Peter McCormack: So normally when I prepare for an interview, I usually spend about a day on it because I like to be really prepared. Then when Daniel just popped over to me now and he said, “do you want to interview a quantum physicist?” I was like, “yep, that’s no problem! I’ve got a lot of experience in this. I know all about this. So yeah, it should be good to go!”
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, sure. You can ask me anything you want about quantum mechanics.
Peter McCormack: Okay. I don’t really know a lot! As I said to you, I read a lot of science magazines. So I read this one called Focus specifically, which is quite a light science magazine, but very interesting. But it’s always talking about the weird quantum world or the world of quantum mechanics. So I want you to start telling me about this weird world, because I hear about these things like, “you’ve got a particle here. If it turns, another particle somewhere else turns?”
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah it sounds like magic actually and basically even quantum physicists say that no one really understands quantum physics! So I mean it’s completely different nature and it’s very hard to digest. So what we have to do is to build some mathematical model and then to project it somehow to our everyday life to get some rough understanding. But it’s pretty tricky yeah.
Peter McCormack: Wasn’t it Einstein, who said something about quantum, like it’s magic or something?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, he was saying a lot about quantum stuff. So he really didn’t even like the theory that everything is a wave and a particle at the same time. He was saying about something about spooky action in the distance. So he didn’t like the fact that if you are changing something in one place, then something accidentally changes on another place. But he was like one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics and back then it was even more weird than now, because now we can already live with it for decades.
Peter McCormack: Okay, so I’m going to want to break it down to the absolute basics. But before that, can you tell me your personal journey to ending up being a quantum physicist?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, I worked in experimental quantum physics until November last year, so basically my whole life. So first I went to the University of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and there worked, starting from just physics in general, more to quantum physics, quantum optics and then built a few apps, mostly working with quantum simulators and quantum computing.
Now I moved to Bitcoin completely because fundamental physics is hard and especially if you want to see the results of your work, because basically what I felt like, “okay, you are building the web for five years. Then you’re measuring a few things. You publish a paper that maybe someday someone will use to do something awesome, but who knows if you will be alive at the time.” So I just was missing this instant application of my research to the real world.
Peter McCormack: Okay, so let’s break it down. What is the history of quantum mechanics and quantum physics? Who first discovered it or made the hypothesis that exists? Where did this all start?
Stepan Snigirev: So it started in the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein and a few other guys were thinking about how the atom works, because then according to classical mechanics, electrons shouldn’t rotate or circulate around the nucleus all the time. So it should emit energy and it should eventually fall onto the atom and the atom will collapse.
So there was a problem and the classical physics didn’t have an explanation. So they had to invent some basic things to postulate a few things that they don’t understand, that would explain this and then build the rest on top of that. So basically we have a few postulates, so like basic principles of quantum mechanics and everything else is built on top.
For example, one of them is that anything can be both a wave and a particle and it depends mostly on the velocity or on the speed or on the mass as well, on the energy, how far on the scale is the particle? Either it is more like a solid ball or it is more like a wave. The funny thing is that you can move them around on this axis. So basically in some experiments you can take electrons and think that it is just a ball and in another one it will behave as a wave.
Peter McCormack: Let’s break it down even deeper. Let’s start with an atom. What is an atom?
Stepan Snigirev: Okay. An atom… Well it’s not like the simplest thing. People back then thought that there is nothing smaller than that, but in principle…
Peter McCormack: Yeah, but then they broke it open and all this shit came out right?
Stepan Snigirev: So basically what we have in an atom is just a bunch of nothing and in the very center we have heavy particles like protons and neutrons. Around that we have electrons that are rotating around the nucleus. If you go even deeper, then you can break apart the proton and the neutron and then maybe you can go even deeper, but it is already not about quantum physics, it is more like nuclear physics.
Peter McCormack: So what is a quark? We’ll go really deep!
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, it is already really deep! So I normally didn’t go that deep.
Peter McCormack: Alright, so we’ve got the atom and we’ve got electrons rotating around. In my mind, I’ve read magazines and I’ve seen the graphics. I’m like, “okay, so there’s a thing with these things rotating around it” and there’s like a gap between them?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah. A gap of nothing.
