A team of top security researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and MIT have come together to launch a new cryptographic project that combines secure software and hardware to enable privacy-preserving smart contracts under the banner of Oasis Labs.
That vision, which is being marketed as the baby of a union between Ethereum and Amazon Web Services, has managed to attract $45 million in pre-sale financing from some of the biggest names in venture capital and cryptocurrency investing.
The chief architect of the project (and chief executive of Oasis Labs) is University of Berkeley Professor Dawn Song, a security expert who first came to prominence in 2009 when she was named one of as one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators under 35. Song’s rise in the security world was capped with both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Award for her work on security technologies. But it’s the more recent work that she’s been doing around hardware and software development in conjunction with other Berkeley researchers like her postdoctoral associate, Raymond Cheng, that grabbed investors attention.
Through the Keystone enclave hardware project, Song and Cheng worked with MIT researchers and professors like Srini Devadas and Ilia Lebedev on technology to secure sensitive data on the platform.
“We use a combination of trusted hardware and cryptographic techniques (such as secure multiparty computation) to enable smart contracts to compute over this encrypted data, without revealing anything about the underlying data. This is like doing computation inside a black box, which only outputs the computation result without showing what’s inside the black box,” Song wrote to me in an email. “In addition to supporting existing trusted hardware implementations, we are also working on a fully open source trusted hardware enclave implementation; a project we call Keystone. We also have years of experience building differential privacy tools, which are now being used in production at Uber for their data privacy initiatives. We plan to incorporate such techniques into our smart contract platform to further provide privacy and protect the computation output from leaking sensitive information about inputs.”
Song says that her project has solved the scaling problem by separating execution from consensus.
“For each smart contract execution, we randomly select a subset of the computation nodes to form a computation committee, using a proof of stake mechanism. The computation committee executes the smart contract transaction,” Song wrote in an email exchange with TechCrunch. “The consensus committee then verifies the correctness of the computation results from the computation committee. We use different mathematical and cryptographic methods to enable efficient verification of the correctness of the computation results. Once the verification succeeds, the state transition is committed to the distributed ledger by the consensus committee.”
By having the computation committee working in parallel with the consensus committee only needing to verify the correctness of the computation creates an easier path to scalability.
Other platforms have attempted to use sampling to speed up transactions over distributed systems (Hedera Hashgraph comes to mind), but have been met with limited adoption in the market.
“We use proof-of-stake mechanisms to elect instances of different types of functional committees: compute, storage and consensus committees,” Song explained. “We can scale each of the different functions independently based on workload and system needs. One of our observations of existing systems is that consensus operations are very expensive. our network protocol design allows compute committees and storage committees to process transactions without relying on heavy-weight consensus protocols.”
Song’s approach has managed to gain the support of firms including: a16zcrypto, Accel, Binance, DCVC (Data Collective), Electric Capital, Foundation Capital, Metastable, Pantera, Polychain
In all, some 75 investors have rallied to finance the company’s approach to securing data and selling compute power on a cryptographically secured ledger.
“It’s exciting to see talented people like Dawn and her team working on ways to transition the internet away from data silos and towards a world with more responsible ways to share and own your data,” said Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase and Oasis Labs investor, in a statement.
“The next step is getting our product in the hands of developers who align with our mission and can help inform the evolution of the platform as they build applications upon it,” said Oasis Labs co-founder and CTO Raymond Cheng in a statement.
For potential customers who’d eventually use the smart contracts developed on Oasis’ platform the system would work much like the method established by Ethereum.
“The token usage model in Oasis is very similar to Ethereum, where users pay gas fee to miners for executing smart contracts,” Song wrote. “One just needs one token to pay for gas fee for executing smart contracts. As with Ethereum, in our platform storage and compute have different pricing models but they both are paid with the same token.”
And Oasis’ leadership is looking ahead to a marketplace that incentivizes scale and makes fees accessible. “If the token price goes up, the amount of tokens needed to pay for operations can decrease (this is similar to Ethereum’s gas price, which is independent from the price of Ether). The number of tokens needed to pay for smart contract execution is not fixed.”