On Nonlinear Noisy Key Agreement

TL;DR. A large number of post-quantum key encapsulation mechanisms (KEMs) and public key encryption schemes (PKEs) rely on noisy linear algebra problems. Interestingly, the addition of noise to make otherwise easy problems hard, is a strategy that remains restricted to linear algebra and fails to extend to nonlinear operations. This article explores why.

Noisy key agreement

Key agreement is a protocol by which Alice and Bob each send one message to the other and end up agreeing on a shared secret key. The eavesdropper Eve, who observes all messages in transit (but can’t modify them) remains incapable of computing this secret. The first such protocol was introduced by Diffie and Hellman and bears their names, but the general principle extends to generic algebras and not just commutative group theory.

For instance, let Alice and Bob agree on a common random integer G from a finite ring R, such as e.g. the set of nn matrices of integers modulo some prime p. Moreover, let Alice and Bob each sample their secret, a and b respectively, from this structure as well. They then exchange â = aG and b̂ = Gb, allowing both to agree on the shared key k = ab̂ = âb = aGb. Note that while the order of multiplication is important for matrices, by agreeing beforehand whose secret will be multiplied on which side of G, Alice and Bob circumvent this complication entirely.

Unfortunately, this protocol is completely insecure. Eve, who sees Alice and Bob agree on G before sending â = aG and b̂ = Gb, can compute G-1 and recover both Alice’s and Bob’s secrets, not to mention the shared secret key. Even if the ring disallows efficient computation of an element’s inverse, it remains extremely likely that there is a way to find the solution b to the system of linear equations Gb = b̂ and symmetrically for a.

The solution that makes the protocol a noisy key agreement protocol is to transmit only an approximation of aG and Gb. To see why this makes Eve’s task hard, observe how the error term 𝝐b = b̂ – Gb explodes: G-1b̂ = G-1(Gb + 𝝐b) = G-1Gb + G-1𝝐b = b + G-1𝝐b . Since G is a matrix with uniformly random coefficients, so is G-1 and multiplying that by another matrix 𝝐b — even if it has small coefficients — yields another random ring element that hides b much like a one-time pad.

However, the addition of small noise makes it difficult for Alice and Bob to agree on the same secret. Observe that Alice computes ka = a(Gb + 𝝐b) whereas Bob computes kb = (aG + 𝝐a)b. The trick is implied by the symbols’ case: instead of sampling uniformly random a and b, Alice and Bob sample a and b with small coefficients. If a, b, 𝝐a, and 𝝐b have small enough coefficients, then Alice’s view ka = aGb + a𝝐b is approximately the same as Bob’s view kb = aGb + 𝝐ab. As long as the difference a𝝐b – 𝝐ab is small enough, they can proceed to agree on an exact key with one additional message which either reconciles the two views or uses them in combination with error-correcting codes to transmit a wholly new message. In this last case, I like to refer the views ka and kb as shared noisy one-time pads or “snow-tipis”.

So how small should the secret elements a, b, 𝝐a, 𝝐b be? On the one hand, the secrets should not be too small because that reduces Eve’s search space. On the other hand, the secrets cannot be too large because then the difference a𝝐b – 𝝐ab is too large to enable either the reconciliation or transmission strategy. The situation is best described visually. While the unknown bits of the secrets do spread and multiply — and obscure Eve’s view — they also leave some bits of aGb intact; these bits can then be used as secret key material.

Incidentally, Ramstake, my own submission to the NIST PQC Project, does not quite follow this “intact bits” strategy of establishing common secret key material. Instead of having a few unknown bits at fixed locations, the secrets now have a few flipped bits at unknown locations. As long as the difference a𝝐b – 𝝐ab is not too dense, an error correcting code can help extract or transmit secret key material. Interpreting a darker shade of grey as representing a denser error distribution, this gives rise to the following analogous diagram.


Nonlinear Noisy Key Agreement

So why are there no nonlinear noisy key agreement protocols, or cryptosystems based thereon? Actually, that premise is not true. There is a submission to the NIST PQC project by the name of CFPKM whose underlying hard problem is polynomial system solving with noise (“PoSSoWN”). Alice and Bob compute their protocol contributions by evaluating a quadratic function f, which has small coefficients, in their secret vectors sa and sb, also with small coefficients, and by adding another small noise term. The underlying protocol is shown in the next figure. Unfortunately, despite the security proof, the cryptosystem was broken within weeks of the submissions’ publication.

The cryptanalysis exploits the observation that the keys computed by Alice and Bob differ only by the difference of element-wise products f(sa) ⨀ e2f(sb) ⨀ e1, which affects only the lower bits; whereas the high bits of both views are used for the session key. Importantly, these high bits are the same in b1b2, which is a value the passive adversary can compute as well.

So why is there no successful cryptosystem based on noisy nonlinear key agreement? The first observation is that the term nonlinear is really only relative to what the function’s arguments are. For instance, the expression x12 + 2x1x2x2 is nonlinear as a function of (x1, x2) but linear as a function of (x12, x1x2, x22, x1, x2, 1). By extending as we did here the vector of arguments of a function to a vector of all monomials occurring in that expression, any expression can be regarded as a linear function. In particular, both Alice’s and Bob’s computation of their proper views of the noisy secret key may be considered as linear transforms on some extended vector of monomials. This observation suggests a two-step approach to the diagrams above that indicate the source of secret key material: the second step captures the familiar linear noisy key agreement. The first step captures the extension of the original arguments into a vector of monomials.

This diagram highlights the origin of the problem: in order for there to be usable secret key material left at the end, the unknown bits in the extended vector of monomials must not be too many. In order for those unknown bits to not be too many, the unknown bits in the original arguments must be even fewer. However, this very salient feature makes these original arguments a vulnerable target for attack.


Why are there so few cryptosystems based on nonlinear noisy key agreement? My answer is twofold:

  1. Because any such protocol implies a linear noisy key agreement protocol.
  2. Adding nonlinearity to a linear noisy key agreement protocol makes it less secure.


On Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory

TL;DR. Skepticism is a virtue. But questioning catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory seems to be a vice. We are told to believe that the debate is settled; there is scientific consensus that humans are the driving cause of global warming. Any skepticism at this point only serves to confuse policymakers and delay urgent political action. To the contrary, I contend that there is just cause for skepticism.

1. Introduction

Declaring any domain of knowledge as settled science is a characteristic result of the most anti-scientific attitude imaginable. It is the pinnacle of arrogance to claim any knowledge with absolute certainty; an intellectual offense surpassed only by the all-too-often following denouncement of all skepsis as anti-scientific bigotry. In contrast, science is exactly about challenging — and overturning, where appropriate — false beliefs. In the process of scientific investigation, some beliefs may wind up being reinforced rather than overturned, which is why all parties should welcome skepticism with open arms. Our confidence in the truth of scientific propositions comes precisely from our ability to question them. To hold a class of statements or ideas immune to scrutiny is not just akin to religion superficially; it shares its most fundamental tenet, namely the required leap of faith.

But a different standard seems to apply in the global warming discussion. The science is settled because there is 97% consensus among scientists who express opinion on the matter. A panel of experts has concluded that humans are the driving cause of climate change with a whopping 95% confidence1. The remaining skeptics serve only to delay urgently needed political action. In fact, since this delay will certainly cause catastrophe, the spreading of unerringly unreasonable doubt constitutes a prelude to crime. The skeptics who cannot muster the good graces to remain silent, should be put in jail in anticipation of their share of the responsibility.

Well, I am a persistent skeptic. And at the risk of social ostracism, of being associated with the other type of denier2, even of jail time, let me try to convince you that there is something wrong with this attitude. Starting with the philosophical foundations, and continuing first with the scientific theory and then discussing ideological bias, I think there is plenty to criticize and more than just cause for skepticism.

Disclaimer: while I am a scientist, I do not do climate science. My opinion is not that of an expert and if you believe I am factually incorrect somewhere or that you know an adequate response to some of the points I raise, please feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email. I do my best to weed out incorrect beliefs whenever possible.

2. Scientificity

Scientificity is the property of a theory that makes it suitable for scientific investigation. Informally, scientificity requires that the world in which the theory is true is different from the world in which it is false, and that by interacting with the world we can increase our confidence in the truth (or falsity) of that theorem. Falsifiability is a necessary requirement: an unfalsifiable explanation is one that is compatible with any phenomenon. Paradoxically, a good explanation is one that is not capable of explaining anything, but rather one that rules out particular phenomena. The notion is linked with information theory: a scientific theory is part of a model of the universe, and by interacting with the universe we extract information from it and incorporate it into the model. An unscientific theory is one that does not contribute to the model for being devoid of information about the world.

Scientificity is a binary variable, but falsifying is a process that can be easy or difficult. Among scientific theories there is therefore a spectrum of falsifiability difficulty, matching the effort required to test the theory in question. On the one end of the spectrum there are Newtonian postulates, which can almost be tested from the philosopher’s armchair. On the other end there are theories for instance about the inside of a black hole. It is difficult to test these theories, and consequently it is equally difficult to become confident about their truth value.

How does this relate to the climate change debate? Well for starters, consensus is immaterial. Assuming the existence of an accurate distinguisher for telling experts from non-experts, assuming the experts are doing science honestly, and assuming they are free of systemic bias, even then their consensus at best correlates positively with the truth value of the theory in question.

Also, note that “climate change” is the slippiest possible term to frame the debate with. Climate is by any reasonable definition the average weather over a suitably large time period. If this time period is large enough, then the climate is fixed by definition and any change is impossible. If the time period is short enough to be meaningful, then the average changes with the window over which it is computed, and then climate change is an immediate consequence of weather change. In other words, climate change being true or false is determined by how the term is defined rather than a reflection of the world we live in. Nevertheless, the presentation of the term “climate” as though not scientifically vacuous suggests a description of weather as a random noise signal added to an underlying steady state, which is then purported to be disturbed by human activity. This steady state theory of climate may be appealing to our mammal brains but is nevertheless assumed without justification and indeed, in contradiction to the prevalent creation and destruction theories of the Earth itself.

I much prefer the term “global warming” because it, at least, implies one bit of information about the world. If average temperature is observed to drop, then clearly global warming theory is false. However, this term is still troublesome because it captures wildly different scenarios in some of which the average temperature rises by a negligible amount and in others of which the temperature rise is catastrophic to all life on Earth. Phrased in terms of information theory: one bit is not enough. A meaningful debate on global warming must concern theories that explicitly state quantities. By how much will global average temperature increase one year from now? An answer to the same question except “one hundred years from now” is less useful because it is effectively unfalsifiable — especially if the implied political action must be taken before then. To be fair though, the quantity-free discussion is limited to public discourse; scientific reports, such as the IPCC assessment reports, are quite explicit in their quantities, as they should be.

