We can fix it

50 years of computer science breakthroughs

While large parts of our computers were invented in the 1970s, the good news is that researchers have of course been hard at work during that time, so that the number of tools at our disposal to make computing secure is huge.

First and most visible, we aren’t limited to telling computers what to do in the form of very detailed software instructions, now we can use machine learning to teach computers what to do, so that they solve problems with artificial intelligence. In 2013 already, 35% of amazon’s sales were generated by its recommendation engine. We also have invented new types of computing; we can not only tell computers what to do but also give them a deadline and have them respect it; we also know how to break down software in chunks that work in parallel to run simple software with incredible speed or solve the most complex problems.

The way we build software is vastly different too, and open-source has taken over the world. Today, companies are paying their employee’s salaries to develop software that they then donate to the world. The software is free, and you buy the service to operate it instead. By some estimates, more than 90% of all commercial software developed today contains hundreds of open-source software. On GitHub, the largest open-source community platform in the world, more than 10% of developers’ activity goes to open-source software. The internet allows technology companies to be virtual, without offices, operated by people across the world in an asynchronous way.

Lastly, the security arsenal that we have at our disposal is vastly different. As mathematics and computing power progressed, we can do things that would have seemed impossible 50 years ago. We can have guarantees that software will execute exactly as written, no matter what. We now have different techniques to perform calculations on encrypted data. We can prove claims without disclosing information. We can create new private secure computers in minutes. More than 5 million people have a cryptographic identity available from their browser. A storm is brewing.

A few years of experience

Not only has science and research progressed, but the community has been building and using secure computers for a few years now.

To me, Bitcoin is the first secure computer. A computer limited to just two features, one to create coins, and one to transfer coins. This virtual, secure computer has been operating since Jan 2009 and available for 99.987% of the time elapsed since, with its last outage occuring in Mar 2013. As of writing this article 12,963 Bitcoin nodes are operating the network worldwide.

Ethereum then lifted Bitcoin’s limitation in the number of features. Instead of just being able to create and transfer coins, one can now write arbitrary secure computer software a.k.a. blockchain smart contracts. The network went live in July 2015 and will soon be as old as Bitcoin was when Ethereum launched. Its most successful apps are in finance as well, with lending, borrowing and more complex financial products enabled by its smart contract capabilities. As of writing this article the Ethereum secure computer is securing a total of USD 90 Billion invested in its main and secondary instances.

While these pioneering secure computers are huge successes in enabling some of our desired security properties (namely integrity, availability, authenticity, and possession) they do not on their own enable confidentiality and utility. Luckily, many approaches to enabling privacy have been successfully demonstrated over the past few years and are a very active area of work.

And a huge community working on it

Throughout the world, we now have this growing community collectively working to create tomorrow’s secure computers.

In the past year alone, close to a thousand research papers were submitted to arxiv.org referencing the core technologies used to build secure computers. Hundreds of universities are now including blockchain in their curriculum. Cryptocurrency is now one of the most popular online learning topics. The ACM’s Turing Awards (the ‘Nobel Prize of Computing’) went to researchers who directly advanced the field of secure computing in 2012, 2013, 2015, and arguably 2016.

When it comes to people, blockchain was on the podium of the fastest growing job demand of 2020 according to LinkedIn. There thousands of companies, and close to a million people claim to be working on blockchain and cryptography. ConsenSys, Ethereum’s leading development company, is working to get to one-million developers and we are probably in the hundreds of thousands already.

In the last 12 months, a total of 1,177 funding rounds were completed in blockchain and cryptocurrency with over USD 15 Billion invested. Another 1,174 funding rounds were completed in information security with over USD 27 Billion invested.

With so much effort, resources and time spent on cracking the problem of building secure computers, the speed at which the community makes progress will only continue to accelerate.

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