Peter McCormack: A gap of nothing, but it still rotates?
Stepan Snigirev: The electron is rotating around in a nucleus and then I think what quantum physics actually introduced is that… Okay, there is a certain conservation, so the electron cannot rotate at arbitrary places. So it cannot rotate like a planet around the sun. It rotates according to certain rules, on the certain trajectories. So when the electron wants to move from one trajectory to another, they do it instantly, in one hop and they emit a photon or they absorb a photon. So basically this means that everything is kind of discrete in there.
Peter McCormack: So do you ever go far back and study the birth of the universe, the explosions that made it happen and why these atoms exist? Do you ever go that deep?
Stepan Snigirev: No, not really.
Peter McCormack: Because these are the basic rules of physics, right?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, so what happened during the big bang, no one really knows.
Peter McCormack: But it created these basic rules of physics?
Stepan Snigirev: I mean, our basic rules of physics should be able to explain the big bang. So we can’t everything. In particular, we can explain why the big bang happened and why all this whole thing started, because it’s just too far in the past and we don’t have enough data to reconstruct what happened there.
Peter McCormack: But at the start of the universe, we have the big bang, everything that was created at that point, are they all atoms?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, everything was more or less, not even atoms, more like plasma. So when we don’t have just protons, neutrons and electrons around it, but they are all messed up. So we have a bunch of these elementary particles flying around in a very hot plasma and starting expanding and then they started shaping the atoms. Then we have reactions that’s created other elements of the Periodic table, the chemical table and so on.
Peter McCormack: So the atoms. Are all the atoms different depending on what element it is?
Stepan Snigirev: They are different in the number of protons, neutrons and electrons. So if you have the same number of problems, it is the same element, but different isotopes. So basically atoms with different mass, but with the same, let’s say label. If they have different number of elections, then it’s basically atoms or ions, depending on the total charge of this system.
Peter McCormack: Say I had some Helium, say I had some Hydrogen. What is the difference between the atoms of the two?
Stepan Snigirev: Hydrogen has just one proton. Helium has two protons. The number of nutrients can be different. In Hydrogen, it’s none really. In Helium, there can be one or two. If you go above that, the whole atom becomes unstable and it can just really actively break down into hydrogen atoms or just particles.
Peter McCormack: So is this where we talk about the elements near the end of the Periodic table having a short half life?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, so as soon as you have more and more of this elementary particles inside, it becomes more unstable. In principle, if you plot them, they more or less go on the lines. So you add a little bit more protons, you need to compensate this instability by adding more neutrons. So it’s on average equal number of protons and neutrons.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So can you build an atom based on…
Stepan Snigirev: Well, basically the atoms that are the end of the periodic table, they were built artificially. So many of them do not exist in nature. So what people did, they just took two atoms somewhere before that and just shot them to each other with huge energy.
Peter McCormack: So could you just artificially create gold?
Stepan Snigirev: Well, it will be much more expensive than the gold itself. But in principle you can.
Peter McCormack: Okay and am I right in thinking that the birth of the universe, it was really just a bunch of Helium and Hydrogen and they came together to built the first stars when the clouds migrated together?
Stepan Snigirev: Yes and then in the stars you have a certain pressure and conditions that kind of melted together Hydrogen and Helium atoms. Then you have Lithium and all other elements in the Periodic table. They were all born in the stars. So we are also all born in the stars.
Peter McCormack: Yeah, so I’m going to come to that. Then the star ends up dying, we have a supernova and that’s when a whole bunch of other crap is created? Like all the other elements. Is that right? Or is everything already created in the star itself?
Stepan Snigirev: I can’t say for sure. I think that normally they are created in the stars themselves. I don’t really know what happens when the supernova and the other explosions happens, it would be interesting to find out!
Peter McCormack: This is such an exciting interview for me because I read so much of this stuff! I watch everything that I can watch on the documentary channels when I’m at home and I also listen to a podcast called “Ask a Spaceman”. Do you know “Ask a Spaceman?” So he talks about all this stuff.
Stepan Snigirev: So you can actually tell me more about this?
Peter McCormack: I can tell you more. So I can teach a quantum physicist a little bit about how the universe works!