Nor is discussion about the human component exempt from the requirement of being quantitative rather than qualitative. The theory “the globe is warming and humans are causing it” implies at most two bits of information about the world and is equally untenable in a meaningful debate. A proper theory must address to which degree humans are causing global warming and even answer hypothetical questions like how much the global average temperature would have risen if humans had not discovered fossil fuels. To its credit, the IPCC assessment report does make a claim that is falsifiable in principle3: an estimation of the temperature increase with and without mitigating action (among other climate-related effects). However, this theory and a complete causation theory are very difficult to falsify, chiefly because of the size of the time span that the predictions cover. To test them properly, we must compare observations far enough apart in time. And unless we go through this laborious and error-prone process of testing them we should remain accordingly unconfident about their truth values.

Nevertheless, the argument for causation does not derive from counterfactual data for the whole chain but from evidence supporting the strength of each link individually. While this stepwise approach is a sound methodology, it is easy to lose track of the forest for the trees and take evidence of strength in one link as evidence of strength in the entire chain. The situation is quite the reverse: one weak link can break the chain.

3. The Argument

The basic argument in support of anthropogenic global warming goes something like this:

  1. Since the industrial revolution, human activity has put tremendous amounts of \mathrm{CO}_2 into the atmosphere. \mathrm{CO}_2 levels are rising faster than they ever have before.
  2. There are quantum-scale simulations, laboratory-scale experiments, as well as city-scale observations indicating that \mathrm{CO}_2 behaves like a greenhouse gas, i.e., that it traps heat by absorbing infrared light but not higher wavelength radiation.
  3. There is pre-historical evidence that \mathrm{CO}_2 correlates positively with global average temperature on geological time scales.
  4. More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat from the sun will be trapped, thus increasing global average temperature.
  5. We are currently observing rising global average temperature. The temperature is changing faster than it ever has before.
  6. Therefore, human activity is causing this rise in global average temperature.

Strictly speaking, the argument is not logically valid, although it does seem convincing somehow. Let us dissect it properly, starting with premise 1.

  1. Since the industrial revolution, human activity has put tremendous amounts of \mathit{CO}_2 into the atmosphere. \mathit{CO}_2 levels are rising faster than they ever have before.

It is certainly true that human activity since the industrial revolution has put enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the following graph shows. (source, script)

Confused? Well, the graph you might be familiar with uses the same data but rescales the vertical axis to focus on the 0-500 parts per million range. Here it is, for reference.Both graphs describe the same thing: the increase in atmospheric \mathrm{CO}_2 content, which is (presumably) driven primarily by human industrial activity. One graph is useful for illustrating the relative increase of \mathrm{CO}_2, i.e., 140% increase since 1850. The other graph is useful for illustrating the absolute increase — or properly speaking relative to the level of oxygen, which is after all what the carbon dioxide is displacing when it enters the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.

The point of this graph trickery is that there is no objective way to decide beforehand what does and does not constitute “tremendous” amounts of added CO_2, as “tremendous” is a relative term and thus requires a benchmark. The only way to decide whether this 140% increase is massive or insignificant is after determining the effects caused by this increase. Even a 1000% increase can be judged to be mild if the resulting effects are barely noticeable.

More generally, the presentation of the premise as saying that the \mathrm{CO}_2 increase is tremendous and faster than ever before is a bit of a straw man as neither fact is necessary for the argument to work. This point addresses only the alarming quality that is absent from the minimal formulation, “Human activity has put measurable amounts of \mathrm{CO}_2 into the atmosphere.”

  1. There are quantum-scale simulations, laboratory-scale experiments, as well as city-scale observations indicating that \mathit{CO}_2 behaves like a greenhouse gas, i.e., that it traps heat by absorbing infrared light but not higher wavelength radiation.

I do not dispute the individual statements made in the premise. Nevertheless I would like to point out that the implied conclusion, that \mathrm{CO}_2 is a greenhouse gas on a global scale, does not follow. \mathrm{CO}_2 has many subtle interactions with the complex biological and geological ecosystems that it is a part of. The focus on the heat-trapping properties and effects of the gas in isolation ignores the many terms of the equation that are introduced by its interaction with its environment. For instance, according to current understanding, both the ocean and vegetation on land absorb \mathrm{CO}_2. How does this absorption affect trapped heat? It is easy to come up with plausible mechanisms by which the carbon dioxide based heat trap is exacerbated or ameliorated, and whose truth cannot be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt from laboratory experiments alone.

  1. There is pre-historical evidence that \mathit{CO}_2 correlates positively with global average temperature on geological time scales.

Indeed there is. A clever piece of science in action — several pieces, actually — have enabled researchers to dig into polar ice and determine the temperature as well as carbon dioxide levels of the past, ranging from yesterday to 400 000 000 years ago. The near exact match spurred Al Gore to mock in his film about truth, “did they ever fit together?”, as though the point is contentious. Here’s a graph. They do fit together. (source 1, 2, script)It has become a cliché to point out that correlation does not equal causation, but unfortunately that task remains necessary. In fact, there is a very good reason why the “\mathrm{CO}_2-causes-temperature to rise and fall” theory is a particularly uncompelling one in light of this data. It is because the \mathrm{CO}_2 graph lags behind the temperature graph by 900 years or so, as the next cross-correlation plot shows4 (same script). That time lag is short enough to be unnoticeable on the 400 million year scale, but long enough to seriously reconsider the theory. The position that the pre-historical temperature and \mathrm{CO}_2 record supports the \mathrm{CO}_2-causes-temperature theory, is untenable. If anything, it supports the opposite temperature-causes-\mathrm{CO}_2 theory.Despite the minor inconvenience of having a time mismatch, the \mathrm{CO}_2-causes-temperature theory survives. The adapted argument is that \mathrm{CO}_2 level and temperature are both causes and effects, locked in a positive feedback loop. Temperature affects \mathrm{CO}_2 but \mathrm{CO}_2 also affects temperature. The mockery5 continues on skepticalscience.com: “Chickens do not lay eggs, because they have been observed to hatch from them.”

A positive feedback loop is possible but it would be highly surprising. Very few natural processes actually have positive feedback loops. It is the same mechanics as that of bombs: the combustion rate increases the pressure, which then increases the combustion rate. When positive feedback loops do occur in nature, for example in population dynamics, their extent tends to be limited due to natural stabilizing mechanisms such as disease or predators.

What is more likely to be the case, is that \mathrm{CO}_2 and temperature are in a negative feedback loop. \mathrm{CO}_2 causes temperature to rise (or fall), and the resulting increase (decrease) in temperature affects \mathrm{CO}_2 in turn, but the magnitude of these effects dies out exponentially. In this scenario, it would be true that some amount x of added \mathrm{CO}_2 would cause another amount y of temperature increase; but an additional x of \mathrm{CO}_2 would cause strictly less than y temperature increase. The two are in an equilibrium which can be moved by a perturbation in either input; but the system responds by making another shift of the equilibrium that much more difficult. In chemical systems, this mechanism is known as Le Chatelier’s principle.

The point of this discussion is not to debunk the \mathrm{CO}_2-causes-temperature theory; Le Chatelier’s principle probably is at work and if so, the \mathrm{CO}_2-causes-temperature theory is true in a literal sense despite being dominated by the temperature-causes-\mathrm{CO}_2 component. The point is rather that this theory is firstly not supported by the ice core data and secondly limited as a tool for prediction — as it certainly flies in the face of catastrophic predictions. Nevertheless, the bomb analogy, though it is erroneous, is certainly a far more effective tool of communication; and presumably that is the reason why skepticalscience.com features a Hiroshima counter so prominently on its sidebar.

Criticism of delivery aside, it is worth addressing a common counter-argument to the \mathrm{CO}_2 lag objection, namely that “about 90% of the global warming followed the \mathrm{CO}_2 increase.” If that argument is valid, then surely so is, “100% of the \mathrm{CO}_2 increase followed the global warming.”

  1. More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat from the sun will be trapped, thus increasing global average temperature.

No counter-argument here beyond criticizing the triviality of this truism. Trapping solar heat is precisely the defining property of greenhouse gases. As raised in the counter-argument to premise 2, the question is whether \mathrm{CO}_2 satisfies this definition, something that cannot be inferred from small-scale experiments alone.

  1. We are currently observing rising global average temperature. The temperature is changing faster than it ever has before.

Unless you distrust the data, the observation that we are currently observing a warming trend is quite inescapable. A simple web search churned out the following surface air, surface sea, and satellite data. (source 1, 2, 3, script)However, the second part of the premise follows neither from the first part nor from the plot and is in need of a citation. In fact, the plot illustrates precisely why the proposition “the rate of change is faster than ever” is very difficult to defend.

For starters, the “rate of change” is not explicitly present in the data. One has to infer it by dividing the temperature difference by the time difference associated with two samples. While rate or velocity in physics is defined as the limit of this fraction for time difference going to zero, computing this ratio from the data inevitably magnifies the measurement noise. The best you can do is consider trend lines over a time interval large enough to average out the noise. Make the interval too short, and your trendline reflects only noise; but make it too large and any human effect will be averaged out with the noise. There is no objectively right way to choose interval size. This paradox suggests the philosophical point that maybe “rate of change” is not the right way to think about temperature change to begin with. The notion is not practically usable and really reflects an unjustified ontological presupposition: the “rate of temperature change” exists, has a definite value, and produces different measurement outcomes depending on this value. Nevertheless, this ontological criticism merely reflects the difficulty of defining in precise terms what the current “global temperature” is.

Second, the data reaches back only so far, and is less fine-grained the further back you go. We only have satellite data from 1980 onward; weather balloons since the end of the 19th Century; thermometers since the 1720’s. However, a compelling argument for the temperature change being faster than ever should present an accurate temperature graph spanning a large stretch of history. The requisite data simply does not exist.

There are secondary, indirect records that do reach further than the invention of the thermometer. Clever scientists have attempted to reconstruct earlier temperatures from ice cores (i.e.,  isotope ratios of air bubbles trapped in ice), tree rings, lake and ocean sediments, and so on. However, these proxy sources require careful modeling and calibration of whatever natural process records the temperature or temperature change and stores this information until readout. The accuracy of this data is limited by the degree to which the models approximate these natural processes, which is by nature very difficult to falsify. Moreover, the further back in time you go, the coarser the data becomes. The question then arises, to which degree can the sharpness of the observed recent temperature rise be explained as the by-product of the resolution mismatch? Joining together recent thermometer data with biological or geological proxy data to produce a graph resembling a hockey stick, suggests that the data’s accuracy is roughly uniform across time. The addition of error bars or an uncertainty range reflects the graph makers’ optimism that the inaccuracy is quantifiable to begin with.

