearly, these guys have done a ton of clever work, integrating human like locomotion, speech synthesis, projection, face tracking, and serious chat bot software.

The standard RoboThespian design offers over 30 degrees of freedom, a plethora of sensors, and embedded software incorporating text-to-speech synthesis in 20 languages, facial tracking and expression recognition. The newly developed RoboThespian 4.0 will offer a substantial upgrade, adding additional motion range in the upper body and the option of highly adept manipulative hands.”

What can you do with all this? I think the key clue is that the programming is done via a GUI enviroment  Blender

which means that you basically create a computer generated scene, which is “rendered” in physical robots.

Much of the spectacular effect is due to well coordinated facial expressions, head movement, and speech. The robot also has sensors to detect people and especially faces, and to orient to them. It also has facial expression recongnition, which lets it “reproduce” facial expressions. All these effects are “uncanny”, and make the beast appear to be talking to you (or singing at you). Ick!

All this is in the pursuit of…I’m not sure what.


I grant you that this is a great effect, at least on video. But what is it for?

The title and demos https://www.engineeredarts.co.uk/robothespian/theatre-of-robots/ suggests that it replaces human thespians (live onstage), which seems far fetched. If you want mechanized theater, you always have computer generated movies. As far as I can tell, the main use case is for advertising, e.g., trade show demos. It either replaces human presenters (demo babes) or it replaces video billboards.

They also suggest that this is a good device for telepresence, It “can inhabit an environment in a more human manner; it’s the next best thing to being there.”   I’m not at all sure about that. Humanoid appearance is not really important for effective telepresence in most cases, and there is no reason to think this humanioid is well suited for any give telepresence situation.

Let me be clear: this product is really nicely done.  I do appreciate a well crafted system, integrating lots of good ideas.

But I really don’t see that roboThespian is anything other than a flashy gimmick. (Human actors are way, way cheaper, and probably better.)

On the other hand, when I saw the first computer mouse on campus, I declared that it was a useless (and stupid) interface, and no one would ever use it.   I was wrong about mice (Boy was I wrong!), so my intuitions about humanoid chatter bots may be wildly off.

Update May 4 2017:  Corrected to indicated taht Engineering Arts does not use Blender, as the original post said. I must have seen some out of date information.  EngArt have their own environment which, if not built from Blender, is built to look just like it.  Thanks to Joe Wollaston for the correction.

 

Robot Wednesday