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah or like astrophysics! So it’s different fields. Just like in Bitcoin, we have people that are specified on Lightning and networking stack and more on the cryptography. In physics it is even worse. If you work in quantum physics with a particular applications, then you probably know much less about, even also quantum physics, but superconducting circuits and these kinds of things.
Peter McCormack: Well all I know is that as somebody said to me before, like you said, “we’re all made of stars” and I was like, “what?” Then I read about it, that basically when there’s a supernova, the death of a star, the explosion creates a whole bunch of new elements like that didn’t exist and blast across the universe. That’s essentially what we are, we are made up of all the elements that come from…
Stepan Snigirev: And probably this dust from the supernova formed a bunch of elements, formed the planets and then we start having a life in there and Bitcoin as well!
Peter McCormack: So do you think the universe is going to come to a contraction or do you think we’re going to have this big expanded cold dead space, once all the stars are burnt out?
Stepan Snigirev: Hmm, I doubt that we will see it. I mean we’ll be probably dead by that time! But I would say that it keeps expanding with the speed of light, maybe… I don’t know. I think that there were some studies that it kind of slows down because, well, it makes sense, as we still have forces that are trying to slow down the expansion. I would say that, yeah, there will be a bunch of empty space and probably our sky will be a little bit more empty, so we will not be able to see the stars because they will be too far away. That’s I think how it will happen. But I can’t say for sure.
Peter McCormack: Do you know what one of the weird things I think about? Because I think about a lot of weird things with this, but I think about, we have our universe here that’s created in this random nowhere space, we have this universe. I wonder if other universes have just exploded into existence in other dimensions or weird spaces that we just don’t know about.
Stepan Snigirev: And then when our universe will expand enough size that it collides with another one that is out there, maybe something interesting will happen!
Peter McCormack: This universe was created somewhere. It exists but not in a pinpointed place and this is where my head starts to get all fucked up, because I’m like, “what’s going on?!”
Stepan Snigirev: I will say if it happened once, in case of our universe, it can possibly happen another time somewhere else.
Peter McCormack: Do you believe in aliens?
Stepan Snigirev: If it happened once!
Peter McCormack: Yeah, there you go! I thought you’d say that. All right. So let’s talk about quantum mechanics and quantum physics. Again, let’s go to the start. Can you just break down exactly what the theory is?
Stepan Snigirev: Okay, I’m just thinking how to explain it in a pretty easy and understandable way. Okay, so the main building block is basically an energy and the energy potentials, I should think, that is well basically how the energy changes in space or changes in other parameters. The fundamental thing is that everything can be pretty much… Well, we have [Inaudible 19:17] as well. So we have certain… I didn’t talk about quantum physics for quite some time, now I’m losing my vocabulary!
Peter McCormack: We can go back to the universe if you want?
Stepan Snigirev: No, no. I want to go to the quantum physics, it’s much more interesting. So basically we have certain rules. So the uncertainty principle, that defines kind of quantum mechanics in general. For example, one is that if we have two things that are somehow connected, for example, the position and the momentum of a particle. So then there is certain uncertainty, how we can measure one thing and how we will influence another one.
So basically this means that we cannot know for sure your position and your speed. So if you know that you are completely at rest, your speed is zero, then probably your position is undefined within a certain range. The same happens the other way around. So if I know that you are exactly here, then I probably don’t really know, what is your velocity, what is your speed? Yeah, that is one of the fundamental principles and it is pretty easy to understand because how do I know that you are certain point?
I need to measure that somehow and to measure that I need to influence you. When I influence you, I probably change your momentum as well. So basically if I just take the ruler and hit you with a ruler, so I probably will provide a certain force that will change your momentum. So there is a way to somehow correlate these basic fundamental quantum principles to the real world, but it’s not very strict, I would say.
Then another thing is about this energy levels in the atom, that is another fundamental principle that basically, if we describe everything in the crazy mathematical equations form and then there are certain boundaries and limitations for the whole thing. What we will find out from that is that electron in the atom can be only uncertain levels, only on uncertain kind of places.