  1. Therefore, human activity is causing this rise in global average temperature.

Even if you accept all the premises and pretend that the conclusion follows syllogistically from them, it is worth noting how little this conclusion actually says. Human activity is contributing to a global temperature increase. It does not follow that this temperature increase is catastrophic, will raise sea levels, will kill polar bears, will cause crop failures, draughts, monsoons, or even effect the weather one iota beyond the slight temperature change. All these projected secondary effects require separate arguments that can be questioned independently of the first. And yet by some sort of unspoken agreement, the entire disagreement about global warming centers around the first argument. The motte-and-bailey technique of sophistry comes to mind to describe the situation: by only defending a small but more defensible premise, the alarmist can get away with claiming a far larger conclusion.

The catastrophic effects is only one implied consequence of the anthropogenic global warming argument. The second implied conclusion is the mandate for political action. However, even if we accept a list of projected catastrophes as being the consequence of burning fossil fuels, then we must still weigh the benefits against the drawbacks before such a political mandate can be justifiable6. The obvious and under-emphasized benefit of fossil fuels is its enabling of an industrialization and market economy that has lifted more people from the clutches of grinding poverty than any other object or idea throughout human history. This achievement puts the discovery of fossil fuels on par with extinction level events in terms of importance on geological time scales. If global warming does not pose a threat of equal or greater magnitude, and if its solution does not present an alternative to fossil fuels that enables us to maintain our present living standards, who is to say climate neutrality is preferable to affluence? An affluent society might be better off dealing with the consequences of climate change than an impoverished one dealing with adverse weather conditions.

4. Political Bias

4.1 Libertarianism

People often accuse me of mixing ideology with reason, in particular with respect to the man-made climate change debate. Being a libertarian, I favor free markets and condemn government intervention. The scientific consensus on global warming unequivocally mandates immediate political intervention, and as such conflicts with my libertarian views. Rather than re-evaluating my political ideology, I choose to ignore the scientific facts. Or so the accusers would have me believe.

This accusation fails to convince because it is predicated on a misconception of libertarian legal theory. In fact, assuming the correctness of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, there is a justification for political action7 in response to carbon emissions. And reviewing this libertarian basis presents an opportunity for providing much-needed focus for the scientific questions whose answers are supposed to justify violence.

In the libertarian tradition, violence is only justifiable in response to prior aggression, on behalf of the victim and against the perpetrator of said aggression. The purpose of this violent response is not retribution but restitution: to reinstate the state of affairs prior to the aggression; to make the aftermath independent of whether the initial aggression had or had not taken place. Also, the crime and responsive violence are committed by individuals; not by communities or societies. No group of individuals has rights that the individuals that make up the group do not, and therefore class guilt and class indemnification (that does not reduce to individual guilt and indemnification) are intolerable. The victim must be able to demonstrate ownership of the object of aggression as well as deleterious effects on said object. Lastly, the chain of cause and effect from aggressor to deleterious effect on the object must be demonstrably true.

In the context of global warming, the object of aggression might be crops, a house on the shore, or snowy ski slopes, just to name a few. The deleterious effects might be draught, a sea level rise or a hurricane, melting snow. The aggressor would be every individual who emits carbon dioxide; and they would be responsible in proportion to the quantity of their emissions. The task of the global warming scientist would be to demonstrate the chain of cause and effect from \mathrm{CO}_2 emissions to the aforementioned deleterious effects. Alleged perpetrator and self-declared victim would present their cases before an independent arbitrator and all parties would be allowed to question the opposition’s arguments and evidence. The validity of the scientific argument would not be decided, as it is now, in the court of public opinion; but rather in the court of a professional judge, or group of judges, who stand to lose both reputation and livelihood if their ruling is not convincing and fair. Moreover, if this ruling is later overturned on the grounds of a bad court procedure or ignored evidence, this group of judges gains complicity in the perpetuation of the crime. In contrast, in today’s society, the validity of the scientific argument is decided by popular vote, and altogether by individuals who do not personally suffer the consequences of an incorrect determination.

I would be remiss to neglect modifying the accusation at the onset of this section in a way that does make sense. As a proper libertarian, I recognize bullshit arguments for state expansion for what they are. With this perspective in mind, what is the likelihood that I would be overzealous in my determination of logical fallacies in an argument that is easy to misconstrue as supporting state expansion? My honest answer is “quite high”. However, I write this essay while consciously aware of this answer, and I invite all corrections mandated by an honest pursuit of truth.

4.2. Other Ideologies

If the determination of validity of a complex scientific theory is a probabilistic process, then one would expect the proportion of believers to non-believers to reflect the strength of the argument. If the determinators and propagators of the scientific consensus reports are correct, then this consensus itself constitutes a strong argument in favor of the theory’s validity. This argument fails, however, if the determination of validity is systematically biased. If it is possible for my political ideology to influence my determination of validity, then certainly people of other political ideologies are not exempt, especially when they are not consciously aware of their biases.

Anti-market bias is a documented phenomenon even among people who do not openly advocate the abolition of capitalism. Individuals with this bias will be predisposed to the belief that industrial activity is harmful, and that government intervention is necessary to curb its harmful effects. It goes without saying that the opposite is true: industry is overwhelmingly positive for human well-being and in those cases where it is harmful, the adverse effects of government mitigation inevitably outweigh the benefits.

Mother Nature is a human archetype present in a wide array of cultures throughout history. The pre-historic human tribes who were predisposed to the belief in the spirit of the environment no doubt had an evolutionary advantage over those who were not. Early humans who avoided over-hunting or over-burning because that would anger the Earth-goddess were inadvertently improving the conditions for life in their environment, thus benefiting them indirectly because they were in symbiosis with it. Modern-day environmentalists likely tap in to this archetype, even when they don’t explicitly worship Gaia. Nevertheless, the existence of this bias does not void all environmental concerns.

Sponsorship Bias is the tendency for science to support the agenda of whoever paid for it. It is the reason why published papers are required to disclose its funding sources, so that critics know when to receive strong claims with more or fewer grains of salt. Sponsorship bias is frequently attributed to institutes that are critical of global warming alarmism such as the Heartland Institute and Prager University, owing to their funding coming in part from oil companies. However, the same argument works in reverse as well: if being funded by oil money skews the science towards supporting oil interests, then so does being funded by government programs skew the science towards supporting government programs.

5. Conclusion

Some time before leveling the accusation of ideological investment, people ask whether I believe in global warming, usually with negated-question grammar. I find the question particularly telling because the choice of words highlights the distinction between religion and science. On the one hand, “belief” refers to an unconscious worldview or a conscious leap of faith. On the other hand, a “belief” can be a working model of the universe and source for testable hypotheses. Only the second sense is meaningful8 in a scientific context.

The catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory is just that — a theory, looking to be falsified or borne out by the evidence. An admittedly cursory examination of this evidence raises more questions than it answers, and chiefly of an epistemological nature. Rather than welcoming the skepticism and criticism as a means with which to refine the science, the alarmists dismiss the skeptics and critics as dangerous ideologues and their arguments as religious superstition. However, it is precisely the orthodoxy, the irrational confidence of believers, the call to sacrifice, the state sponsorship, the demonization of heretics and the call to jail them, that have more in common with the ugly end of religion than with open discussion and an honest search for truth. Climate change is not a question for religion. Let’s return to science.

Spooky Security at a Distance: The Controversy of Quantum Key Distribution*

*: An alternative title is obviously: Safe By The Bell.

TL;DR. Quantum cryptography offers the best of both worlds: security and quantum weirdness. In particular, quantum key distribution (QKD) is often claimed to offer “unconditional security based on the laws of physics”, a claim which is easily seen to be false. However, QKD does seem to be qualitatively more powerful than anything classical cryptosystems have to offer. This essay takes a critical look at the interplay between QKD and traditional cryptography by visiting the necessary background and summarizing the relevant concepts and context from a layman’s point of view.

1. Introduction

In the modern information age where computers are all around us, the need for computer security is greater than ever. It is no exaggeration to say that just about all our communication and financial infrastructure is protected by cryptography, the branch of computer security that deals specifically with protecting information. Calls to conduct government elections and identity management electronically should take their computer security requirements into careful consideration, or risk sacrificing national sovereignty and personal freedom to the whims of sufficiently sophisticated attackers — attackers who are sure to keep their algorithmic and technological advantages secret, thus making the estimation of security a very subtle game indeed.

Quantum technologies, i.e., devices that exploit quantum mechanical properties in a way that classical devices cannot mimic, are one recent development that is bound to dramatically affect the cryptographic landscape. While the end-goal of large-scale quantum computers is, despite significant resources devoted to the project, (presumably) not yet technologically feasible, detectors that measure the polarity of individual photons are already commercially available. Perhaps surprisingly, this on-going proliferation of quantum technology is causing a rift in the cryptographic community. On the one hand, the physicists are hailing the advent of photon detectors as enabling quantum key distribution and, by proxy, as the key to generating unconditional security — security beyond the traditional computational problems that are merely assumed, without proof, to be intractable. On the other hand, the mathematicians reject this notion of security guaranteed by physics; instead they prefer to stick to traditional computing hardware and design classical cryptographic algorithms to resist the end-game attacks by large-scale quantum computers.

Which side is right? The computer scientists, of course, because only they offer the proper computational perspective on the interplay between quantum mechanics and hard mathematical problems. More importantly, it is computer science and its parent, information theory, that offer the only rigorous definitions of security, namely in terms of confidentiality and authenticity. It makes sense then, to take a computer-scientific approach to assess the physicists’ and mathematicians’ claims. This essay does just that — it considers quantum key distribution from the point of view of theoretical computer science and cryptography by offering the layman reader an introduction to the subject matter and the necessary background. In the process we cover security-by-assumption; the strong Church-Turing hypothesis; quantum computation and entanglement; non-local-realism; Bell inequalities; and many more violations of common sense.

2. Cryptography

Cryptography is the science of protecting sensitive information against being read, modified, or otherwise used for nefarious purposes. While the use of cryptography dates back to the Ancient Greeks and beyond, the scientific investigation into this field of study is much newer, coinciding in large part with the information theory and computer science revolutions of the Twentieth Century. This coincidence is no accident as computers are experts at rapid information processing and are consequently the natural allies both of those who routinely generate and use sensitive information, but also — especially — of those who would attack its cryptographic safeguards.

2.1. One-Time Pad and Computational Security

One major result at the onset of this revolution is the proof by Claude Shannon — inventor of the eponymous information theory — that the one-time pad offers security against computationally unbounded adversaries1. Informally, by adding enough noise to a message, it becomes completely indecipherable to the eavesdropper, even though the intended receiver might be capable of reproducing the exact same stream of noise and thus recover the message. The label “unconditional security” is often applied when it is implicitly understood that the attacker fits the mathematical model and sees only the ciphertext in transit. By contrast, no such guarantee is offered against the attacker who violates this model by having access not only to the ciphertext in transit but also to another channel on the side — such as a watchful eye over the sender’s shoulder when the noise is added, or its equivalent in terms of a power consumption trace.

Unfortunately, unconditional security comes at the rather cumbersome cost of secret keys that must be at least as large as the message. Moreover, these keys must be distributed ahead of time, oblivious to the length of the message that is only chosen afterwards. In response, cryptographers have designed ciphers that mimic the one-time pad except for requiring only a relatively small key, independent of the message length. These ciphers do not offer unconditional security but computational security. That is to say, security only holds under an additional assumption to the effect that certain computational problems are hard to solve. This strategy of security by assumption may seem odd at first sight. However, considering that since the very successful standardization of the Belgian-designed AES algorithm2, the worldwide effort by cryptanalysts to break it have led essentially nowhere, it is fair to say that the entire computer security community is on board with this assumption. Moreover, any meaningful result on computational hardness would imply \mathbf{P} \neq \mathbf{NP}, the biggest unproven conjecture in all of computer science. This result would not only prove one of the seven millennium problems; it would also confirm mathematician’s suspicions that the other six are actually hard. Requiring a mathematical development of this magnitude seems like an unreasonably high bar for secure cryptosystems to pass.

2.2. Diffie-Hellman Key Establishment

Unfortunately, the shift towards computational security does not solve everything. Two parties wishing to communicate securely must still agree on a key beforehand, or else the eavesdropper will intercept the key and decrypt all subsequent traffic. Moreover, suppose n parties wish to communicate; then there must be n(n-1) shared keys for a complete graph. This strategy does not scale well.

A revolutionary solution to this problem was proposed by Diffie and Hellman in 19763, and for which they since won the Turing award. Their protocol, now called Diffie-Hellman key agreement, relies on the algebraic properties of groups as well as on the computational difficulty of computing discrete logarithms in them.

Consider for example \left(\mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z}\right)^*, \times, the multiplicative group of integers modulo a large prime p. The discrete logarithm problem asks to compute x from g and g^x \,\mathsf{mod}\, p; there is no known efficient algorithm to perform this task on regular computers. Two parties, Alice and Bob, can use this group to establish a shared secret key by sending messages over an insecure channel; the eavesdropper cannot obtain this secret key.

The protocol proceeds as follows. First, Alice and Bob agree on a group element g which will serve as the base number. Alice chooses a random integer a \in \{0,...,p-1\} and sends g^a \,\mathsf{mod}\, p to Bob; Bob mirrors this action by choosing a random integer b \in \{0,...,p-1\} and sends g^b \,\mathsf{mod}\,p to Alice. The group’s associative property guarantees that Alice and Bob can combine their own secret information with the message from the other to obtain a new group element k=(g^a)^b=(g^b)^a \,\mathsf{mod}\,p which they use as the secret key for subsequent communication. On the other hand, the passive eavesdropper sees g, g^a \,\mathsf{mod}\, p, g^b \,\mathsf{mod}\,p but this is not enough information to find k efficiently. While there is no proof that obtaining k from these values requires as much work as solving the discrete logarithm problem, in practice only groups are used in which this is widely believed to be the case.

Unfortunately, the Diffie-Hellman key agreement protocol only protects users from passive adversaries, i.e., adversaries who are content to only eavesdrop. By contrast, active adversaries who are capable of blocking messages and injecting them, are also capable of undermining the security of the protocol using a so-called man-in-the-middle attack. In short, the man-in-the-middle masquerades as Bob to establish a key with Alice; and masquerades as Alice to establish a key with Bob. Alice and Bob both think they have established a secret key with each other, but in reality they have both only established a secret key with the adversary. Any subsequent messages that are encrypted under one key are first decrypted by the adversary and then encrypted again under the other key before they are passed on.

The way security proofs get around this problem is by assuming it away. In particular, the authenticated links model explicitly states that the adversary is only passively observing and not blocking or modifying traffic4. The way this is solved in practice is by pre-distributing keys used for signature verification. Alice and Bob sign all their outgoing messages; they verify the authenticity of the incoming messages by verifying the attached signatures. The adversary cannot forge signatures on new messages because he is ignorant of the secret key. However, this solution requires that keys be distributed before communication begins, defeating the purpose of requiring no pre-shared information in the first place.

It is possible to separate signature verification from signature generation by requiring different keys for these operations. The private key, kept secret, is necessary for generating signatures, whereas the public key, broadcast to the world, is necessary for verifying them. The public keys themselves may be signed by yet other private keys and through a sequence of hierarchical hops reach a central authority. This strategy, called public key infrastructure, at least solves the scaling problem by requiring only a constant number of authority keys to be shared (as opposed to O(n^2)), although this solution comes at the cost of introducing a single point of failure.

2.3. The Quantum Revolution

Of course, any proposition about security that simultaneously reduces to computational hardness assumptions and claims to offer security in the real world, implicitly relies on a notion of computations that are physically realizable and at an acceptable cost. The first headway into answering this question was made by computer science pioneers Alonzo Church’s and Alan Turing’s formalizations of computation5 6 and the subsequent formulation of the Church-Turing hypothesis. Properly interpreted as a qualitative proposed law of nature, this hypothesis states that any process occurring in nature can be simulated by a Turing machine, a mathematical abstraction of what it means to compute due to Turing and inspired by Church’s lambda calculus. No physical experiments conducted thus far have indicated that the hypothesis as stated is false. Consequently, this has led computer scientists and physicists to pose a stronger version of this hypothesis, stating that all natural processes can be simulated efficiently 7 By contrast, this strong Church-Turing hypothesis seems to be — most emphatically — probably false.

In the 1990’s a series of results by pioneers in the field of quantum computation give strong evidence that quantum computers — computers that exploit the peculiar properties of quantum particles — are capable of solving some computational problems asymptotically more efficiently than classical computers. This string of results on quantum algorithms culminated in Shor’s celebrated work, which shows that the integer factorization and discrete logarithm problems, while difficult on classical computers, are in fact easy on quantum computers8. Not only is Shor’s algorithm strong evidence that the strong Church-Turing hypothesis is false; it is also practically relevant as it breaks the security of the Diffie-Hellman protocol described above. The situation is even worse: switching to RSA or to elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) will not help as RSA crucially relies on the difficulty of the integer factorization problem and elliptic curve cryptography on the general formulation of the discrete logarithm problem — both of which are still susceptible to Shor’s attack. In fact, in the foreseeable future when large-scale quantum computers exist, most public-key cryptography widely deployed today will become insecure. More importantly, information encrypted today can be stored for the future at very low cost until a point at which quantum computers do exist; from this point of view, Diffie-Hellman, RSA and ECC are already insecure.

In response to this threat, researchers are designing and developing post-quantum cryptosystems — cryptographic algorithms that can be executed on traditional computers but promise to offer security even against quantum computers9. The way these cryptosystems accomplish this feat is by reducing their security properties to other computational hardness assumptions, notably different from the integer factorization and discrete logarithm problems and hence very arguably immune to Shor’s attack. While the selection of post-quantum cryptosystems is large enough to sustain a scientific discipline in and of itself, they suffer from two significant disadvantages. One, they are inefficient in one way or another: either the public key, message size, or computational requirements are rather large, thus making their adoption an unattractive course of action. Two, they rely on relatively under-studied cryptographic hardness assumptions; anyone who uses a post-quantum cryptosystem over RSA or ECC is consequently making a larger gamble with respect to security. Nevertheless, in some cases such as hash-based signatures, the security can be reduced to assumptions which are already commonplace; cryptographic assumptions so minimalistic that if they turn out to be false, no computationally-secure cryptography whatsoever would be possible in the first place.

3. Quantumness

Quantum particles behave in undeniably peculiar ways. For instance, the complete description of a system of n qubits — i.e., n independent binary properties of quantum particles — requires a vector of 2^n complex numbers with Euclidean length one; we refer to this vector as the system’s state and denote it using Dirac ket notation: |a\rangle. By contrast, the complete description of n classical binary variables requires n bits. In this sense, a quantum system is much more akin to a probability distribution over strings of n bits; a complete description of such a probability distribution requires 2^n real numbers between zero and one and whose sum is one (as opposed to its sum-of-squares).

This comparison of quantum states to probability distributions is no accident. Every quantum state associates a complex-valued amplitude to each observable event. By squaring the modulus of this number, one obtains the probability of measuring this outcome. However, upon employing measurement, the quantum state collapses; it assumes amplitude one in the component associated with the observed event and amplitude zero in all other components. While this sounds familiar to sampling classical probability distributions, the surprising fact is that quantum states exist — it is possible to define and perform experiments whose observations cannot be explained without recourse to this exponentially-large complex-valued state vector. By contrast, classical probability distributions are merely a method invented by humans to cope with hidden variables that do have a definite but unknown value.

In the terminology of quantum physicists and quantum computer scientists, an impure quantum state constitutes a superposition of values. Moreover, by manipulating the particles used to represent these qubits it is possible to generate constructive or destructive interference i.e., cause the amplitudes add or cancel out. Moreover, it is possible to generate quantum states where measuring one particle only partially collapses the state, because the other particles still remain unmeasured. This phenomenon is known as entanglement and has generated much controversy in the past.

3.1. The EPR Paradox and the Bell Inequality

Entanglement means that measuring one particle can influence the probability distribution associated with measuring another particle. In other words, one cannot reason meaningfully about counterfactual observations because the world in which the experiment is performed is fundamentally different from the world in which it isn’t. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company. Albert Einstein famously rejected this notion, insisting that Nature had to follow the principle of realism: reality does not change depending on whether you observe it or not. Phrased differently, the moon does not pop into existence the second you decide to look at it.

Together with co-authors Podolsky and Rosen, Einstein formulated a seemingly devastating blow to the theory of quantum mechanics10. The EPR thought experiment takes two entangled particles and separates them in space by a large enough distance. Then quantum mechanics predicts that the act of measuring one particle will exert an influence on the other particle, as borne out by a different probability distribution associated with measuring it, faster than the speed of causality. While Einstein understood that this principle could not be used to transmit information — thus not violating the second fundamental postulate of special (and general) relativity outright — this sense of influence-faster-than-causality certainly violates the spirit of relativity, and gave rise to the fantastically playable phrase “spooky action at a distance”.