It comes from math, but then you look at it in reality and you see it exactly the same. So you start thinking that, “okay, probably our theory is more or less correct because we have an experiment that confirms it.” All the basic principles of quantum mechanics are built like this. So we first invent some convenient mathematical model and then we verify it.
So there is no kind of, complete truth. So I am expecting that maybe in 200 years, there will be another theory that will say that all the quantum mechanics is crap and actually we need to develop much deeper and much more complicated mathematical operators. But up to now it works.
Peter McCormack: So quantum mechanics is just a mathematical theory?
Stepan Snigirev: Basically yes. We have also a bunch of experiments that confirm that and a few that don’t!
Peter McCormack: But when they talk about having a particle here, which is a pair, because particles have a pair, right?
Stepan Snigirev: Oh, why?
Peter McCormack: So when I read about you have a particle here and you can turn it and another random particle somewhere else will turn?
Stepan Snigirev: Okay, that is already a little bit different. So let me tell you about the qubits. So comparing to normal bits, that can be either zero or 1. We can have a quantum bit like bits on steroids, that can be anything from zero to 1. The thing is that if there is somewhere there between zero to 1, when you measure it, it’ll still be either zero or 1. But every time when you are measuring it, it will be slightly different, so there is a probability.
What you can do with two qubits, you can entangle them. So you can make them in such a quantum state, that they kind of feel each other. So basically when one is zero, the other one will always go to 1. So this means that even if two qubits are somewhere between zero and 1 and you are measuring the same qubit over and over and you get randomly zero, 1, zero, zero, zero, 1 and so on. When you add the second one, it will always collapse to another one. So this is the quantum entanglement that is pretty hard to digest kind of thing.
Peter McCormack: Yeah, I’m struggling right now! So I’ve always gone by what I’ve read, is that… And the way people explain in the simple science magazines is there’s a particle here and there can be another particle at the other end of the universe and they’re entangled. But that is true, they can be?
Stepan Snigirev: it can be, yeah. In total, I would say that our whole universe is based in quantum mechanics and we have a bunch of quantum superpositions everywhere. So basically everything is entangled. So maybe we are leaving in just one probability of all possible universes. So maybe our universe is in some weird untangled state and we just…
Peter McCormack: The multiverse? I’ve read about that.
Stepan Snigirev: So it doesn’t mean that there is no other alternative universe where we are not talking.
Peter McCormack: Yeah and there’s another one where I’m the quantum physicist and you’re the podcaster and you will talk to me?
Stepan Snigirev: Yes. The problem with that is that all this quantum mechanics stuff is really working only on the tiny scales. So as soon as you have all this entropy, you can either think that… If you are breaking this entanglement and measuring the probability and you get zero and 1, you actually collapse it. Or you can think that at this moment of the measurement, your universe splits and in one of these universes you measured 1 and another one you measured zero.
Peter McCormack: What connects them? Magic?
Stepan Snigirev: Nothing. It just splits! So it’s already the question of, how do you identify yourself in this whole thing? I mean, it’s really philosophical questions!
Peter McCormack: Yeah and you can end up just like wrapping your head into a kind of big confused state and getting totally lost it at all! I love it though. So how does it apply to computing, when people talk about quantum computers?
Stepan Snigirev: Oh that’s actually really awesome. So imagine you have a certain problem. Let’s say you have a bunch of, I don’t know, balls, and you need to find the largest one or whatever. So how the classical computer does it. So he just measures each of them, compares the numbers and then gives you the largest one. This means that during this procedure, it basically did a lot of useless computations by measuring each of them. I don’t care about what size is each of the squares, I only need the largest one.
So what quantum computer does, is basically it can just skip all this preparation steps and just by applying a few gates into all of them and get the answer right away. So it’s mostly because of this entanglement thing. So basically if you can encode your question in the qubits and then slightly change the probabilities of these qubits, what you can end up with that you apply the separations and at the very end you measure and you get the answer. This in principle gives you, well very good improvements in the algorithms.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So that sounds doable? Sounds perfectly feasible. How come it’s taken so long for a quantum computer to be built and we’re still not there right?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, we are not there yet. I mean, right now, all the quantum computers that we have, they can be easily simulated on a normal computer. So we are just crossing the boundary when we will have the system that cannot be simulated by normal computers. The problem is that all of this entanglement thing is very fragile. So as soon as you accidentally hit a photon in this system or make some other unknowing measurement failure, you ruin the whole thing.