The EPR paradox subtly sneaks in a second assumption about Nature, in addition to that of realism. In order for this “spooky action” to have to travel in the first place, the information describing one particle’s state, before and after measurement, has to be localized — independent of other events elsewhere. Phrased differently, the moon exists whether or not the sun is shining. This principle of locality, in conjunction with its brother realism, is known as local-realism; the contradiction predicted by quantum mechanics is known as non-local-realism.

Twenty-nine years after the publication of the EPR paradox, a physicist by the name of John Stewart Bell showed that local realism is not just a philosophical ponderance; it is a falsifiable hypothesis about nature11. In other words, it is possible to perform experiments whose measurement results will indicate whether we live in a local-realist world or not. The intuition is as follows. If Einstein’s conception of quantum mechanics is correct, then there exists information hidden inside a quantum system that determines the measurement outcome. By preparing the system in a controlled manner, this hidden information is guaranteed to follow a probability distribution, and by performing the experiment many times the observed variables are guaranteed to follow that probability distribution, even if these observables measure in large part the same property.

By contrast, quantum mechanics precludes any such probability distribution where the same property can be independently sampled by two different observables. The first measurement will influence the state and the second measurement measures a different state, hence giving rise to other borne probabilities. Unfortunately, this state collapse makes the system look as though it was behaving conformant to local-realism the entire time and any measurement following the collapse cannot decisively indicate non-local-realism. Bell’s crucial insight was that the world-distinguishing information is not located in individual measurement variables, but rather their correlation, or more generally, their mutual relations.

Consider this excellent example due to Sakurai12, of a quantum system consisting of two perfectly entangled photons having an unknown but equal polarization. The photons are sent to Alice and Bob, at opposite ends of the universe. Their polarizations are measured along one of three axes, x, y and z, each 120^\circ apart and in the plane but such Alice’s set of axes coincides with Bob’s. Obviously, if they choose to measure along the same axis, they are guaranteed to obtain the same result, 1 (the photon detector fires) or 0 (no activity is registered).

If it is true that the photons’ polarization is completely fixed and independent of the measurement at either end of the universe, then whatever preparation device that produces the photons follows a probability distribution p(x,y,z) describing the probability of observing the photon at any of the three axes. Being a probability distribution, the sum over all events of that event’s probability equals one:

    \[\sum_{x \in \{0,1\}} \sum_{y \in \{0,1\}} \sum_{z \in \{0,1\}} p(x,y,z) = 1 \enspace .\]

Moreover, Alice and Bob’s measurements don’t influence the state of the quantum system; they merely obtain information about it. Consequently, their joint statistics may be used to qualify this probability distribution, for example in the following way.

    \[{\rm Pr}[x=y] = p(0,0,0) + p(0,0,1) + p(1,1,0) + p(1,1,1)\]

    \[{\rm Pr}[x=z] = p(0,0,0) + p(0,1,0) + p(1,0,1) + p(1,1,1)\]

    \[{\rm Pr}[y=z] = p(0,0,0) + p(1,0,0) + p(0,1,1) + p(1,1,1)\]

The sum of the probabilities of these non-mutually-exclusive events must thus satisfy

    \[{\rm Pr}[x=y] + {\rm Pr}[x=z] + {\rm Pr}[y=z] = 1 + 2p(0,0,0) + 2p(1,1,1) \geq 1 \enspace .\]

In the intuitive words of Preskill, “whenever three coins are on the table, and each one is either an H or a T, then at least two of the three have to be the same”13. However, Alice and Bob experimentally confirm that {\rm Pr}[x=y] = {\rm Pr}[x=z] = {\rm Pr}[y=z] = (\mathsf{cos} \, 120^\circ)^2 = 0.25 and hence

    \[{\rm Pr}[x=y] + {\rm Pr}[x=z] + {\rm Pr}[y=z] < 1 \enspace ,\]

thus violating the Bell inequality.

In practice, experiments prefer to use the less accessible CHSH inequality14. However, the same principle is used: EPR local-realism and quantum entanglement predict different measurement statistics. Since Bell’s original 1964 paper, there have been many variants of his equation and even more experimental validations — that is to say: violations of the inequality — deciding in favor of the non-local-realism of quantum mechanics beyond reasonable doubt.

3.2. Quantum Key Distribution

So if we can’t observe particles without disturbing them, how about using this to our advantage? Specifically: certain actions are quantum mechanically impossible; can we put these impossible tasks on the only path between the attacker and our sensitive information, in the same sense that computationally infeasible tasks block this path now? The answer is yes, it is possible to use quantum mechanics to protect information. It turns out entanglement isn’t even required.

In 1984, two researchers by the name of Bennet and Brassard proposed what is now known as the BB84 protocol: a mechanism for key distribution relying on the polarization of photons15. Alice chooses a string of bits from which to derive the key. She then sends a string of individual photons where each bit of her secret bit string is encoded in the photons’ polarization, with respect to rectilinear (+) or diagonal (\times) bases as determined by random coin tosses. Bob measures the incoming photons with respect to rectilinear or diagonal bases as determined by his own random coin tosses. Whenever Bob chooses the same basis as Alice, there is a small probability of the photon not being measured at all, but if it is measured it is guaranteed to produce the same bit Alice sent. On the other hand, if the photon is measured in opposite bases, Bob’s measured bit will be uniformly random.

After measuring the photons with respect to random bases, Bob announces these chosen bases to Alice over a public classical channel, along with an indication which bits were actually received. Alice responds by identifying which choices of basis were correct, thus indicating which of Bob’s measured bits are identical to Alice’s. A few of these correct bits are also exchanged just to guarantee with high probability that there is no eavesdropper on the quantum channel.

Security is guaranteed by the following rationale. Suppose an eavesdropper named Eve is observing the photons on the quantum channel with respect to her randomly chosen bases. And suppose she sends out new photons towards Bob with the polarization that she measures. Then whenever Alice and Bob used the same basis, there is a 1/2 chance that Eve’s basis is opposite. If this is the case, Bob’s measurement will be the same as Alice’s with probability 1/2. So by exchanging k agreed upon bits in the last step, Alice and Bob reduce the probability of a successful eavesdropper to (3/4)^k. Table 1 is drawn straight from BB84’s paper and summarizes the steps involved.

Table 1. The BB84 protocol in action.
Table 1. The BB84 protocol in action.

In 1991, a couple of years after the BB84 protocol, Artur Ekert proposed another construction for key distribution based on quantum entanglement16. While Ekert’s protocol is rather more difficult to realize physically, the security guarantees it offers are vastly different from the ones offered by the BB84 protocol, so it is certainly worthwhile to take both protocols into account.

In Ekert’s protocol, the quantum channel consists of a source of pairs of entangled particles sent to opposite ends of the channel. The emitted particles are in the singlet state: |S\rangle = 1/\sqrt{2} |\uparrow\downarrow\rangle - 1/\sqrt{2} |\downarrow\uparrow\rangle, guaranteeing that whatever spin is measured at one end, the other end must measure the opposite spin provided the same basis is used.

Both Alice and Bob measure the particles headed their way in random bases. After this measurement, they communicate over a public classical channel to determine in which cases both Alice and Bob registered a measurement in the same basis. At this point, they release the measurements obtained when their measurement bases were unequal; this allows them to determine statistical variables for which the CHSH inequality (an inequality of the Bell family) should be violated if the particles are properly entangled.

An eavesdropper who measures the particles’ spin in random bases just before the particle reaches Bob and then sends out a new particle with the measured spin, cannot violate the Bell inequality. Consequently, this eavesdropper will be detected with very high probability.

The reliance on Bell’s inequality removes the requirement to trust the device that produces the quantum particles to be honest: malicious devices cannot pass the Bell test. Consequently, this type of quantum key distribution is called device-independent.

3.3. Authentication

At this point we have glossed over a key assumption on the adversary: he can look, but not touch. In other words, the adversary is assumed to be somewhat passive. While he is allowed to read messages, his cannot block, modify, or create them.

Of course, in a realistic scenario, the adversary is capable of active intervention. In this case, he can perform the man-in-the-middle attack: impersonate Bob in the eyes of Alice, and impersonate Alice in the eyes of Bob. Both Alice and Bob think they’re establishing a secure connection to the other, but in reality they are only establishing a secure connection to Eve, the (wo)man-in-the-middle. Even the Bell test cannot help because at most it will indicate that Alice’s connection to Eve and Bob’s connection to Eve were both generated using properly entangled particles.

In practice, the only way to block a man-in-the-middle attack is to authenticate the messages that are sent over the public classical channel. This variant of digital signatures allows the receiver, who knows the secret key, to verify beyond doubt that the messages were sent by the other owner of the secret secret key and that the messages were not modified in transit. Under the assumption that the adversary does not know this secret key, an authentication scheme thus offers two properties: entity authentication, the sender is who they say they are; and data integrity authentication, the data has not been tampered with. Unfortunately, any secure authentication scheme requires a pre-shared secret key, thus cancelling in large part the very point of quantum key distribution in the first place. Moreover, the authentication schemes used in practice, for example in internet protocols such as TLS, rely once again on hard problems to guarantee security. But the whole point of QKD was to not have to rely on computational problems at all!

Fortunately, though, the outlook for quantum key distribution is not quite as bleak. There exist unconditionally secure authentication schemes whose security does not rely on the intractability of computational problems, such as the Wegman-Carter scheme17. The reason they are not used in TLS, for example, is because they consume secret key material as they are used, in the same sense that the one-time pad consumes secret key material as it is used. Use the same secret bits twice and the security of the scheme is broken. However, in the case of authentication and in contrast to encryption, the length of the secret key can be shorter than the processed data. This means that it is possible to use a short shared secret key to authenticate quantum key distribution which then generates a longer shared secret key. From this point of view, the term quantum key distribution is a misnomer; it should be quantum key-length extension.

4. Criticisms of QKD

Quantum key distribution can obviously offer security properties that classical cryptography is incapable of offering. So why is the reception of quantum cryptography lukewarm at best among traditional cryptographers? We explore several possible reasons.

4.1. Implementation Issues

Quantum key distribution is not just an idea; it is supposed to be implemented in practice using physical matter. Consequently, it might be very difficult or even impossible to engineer this physical matter into behaving according to the protocol. Conversely, the adversary against which the protocol is supposed to protect might have access to the physical device through side-channels that the security model does not account for.

The possibility of side-channel attacks was observed in the very first practical demonstration of the BB84 protocol, which the authors describe as being “unconditionally secure against any eavesdropper who happened to be deaf! :-)”18. Indeed, the listening adversary could hear the polarization filters rotating and would be able to infer the chosen bases from the sound. Another example considers the difficulty of generating a laser pulse containing exactly one photon. But if the pulse contains multiple photons, the adversary can get away with measuring the polarity of one of the superfluous ones, leaving the one photon that travels all the way to Bob intact. A final example considers an implementation attempting to get around the rotating filters problem by generating photons of different polarization by different sources. Unfortunately, this implementation does not take into account that different sources have a unique spectral signature, which grants the adversary access to another side channel leaking information on the chosen bases. An excellent survey of practical issues is due to Scarani and Kurtsiefer19.

It is clear that requiring specialized hardware for instantiating quantum key distribution protocols generates its own set of specific problems, each one requiring significant engineering considerations to circumvent. By contrast, traditional cryptography is by design implementable on standard computer hardware. The all-too-common pitch that quantum key distribution offers “security guaranteed by the laws of physics” is clearly false if the adversary has side-channel access to the QKD devices. Likewise, the security of traditional cryptographic algorithms breaks down whenever the attacker has side-channel access to the computing device — but in this case at least the notion of “side-channel access” is well-defined and empirically bounded: power consumption, timing information, acoustic and electromagnetic wave emanation, voltage of probed wires … and that’s about it. In order to instantiate secure quantum key distribution, one has to take into account many more, vastly different, and unpredictable side-channel attacks.

4.2. Quantum Eavesdropper

It is tempting to compare the adversary in the quantum key distribution protocols with the passive adversary in classical key distribution protocols. However, this comparison does not quite hold. The passive adversary in classical cryptographic protocols is allowed to observe data in passing; he is merely not allowed to modify. By contrast, in the quantum case observing is modifying; by making observation and modification inseparable, quantum key distribution is introducing a model that is simultaneously weaker and stronger than the passive model of classical protocols, albeit for good reason (i.e., the laws of physics).

Except, observation is equated to measurement, which necessarily collapses the state. However, especially in the realm of quantum phenomena there exist manipulations which are more subtle than measurement but nevertheless akin to observation. In particular, consider the quantum computer20 that, having access to its own, secret qubit prepared in the state |s\rangle = |0\rangle manipulates the photon heading to Bob by performing the computation |b,s\rangle \mapsto |b,s\oplus{}b\rangle. This quantum operation is unitary and does not violate the no-cloning theorem because after the computation is done the eavesdropper’s qubit is not independent of the passing photon; by contrast, it is perfectly entangled with it. Once Bob makes known the bases in which he measured, then the quantum computer uses the same basis to measure its secret qubit, thus obtaining the exact same bit Bob obtained.

Ekert’s protocol implicitly deals with this attack as it is a subcase of the explicitly considered situation in which three entangled particles rather than two are emitted by the source. Bell’s inequality comes to the rescue: the statistical test cannot be satisfied if three particles are entangled rather than two. In other words, not only can the Bell test distinguish between some entanglement and no entanglement; it can also distinguish between some entanglement and even more entanglement. While the adversary can get away with eavesdropping on a few particles in this manner, the probability of this misbehavior being noticed rises with the number of ‘observed’ particles. This is precisely the reason why quantum key distribution protocols are often enhanced with another “privacy amplification” step, in which the string of shared secret bits of which the adversary might know some individual bits is transformed into a bitstring of which the adversary does not know any individual bits but instead some minimal amount of general information.

However, the BB84 protocol is vulnerable to this attack precisely because there is no Bell test. More importantly, there cannot be a Bell test in the BB84 protocol because there is no entanglement; there is no “third coin” whose non-existence must be indicated by the statistical information. Phrased differently, there is no counterfactual event whose occurrence would have caused different observations. The measurement statistics in this protocol conform to local realism.

However, it is not clear that even if quantum computers can be built that they should also be capable of intercepting photons, computing on the qubit represented by its polarization, and send out a photon with a polarization matching a given qubit. Nevertheless, this possibility is implied by the conjectured possibility of quantum routers and relays that enable quantum key distribution across many hops and storing them in quantum memory for a little while at each point. Moreover, the alarming fact is that this attack is not ruled out by quantum physics. Quantum key distribution is, after all, one of the proposed solutions to the threat of quantum computers and their break of widely deployed public key infrastructure. It would seem that the claims of security against quantum computers are restricted only to device-independent QKD.

4.3. Nothing Wrong with Computational Security

Perhaps most fundamentally, the chief selling point of quantum key distribution attests to a deep-seated distrust in computational hardness assumptions — a distrust that cryptographers, in general, are unlikely to share. It is fairly reasonable to assume that the discrete logarithm and integer factorization problems may one day be easy; Shor’s algorithm predicts as much. However, it is another thing altogether to conjecture that AES will one day be easy to break or that collisions to SHA2-256 will one day be found. Cryptographers will not take the people who make these claims seriously unless they are preceded by breakthrough results. However, anyone who prefers the clearly-not-unconditional security of quantum key distribution over the merely-computational security offered by AES or SHA2 is implicitly making exactly these claims. QKD proponents who don’t want to make these claims even implicitly must consequently argue for quantum key-length extension until the shared key reaches 256 bits, after which point computational cryptography over the classical channel is perfectly adequate. But in this case the usefulness of QKD is restricted to the world in which it is feasible to establish shared and perfectly secret strings of less than 256 bits but for some reason it is not feasible to do the same for a string of 256 bits or longer.

Nevertheless, there is eminent justification for skepticism regarding the conjectured computational difficulty of the problems underlying post-quantum cryptosystems for public key encryption and Diffie-Hellman key agreement. These problems are after all new and under-studied, and don’t secure large monetary rewards for whoever solves them. However, perhaps one day, after resisting many years of attempted cryptanalysis and being duly recognized by national and international standardization bodies, a subset of these problems can achieve the same status as AES and SHA2 — and inspire the same confidence. Indeed, not only is this likely to happen, it is the desirable outcome. At that point, the same criticism applies to quantum key distribution: what advantage does it offer over a classical cryptosystem relying on hard problems that are trusted anyway?

5. Conclusion

Quantum physics speaks to the imagination because it is so viciously counter-intuitive. It rejects many rules of thumb that make perfect sense in the macro world, such as counterfactual events having well-determined outcomes; or such as information having to travel in order for one event to exert influence on another. It is all too easy to ascribe some mystical properties to the workings of quantum mechanics because to the uninitiated it truly is indistinguishable from magic.

To a lesser degree, the field of cryptography is also familiar with this mysticism. Cryptography deals with problems that are difficult by design — they must be, because otherwise they would be ineffective. In the eyes of popular science it takes many years of studying complex mathematical formulas before being able to grasp this spirit of difficulty.

It is perfectly understandable then, that the combination quantum + cryptography speaks to the imagination beyond what either branch is capable of by itself. It is a self-selling sales pitch that lodges itself firmly in the pitchee’s mind in that special place allocated for whatever thought is capable of producing a sense of wonderment about the world. No doubt this enticing nature has helped secure funding on the topic for many years to come.

Except, that’s not how science works. It is wrong and unscientific to worship the priests for informing us about the truth. It is a disservice to all three fields — quantum information theory, cryptography, and the overlap — to ascribe importance to the technology of quantum key distribution due to its perceived mystical properties. The researchers in these fields hold themselves to the highest (and most definitely anti-mystical) standards of verifiability and reproducibility and to pretend otherwise is to level an insult. Either quantum key distribution produces material benefits or it does not, and the quality of this invention should be assessed accordingly.

Without a doubt, we have seen that quantum key distribution is capable of offering security properties that no classical cryptosystem can offer. However, the setting in which these special security properties become relevant is rather artificial and constrained. By contrast, the promulgation of quantum key distribution technologies seems to focus on the BB84 variant, which introduces a whole host of new security hazards, to the point where the claimed security “benefit” is very dubious indeed.

In the end, it will not be the theoretical computer scientist who decides which technologies are useful and which are not — nor should it be. It will instead be the engineer who plots graphically the implementation cost on one axis against the security requirements on the other, and comes to a conclusion based on considering the relative positions of all competing options. Quantum key distribution may well occupy a location on this graph that justifies its existence. But until quantum key distribution proponents take the existence of this cost-benefit-graph into account and pinpoint QKD’s location on it, QKD is bound to remain only a theoretical exercise with the occasional proof of concept supporting its physical possibility.

Formal Ethics, Provable Justice

TL;DR. Automation in the information sector is bridging the gap between human cognition and physical reality. It behooves humanity to apply these fruits of scientific advancement to ethics and the institutionalization of law. This essay attempts to show that it is possible to ground ethics on a rigorously logical foundation and derive provable ethical theorems. In combination with the ongoing cognitive automation that allows humans to relate ethical formalisms to real human conflicts, this development paves the way for a world in which all human conflicts are resolved in a provably just way. Realizing the political reforms mandated by an independent and provably correct ethical philosophy, as proposed in this essay, is the only way to completely eradicate systemic injustice.


The Rise of Automation

Of the many scientific advances of the last centuries, not one has more profoundly affected the course of human history — or indeed, human imagination­­᠎ — than the rise of automation. Beginning in the mid Eighteenth Century, automation in agriculture has generated an ever-increasing, ever-urbanizing global population. The automatic production of vaccines, medicines and hygiene products has eradicated infectious diseases such as smallpox and polio, and limited the scope or prevented the outbreak of many others. For good or for ill, the automatic production and deployment of instruments of war has dramatically escalated the destructive potential of power-wielders. However, all these advances pale in comparison to the ubiquity of information and processing power offered by the pinnacle of automation: computers and the internet.

Just as human strength is limited, so is human precision and brain power. While precise and computationally-heavy tasks are often relatively difficult to automate, any such automation will increase product quality, essentially bringing to life products that could not exist before. Especially in sectors where lack of precision or presence of errors can lead to disastrous consequences, such as finance, medical diagnostics, or construction design, computerized tools are indispensable.

While human labor is often the bottleneck, it is also the most fungible and therefore the most valuable resource. As superior machinery replaces humans, these humans (in contrast to their supplanters) are capable of finding employment in other sectors, potentially satisfying a societal need that previously went unsatisfied. Thus, the effect of automation is not limited to whatever sector the change occurs in, but positively affects society as a whole. From this point of view, automation is the driving force that sets mankind free from the fundamental constraint imposed by nature: the scarcity and limited quality of human labor.