You need to first have multiple qubits and each of them is very fragile. Then you need to entangle them and this process is very fragile and then you need to apply gates to them, that is also very fragile. Plus you need error correction codes, because sometimes they just fall apart. This means that for some reasonable computing, you need huge amount of qubits and tremendous amount of gates, of the separations, to perform normally. So I can tell you the current state of quantum computers.
What people are scared about this factorization of the product of two prime numbers. So this is basically what RSA is built on top of, that if I give you a product of two large prime numbers, there is no way for you to brute force what are the prime numbers really are. There is an efficient quantum algorithm that can do it. So what quantum computers can do now, they can factorize, let’s say number 15 into 5 and 3, this level.
So maybe you can go a little bit more and have like, maybe 7, 8, 9, 10 bit numbers, but not like 2048 numbers that we use in RSA right now. As soon as you want to scale with more and more, it becomes more and more complicated. So we have maybe hundreds of qubits, thousands of gates and we need orders of magnitude more.
Peter McCormack: Okay. Don’t Google have a quantum computer that they are talking about, that’s making good progress with?
Stepan Snigirev: So there are a few things. So the first one is what they had before, they were partnering with the D-Wave Company. They viewed what they claimed to be a quantum computer. There are still questions if it really uses any quantum-ness in their algorithms, but they are very specifically targeted to certain tasks. In particular for Google, what is interesting is training neural networks. Training neural networks is basically solving a huge number of linear equations.
These quantum monitors are not like general purpose quantum computers where you can implement anything, but it’s more like ASICs. So ASICs can do hashing. Google’s quantum computer can do anything. But you can’t ask ASICs to calculate arbitrary… Well to run some arbitrary program there. So it’s just not exactly the quantum computer. It’s quantum, it’s computing something, but we call it more like a quantum simulator or a very application specific quantum computers.
Peter McCormack: So I’ve heard various estimates. Some people say we maybe a decade away from a stable quantum computer. I’ve had somebody say we may be 30 years away and I have also had somebody say it will probably never be achieved. Where do you fit in this kind of…
Stepan Snigirev: We see breakthroughs in the field every 5/10 years. This is basically the time that you need to build a web. So when you have a nice idea, you just build it and then if you’re lucky, it works! So right now everyone in quantum field is worried about scaling… Well scaling quantum computers.
Peter McCormack: That’s what we’ve got in Bitcoin!
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah! And there are right now several different implementations that are successful in one of the directions, but I don’t see good ideas that would put all of that together. Imagine if there will be a way to build a quantum computer. So there will be a roadmap. Let’s say it will appear, like the idea will appear in 10 years. Then you still need another 5 years to build a prototype.
Then you need to work over much more on making it more or less robust and then let’s say in 20 years, we have a quantum computer that can do something useful. But then you need another decade to scale such that it overperforms classical computers and starts breaking classical cryptography.
Peter McCormack: So decades away is a realistic estimate?
Stepan Snigirev: Decades away. Yeah, I would say 2 at least. More like 3/4 or something like that.
Peter McCormack: And that would probably be the classical supercomputer type quantum computer that sits at IBM or in Google. It’s not going to be the computer you or I have.
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, it will be a laboratory. So basically I can tell you what our kind of set up looks like. So it’s two rooms with three optical tables. One is full of optical components, another one is full of vacuum system. We have like five students constantly running and keeping it running and somehow doing something. In total it takes a lot of money. It takes a lot of space, resources and qualified people to build these things.
Peter McCormack: How much of this is engineering and how much is maths?
Stepan Snigirev: in experimental physics, like 90% is engineering. So while I was working there, I mean I had some theoretical challenges from time to time, but mostly it was just programming, developing different devices, writing software, mechanical engineering, all this kind of stuff. In principle, if someone like Google or some national government agency really put some funds in that, it can be made much faster. So I know that there is a one lab that is working with Google on ion quantum computer. So they’re doing pretty good progress, but still in the kind of early stages.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So there are different views on what would happen when we have a stable quantum computer. There will be obviously benefits, but there are obviously be kind of some quite scary negatives. So how do you look at the pros and cons of quantum computing?