Cognitive automation, in the form of intelligent programs, is reaching the higher levels of human thought. Semantic search is at our fingertips, automatic translation of documents only a mouse-click away, and spam filters block even the richest Nigerian princes. AI researchers are producing neural networks that are capable of dreaming, recognizing images and speech, beating the world champions in Jeopardy!1 and Go2, and even writing scientific papers accepted to peer-reviewed journals3. As fewer traditionally human-dominated tasks appear immune to automation, it seems inevitable that this automation will become even more ubiquitous and affect society even more profoundly.

The Gap of Rigor

Another triumphant scientific breakthrough of the last century is the complete formalization of logic and the classification of valid laws of logical inference. By emphasising syntax rather than the semantics, formal logic is capable of encompassing all of mathematics by reducing even its most sophisticated proofs to tiny, individual steps of rigorously verifiable logic. Any proof that is not at least in theory reducible to formal logic is not accepted as valid by peers in the mathematical community. Moreover, there already are computer programs such as Coq and Mizar for mechanically verifying formal proofs. The QED Manifesto4 envisions a world in which all mathematical proofs are presented in a formal, computer-verifiable language, as this formal presentation offers the only reliable method to distinguish valid proofs from invalid ones with absolute certainty.

Unfortunately, the adoption of computer-verifiable proofs is slow at best. The underlying notions in any given mathematical theorem or proof are chosen precisely because they are semantically meaningful to the problem at hand. The mathematicians responsible for creating such “semantically deep” objects do so by stacking layer upon layer of abstractions and definitions on top of the indivisible units of the underlying formal system. A full formalization would require writing an exponential number of highly redundant atomic symbols, not to mention the effort on the part of the mathematician required to master a skill as tricky as writing formalized proofs. Such a devotion to formalism hardly seems worthwhile when other experts in the field are satisfied with much less; any surplus effort is more prudently expended on the next brilliant research idea.

Nevertheless, the benefit of formalized proofs should be obvious: they completely eradicate the possibility of error. As all humans are fallible, so are both the mathematicians that write proofs and the ones that verify them. Peer-reviewed and published mathematical proofs are bound to contain errors — and, indeed, they do. Currently, the only way in which such an error is discovered, is through the hard, virtuous work of another expert in the field. Formal proofs, however, offer the option of democratizing the process: they make proof verification available to anyone who is willing to download, install and run the software.5

Enter the potential of cognitive automation: deep neural networks may one day be trained to traverse the many layers of abstraction in mathematical proofs, interfacing with the mathematician in his own terms and definitions, while at the same time outputting a list of logical symbols that constitute a valid, verifiable proof. As the depths of abstraction increase to which mathematicians can descend while retaining a neural network-assisted link to formalized logic, who knows what exciting new branches of mathematics may be discovered, or which conjectures may finally be proven — or disproven?

The Importance of Law

Reason — the fundamental trait that sets man apart from animals — manifests itself in essentially two ways. On the one hand, human cleverness allows him to overcome the harsh conditions of nature; on the other hand, human argument allows him to cooperate with his fellow man and settle their disputes with words instead of violence. Words offer the means to the institution of law, which is the quintessential trademark of civilization — as opposed to the law of the jungle.

The importance of an ethical basis for institutional law cannot be overstated. Ethics underlies the legitimacy of the political system; without ethics, the entire state is no more than an infrastructure for organized theft.6 Even the thief, rapist and murderer, by committing their barbarities, profess and defend a (mistaken) conception of  right and wrong. The ethical skeptic or nihilist cannot charge these criminals with an inhuman crime that is obviously wrong in and of itself, because to make this charge is to assert the validity of ethics. Most fundamentally, it is literally impossible to argue successfully for the superiority of other qualities of human interaction over ethicality. Any universally valid argument for the superiority of other qualities would itself be, by definition, part of ethics.

And yet, law is currently arbitrary; it reduces to the thoughts and ideas of defunct revolutionaries of the past. In the end, judges base their pronouncements on those of other judges, on the writs of politicians in and out of parliament, and on the ex-post manifestos of successful coups-d’etat. There is no process or incentive that ever weeds out past errors of judgment, except perhaps accidentally and based on popular sentiment. Conversely, the emotions of the masses may introduce irrational fallacies into law just as easily as they may eliminate them. Without rigorous ethical foundation, legislation relies only on gut feeling and is consequently entirely irrational. Irrational law is unjust by default and just by accident. Any political system based on institutionalized irrational law amounts to systemic injustice, and its existence is an affront to human dignity.

This need not be so. If ethics can be formalized, then laws can be formally proven to be valid.  Automation can help judges to make provably just pronouncements. Members of parliament can justify their legislation to their constituents and to the rest of the world on the basis of a computer-verified proof of justice. The power of the executive can be delineated not by some arbitrary document nor by the subjective oversight of some supposedly independent power, but by the rigorous quality of sound ethical theorems. Human society can at last reach its full, unbridled potential. If only ethics could be formalized …

Towards a Formalization of Ethics

An argument is a list of propositions, each one of which is either a premise or else is held to follow logically from the preceding propositions, and which is designed to convince someone of final proposition, the conclusion. An argument is rigorous if each non-premise follows from the preceding propositions through the application of exactly one inference rule of the underlying formal logical system. Consequently, rigorous arguments are trivially verifiable by simply checking the inferences made. Unfortunately, a complete reduction of ethics to a formal logical system such as those used in mathematics and computer science would make this essay too long to be comprehensible. Instead, the goal of this section is to illustrate the intuition and convince the reader that such a formal reduction is indeed possible.

Commonplace definitions of “ethics” relate the term to normative concepts such as right and wrong, or proper behavior, but leave these normative terms undefined or only defined in a circular way. A formalization of ethics must start with a definition that contains this crucial concept of normativity and reduces it to other concepts. Let us use the following definition: Ethics is the set of valid arguments for or against human interactions applying universally to all persons, as well as a methodology for obtaining such arguments and distinguishing valid from invalid ones.7

The word “human” and “person” in the above definition do not refer to instances of the species homo sapiens; instead, they refer to members of the category of moral agents whose existence is implied by the possibility of a universally applicable argument. After all, an argument cannot appeal to any object incapable of receiving the argument; nor to anything incapable of understanding logic and distinguishing between valid and invalid; nor of acting on that understanding. As such, the abilities to communicate, to understand and to act are the key properties that set moral agents apart from other objects.

Argumentation Ethics

Immanuel Kant makes two important distinctions between types of propositions.8 First, a proposition can be either analytic, i.e., true or false depending solely on the meaning of the words; or synthetic, i.e., true or false depending on the state of reality. Second, a proposition can either be a priori, i.e., independent of empirical observation; or a posteriori, i.e., dependent on empirical observation. While the notion of an analytic a posteriori proposition is self-contradictory, the opposite notion of a synthetic a priori proposition is not. Indeed, the most well-known example is Descartes’ famous quip, “I think, therefore I am.” It is a priori because it cannot be logically contradicted, and yet it is synthetic because it conveys information about the universe.

Ethical propositions belong to the same category. On the one hand, they are a priori because they must apply universally to all moral agents. Moral agency is after all an abstraction defined independently of reality, as opposed to a model designed to approximate reality.9 On the other hand, ethical propositions are also synthetic because they apply to real instantiations of moral agents. In other words, in order to convey a normative imperative unto real world people, ethical propositions must be synthetic.

Phrased differently, ethics consists of principles and hypothetical arguments that exist only in mind-space and whose validity is independent of reality. However, anyone who wishes to escape their reach must first argue that these arguments do not apply to them. But this is unarguable because by presenting this argument, he proves his own moral agency and thus ensures that the arguments do apply. The use of this performative contradiction places this brand of ethics inside the more general category of argumentation ethics, as propounded by Frank van Dun10 and, independently, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe11.

In order for ethics to be relevant, there must exist another person, independent of the first, allowing for the possibility of interaction and discussion. It is thus possible to capture the fundamental principle of ethics in one proposition: there exists a discussion about proper interaction between two or more persons.

It is impossible to deny the existence of this discussion without making an argument for its non-existence. However, any such non-existence argument must take place in the context of a discussion and thus immediately defeats itself. Likewise, one cannot argue that invalid or illogical arguments ought to be accepted in this discussion: by making this argument, the arguer is presupposing the desirability of logic and validity. Not only that but he is also appealing to the ability of his discussion partners to distinguish valid from invalid and logical from illogical. Both are contrary to the content of the argument and thus invalidate it. As a consequence of all this, only valid arguments in the omnipresent ethical discussion can be used to derive ethical principles.

The minimality of this foundation of ethics cannot be overemphasized. Argumentation ethics is entirely independent of deniable axioms, human emotions, state officials, leaps of faith, and deities themselves. One who wishes to include any of these items in the foundation of ethics must first argue for their relevance. However, this argumentation cannot invoke said items for justification as it would be circular if it did. So, logically, any such argument would defeat itself by conceding the irrelevance of whatever extension it was trying to justify in the first place.

Persons and the Universe

The fundamental principle of ethics has been phrased only with respect to notions that are intuitively meaningful: action, interaction, exists, person. In order to properly formalize ethics, these notions must receive a rigorous definition as well. Importantly, these definitions must be abstractions and not models so as to ensure the a priori quality of ethical arguments.

A universe is a finite directed fractal graph, which at every level of consideration consists of nodes and edges. The nodes represent automata obeying physical laws and the edges represent channels of transmitted information — or, equivalently, causation. It is a fractal graph because what may be considered a node or an edge at one level may also be considered a subgraph at another, and vice versa. Something exists if it can be identified with a node in the universe. The universe is the unique universe in which the argumenter exists as a non-isolated node.

A person is a node in the universe which 1) communicates, i.e., exchanges information with other nodes; 2) simulates, i.e., makes models of the nodes in his vicinity and computes their perturbed states under suitable approximations of their governing physical laws so as to predict the consequences of changes in the environment; 3) is capable of reasoning, i.e., distinguishing truth from falsehood; and 4) acts, i.e., configures the nodes in his environment so as to realize a simulated reality. An action is any such configuration, whereas an interaction is a set of actions by distinct persons, each affecting the other and his environment.

Want and Action

A central notion implied by that of action is want, i.e., the situation the action attempts to realize. Crucially, this property is what sets persons apart from clever automata such as computers or more primitive life forms. It is a hard problem to distinguish, empirically or through thought experiments, between nodes that act and nodes that merely exhibit behavior inherent in their programming. Nevertheless, an appeal to inherent programming does not excuse crimes in the court of law as any such appeal is itself an action, thus defeating itself. Likewise, the inability to act cannot underlie a valid ethical argument as any such argument is itself an action.