Stepan Snigirev: So just the threat of quantum computers, allows us to develop new crypto and this is awesome. I mean that basically we need to invent more robust and secure cryptography and it is awesome! But we shouldn’t rush there, because right now what all the challenges showed, is that if there is a new quantum secure scheme, there is probably something wrong with the implementation and it can be broken by the classical computers and this is terrible.
So I think that just the threat of quantum computers is pushing the field forward and hopefully we will get quantum secure crypto. Then I think that there will be only benefits! From Bitcoin’s perspective, we just need to do, hopefully a soft fork, at the worst case hard fork and then we are good.
Peter McCormack: Oh, so the only danger, and I’m thinking broad here, just to society in the world in general, the only danger from quantum computing is the ability to crack cryptography in any field, not just Bitcoin?
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah. So quantum computing can crack modern cryptography. So we just need to develop a new one. If you look even into the past, I don’t know, 20 years ago no one was using SSL and then everyone was okay with sending plain text over the Internet. So now we are a little bit better in that. So I think that at the moment when the time for quantum computers, will come, we already will have migrated to the next generation of crypto.
Peter McCormack: Can quantum computing drive forward AI?
Stepan Snigirev: Yes, it can. So that is why Google is working on that, because the hardest part in neural networks is how to train them. This training and finding the minimum in this thing, is really a pain. So it can take a lot of time and if you can use quantum computer for that, that would be a really a boost of artificial intelligence.
Peter McCormack: Is that Deep Mind?
Stepan Snigirev: Ah no, Deep Mind is working just on architecture of neural networks. I don’t know exactly… So I just know the web that is working with Google support, but I don’t know if they have like a website or anything.
Peter McCormack: So they’re essentially creating synthetic neural networks?
Stepan Snigirev: No, no. So the neural network still works on the classical computer. The only thing that quantum computers help with, is how to train them. So just the training happens with the quantum computer and then as soon as the neural network is deployed, , it can perfectly analyze the images and to distinguish cats and dogs.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So quantum computing, the benefit is much higher computation. I guess there’ll be many fields that that can be applicable to. So I guess maybe health care?
Stepan Snigirev: Healthcare, energy industry. So for example, one of the applications of quantum simulators and computers is we need to invent the high temperature superconductor. Right now it is really a problem because you just need to make another [Inaudible 39:38] and test it. With quantum systems, you can actually simulate it.
So you can see what exactly you need to do to make a high temperature super conductor and then what will mean, all the wires everywhere will be with zero resistance and this means that no energy losses and we have cheap energy for mining maybe!
Peter McCormack: So what was your interest in Bitcoin then? What brought you into Bitcoin?
Stepan Snigirev: I like math in principle. I like cryptography and also Bitcoin saved my life savings when the Russian Rouble crushed by a factor of 2.
Peter McCormack: Really?! That’s cool. That’s a nice story.
Stepan Snigirev: I just kind of was looking into Bitcoin. I liked the technology. I thought that, “okay, this is very promising.” I bought basically Bitcoins for all the money that I had. I was a poor scientist, so not much! Then after a few months, the Russian Rouble just crashed by a factor of 2 and everyone lost their money and I was fine.
Peter McCormack: So what’s the position on Bitcoin in Russia? Is it legal? Is it illegal? Because it seems like it’s still unsure.
Stepan Snigirev: It is in the grey area. So officially it is legal, but if you are trying to run a business, somehow related to Bitcoin, there is a chance that people will come and make your life harder. Normally people try to avoid crypto and this is basically the position of the government as well.
Peter McCormack: Wasn’t the government at one point talking about creating their own crypto?
Stepan Snigirev: It wasn’t exactly the government. It was the central bank and that is slightly different. The guy who was trying to do it, he got fired!
Peter McCormack: All right, so with Bitcoin, obviously we have cryptography. The current cryptography, Sha256?
Stepan Snigirev: So this is the hashing algorithm, sha256.