The concept of action as opposed to programmed behavior ties in to the question of freedom of will. However, as far as ethics is concerned, it is unnecessary to make this distinction, or even to debate whether free will exists. Ethics is an abstract notion and if an ethical question arises in the course of hypothetical debate in order to establish the proper principle, then both parties can be explicitly assumed to be acting persons —  or not, depending on the nature of the hypothesis. If an ethical question is raised in the court of law then both parties fit the category of acting persons by virtue of presenting their arguments.

Action is defined as bringing nearby nodes into a configuration that matches a simulated universe. Importantly, action is not meaningfully distinct from argumentation. Indeed, the very purpose of an argument is to precisely bring nearby nodes into a desirable configuration, except that in this case these nearby nodes happen to be persons capable of reason as opposed to merely reactive matter. More importantly, actions can be thought of as arguments because they affect nearby humans and convey information about the desirable configuration. Likewise, any interaction between two or more people can be thought of as a discussion.


Ethics is not an autistic hypothetical exercise. Plurality of actors must be explicitly assumed as a premise before any ethical theorem can be derived. Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island, has no need for ethics until he meets the natives.

More importantly, there is no need for ethics either as long as all actions by all parties are perfectly harmonious, i.e., wanted by all who are involved. The ethical question only arises when some actions by some persons are unwanted by others. Generally speaking these actions occur in pairs: the action and the reaction, each mutually exclusive with respect to the other and therefore both unwanted by the opposite party. Thus ethics essentially deals with conflict and prescribes its prevention and resolution through rationally defensible actions.

Conflict12 occurs whenever there is 1) scarcity, i.e., equivalent nodes of a particular type are finite and cannot be configured conformant to several simulations simultaneously; 2) plurality of wants, i.e., the simulated universes are distinct; 3) independence of will, i.e., the capacity for action of either party is independent of that of the other; and 4) access, i.e., both parties are capable of causing the configuration they desire. All four items are necessary qualities; drop one and there is no conflict.

In order to eliminate conflict there are thus four options. Scarcity is an unfortunate property of the universe and can perhaps be ameliorated by technology but never wholly eliminated. Wanting is in itself not an action and hence cannot be subject to reason, nor the prescription of an ethical argument. Independence is the premise of any discussion and in particular the discussion about ethics; consequently any argument that would undermine independence would defeat itself. The only option to resolve conflict without undermining the fundamental principle of ethics and which can be the subject of reason and choice is thus the restriction of access. Therefore, there is a possibility for the ethical solution to conflict, namely the reasoned restraint by one or both participants. The exact form of this restraint and this reason is yet to be argued.

While conflict of wants is inevitable and must be tolerated, conflict of actions is essentially the antithesis of discussion: one party rejects the arguments of the other party — outside of reasonable grounds — and resorts to physical intervention to accomplish his goals. Consequently, whenever there is active conflict, at least one party is guilty of undermining the discussion, contrary to its un-counter-arguable desirability. In other words, at least one party is being unethical. The next question is to determine who, i.e., to distinguish the party who is acting ethically from the party who is not.


Action implies a sense of appropriation. By employing scarce goods in order to attain an end, the actor broadcasts to the world an argument that those goods ought to be used for that purpose, as opposed to other potential purposes. Moreover, the actor reassigns those goods away from their previous use and to their new use; or else he is the first to assign a use to the previously unused goods.

In the latter case, the actor essentially transforms things into means. As long as this transformation is isolated, i.e., cannot affect the environments of other persons, the employment of these goods as means cannot be the subject of ethical argument or counterargument. He is thus free to do as he pleases. The act of appropriation through mixing labor with unowned resources is called homesteading; the person who does this is a homesteader.13

A different reasoning applies when the goods in question are capable of affecting another actor, and in particular when this second actor wants to appropriate the resources himself, in order to employ them for his own ends. Time is on the side of the original homesteader as he performed his actions — and broadcasted his argument — before the ethical question was raised and thus before the discussion was started. In order to formulate an ethical argument in the discussion with the original homesteader, the latecomer must first recognize the agency of his discussion partner, and respect the homesteader’s application of the previously unowned goods to whatever ends they are applied to. Any subsequent appropriation on the part of the latecomer undermines homesteader’s capacity for argument and with it the foundations of the discussion. Consequently, ethics prescribes reasoned restraint on the part of the latecomer.

However, if both parties consent, then the burden of reasoned restraint may pass from the latecomer unto the homesteader. Equivalently, contract may transfer property rights, i.e., the right to employ a particular scarce good to any use whatsoever, from the original homesteader to the latecomer, or from the latecomer to a third party. Thus, by induction, ownership of property is just if and only if it traces back through links of voluntary contract, to the original homesteader.

Another exception is when the argument for reasoned restraint as would be made by the owner, cannot be made without itself undermining the discussion. For example, no one can be ethically compelled to take their own life or take actions that would result in the same, on the basis of an otherwise would-be violation of property rights. Similarly, if in the course of human action, another person is created from matter that is owned by the first person, such as is the case when children are conceived and born and grow up, the property rights of the first person cannot be used to undermine the personhood of the newly created person. In other words, argumentation ethics guarantees self-ownership just as surely as it guarantees property rights.

From self-ownership and property rights follows the non-aggression principle, which states that any physical invasion of a person’s property or body is ethically wrong unless it is consensual. The non-aggression principle serves as the foundation for the well-established edifice of libertarian legal theory, which covers freedom of speech, privacy, the right to keep and bear arms, and a whole host of civil liberties and principles of criminal law.14



The foundation for ethics is the omnipresent discussion about ethics, in which certain propositions must be true by virtue of their negations being self-defeating and thus unarguable. While this discussion is abstract, relating to the universe and persons as nodes and edges in a fractal graph, its logical consequents are no less true than those of mathematics as both can potentially be rigorously formalized; nor are its propositions any less applicable to real human life than sociology or psychology. Most importantly, unlike sociology, psychology or mathematics, the logical proofs arising from the ethical discussion confer a normative quality on their interpreter, by virtue of his capacity for understanding them.

The central notion in this discussion are its participants, who are necessarily actors, i.e., persons who act, are independent, number two or more, and are potentially in a state of conflict with respect to scarce goods. By virtue of using scarce goods as means to an end, the actors make claims to scarce goods. In general only that one claim that precedes all others cannot be logically invalidated. Informed and voluntary consent to contract may transfer the one un-invalidatable claim to alienable scarce goods unto others, giving rise to property rights and, by proxy, all other human rights.


All pieces of the puzzle are finally in place. The ethics presented in the previous section can be cast into a perfectly formal, symbolic language in which every step is a rigorous application of basic laws of logic. There is thus an objective method by which to decide which ethical propositions are true and which are false — and automatic proof checkers that offer this functionality already exist.

Judgment varies from case to case and while it may be contentious which ethical principle applies, the validity of two or more contending principles should be beyond doubt. Moreover, which of two contending principles applies should be purely a function of the evidence presented, which in today’s world can also be digitized and whose processing can also be automated. Consequently, judges have recourse to a mechanistic, optimizable, computerizable and auditable process by which to produce a judgment, which should in the end reduce to a provably correct ethical theorem. Perhaps one day judges themselves can be replaced by faster, harder-working, more environmentally friendly and less error-prone computer programs.

The spread of provable ethics should not stop at the judiciary. Legislators, too, offend against reason when they pretend to write into law a mere proposition and attribute its legitimacy not to any valid argument but instead to a quorum of votes. Contrary to popular conception, law does not come into being by the pen of the parliamentarian; law is discovered, like mathematics, and spreads organically from thinker to thinker through discussion and by virtue of the validity of its proof.

Nor should provable ethics remain contained within the judicial and legislative branches. As ethics concerns the moral quality of all human interaction, the people who make up the executive branch are not exempt. Not only should their actions be held to the highest possible, provable and verifiable standards; their legal and practical power should not exceed what is logically mandated and allowed by ethics to begin with.

International conflicts, like interpersonal conflicts, have a unique and provably ethical solution. It is only the public disbelief of this fact that continues to lend power, credence and legitimacy to the warlords across the world who commit and enable unspeakable acts of inhuman atrocity. By dismantling the myths of ethical pluralism and ethical nihilism, provable ethics can undercut the real source of power that fuel the many wars, feuds and conflicts raging across the world, and thus end their destructive reign of terror once and for all.

Not even the foundations of the state are immune to ethical scrutiny — scrutiny which is finally entirely independent of the state and in no way relies on its existence. The constitutions of the various nations of the world — including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — should be culled until only those phrases remain that are completely, provably compatible with ethical principles. Democracy itself, hailed often, proudly and wrongly as the greatest achievement of mankind since the invention of the wheel, should be seen for the disaster it is: democracy is the means to trump a valid argument. It should be discarded but well-remembered for its destructive potential along with all the other defunct ideas from the black book of human history.

The Road to Utopia

Having established a humble picture of utopia, it is time to turn to another, related question: how to bring it about in the most ethical way possible. While the answer is easy when one is allowed to assume unlimited power — i.e, “immediately” — no such divine force is thrust upon ethical revolutionaries. They must instead face the dilemma of choosing which injustices to suffer before the master plan is hatched.

Except, a divine force is thrust upon ethical revolutionaries. This force does not ordain them to, as it were, break the eggs to make the omelet; no ideology absolves its believers of their sins. Nor does it suffer them to be lazy; despite its objective correctness, the ideology of provable ethics will not spread of its own accord. The power in the hands of ethicists is reason, the ability to make and distinguish valid and invalid arguments; and discussion, the ability to confer arguments unto others and receive them in turn. It allows the revolution to charge its ideological opponents with an incontrovertible argument to either join the revolution, or be reduced to indignified animals for rejecting it irrationally.

However, this essay merely argues that a formalization of ethics is possible; it does not present one outright. There are many holes to be filled and leaps of understanding to be formalized that are intuitively accessible but lacking in rigor. The skeptic can delay the inevitable dilemma until such time as he is presented with a more rigorous formalism. And any reasonable delay-seeking counter-argument is truly a gift, because it leads to a more rigorous ethical argument or else exposes its falsity in the first place. Until at one point, if there is no falsity to be exposed, the argument is completely formalized. At this point, the critic must accept the conclusion or else forsake all semblance of rationality.

Fortunately, however, despite the many trials and tribulations that await the doctrine of provable ethics, there is just cause for optimism. Think about it: the fundamental principle of ethics is undeniably well in place. For how does the skeptic hope to refute any part of this essay without presenting rational arguments and engaging in discussion?