Peter McCormack: So the fear is that quantum computing would be able to crack that quite simply and if somebody secretly…
Stepan Snigirev: So the thing is that there are two different security assumptions in Bitcoin. The first one, we are relying on the hash function, this sha256 and the second one is our elliptic curve signing algorithm that relies on the discrete log problem. So there are two different quantum algorithms that helps there. So the one that kind of breaks sha256 is not very efficient. So if you think about the complexity to brute force the correct hash, you need to try 2 to the N numbers or you just brute force them, maybe a little bit more efficient but roughly that.
Peter McCormack: How big a number are we talking here?
Stepan Snigirev: The number is 256 bits, so basically it’s like huge numbers. That is how mining works. So with mining, with all the power in the mining, we can only have a few leading zeros in the books. The quantum computer will do it a little bit faster. So it will be not 2 to the power of 256, but 2 to the power square root of 256.
Peter McCormack: Well could a miner point all their ASICs trying to hack a specific wallet?
Stepan Snigirev: It just extremely your hard. I mean, what exactly to hack? So for signing we are using a different scheme. The elliptic curve. The only thing that you could possibly do with a sha256 is just to try to find the data that hashes to exactly a certain number, but it is much more profitable to mine new blocks instead. I think that as soon as we get quantum computers, the first thing that they will be applied to is to mine new blocks, which will be faster than ASICs.
Peter McCormack: Okay, so you believe quantum computing will be used for mining before it will be used for hacking?
Stepan Snigirev: Yes.
Peter McCormack: Okay, interesting.
Stepan Snigirev: Because there you can help yourself a little bit. So in principle the algorithm is a bit easier and for hacking the public/private key, it is much faster. But also I don’t think that at that moment we will still use our elliptic curve signing algorithm. So we will move to something else that is quantum secure and hashing can stay.
Peter McCormack: Has any work been done into what could come after elliptic curve, which would be quantum resistant?
Stepan Snigirev: So there are a few directions in the fields. I’m not very familiar with it. I’ve heard of something like lattice based cryptography and some other stuff. So I should probably look into that and right now, I feel that it is still like at the early stages. As I said, there were competitions where quantum secure algorithms were submitted and then they all got hacked! But there are other actions. Another problem is that you can’t prove that a certain algorithm is quantum resistant.
So you can guess, you can say that, “okay, it is resistant to existing quantum algorithms”, but there are also smart people developing new quantum algorithms and who knows, maybe they will find out something that breaks also the quantum resistant cryptography. It will be more like cat and mouse. I think it will be just a concentrate, but it’s good to have some kind of competition and it just pushes the technology forward.
Peter McCormack: So what kind of work are you doing yourself in Bitcoin?
Stepan Snigirev: Right now we are building a hardware platform. So basically something like a hardware wallet, but also developer friendly platform. So that you can take it, you can develop something on top of that, you can extend it and make a hardware wallet of your choice. So if you’re not happy with the security assumptions that we did, you can introduce your own authentication mechanism or something. So I just bought the hardware wallets and developer boards as well.
Peter McCormack: When you say “we”, is it a team, a company?
Stepan Snigirev: So we have a company, a startup. So there are three co-founders and we have a few engineers. Also we have access to a pretty nice security company in Germany and the hardware company that has access to the factory. So basically we have rights partners and three guys that are on top of it. Yeah, we are currently raising funds.
Peter McCormack: You currently raising? How much are you raising?
Stepan Snigirev: So to get the wallet quickly on the market, we need to raise something like 5 million. So talking to VCs right now.
Peter McCormack: So you’ll just be a competitor to Ledger and Trezor?
Stepan Snigirev: So our hope is not to be directly a competitor, but to do something slightly different and ideally to still be friends, at least with Trezor! I think that we are on the right track there! We are working together with them on some stuff.
Peter McCormack: Oh, okay. So you can partner with them?
Stepan Snigirev: So on the protocol development, we want to partner with Trezor yes. We want to make a different hardware, so Trezor guys are fully open source and that is why they use an application microcontroller. We want to take a secure element into the thing, but we still open source everything that we develop. Maybe at the later stages when we start developing our own secure elements that will be open source and maybe Trezor will be able to help us with that.
Peter McCormack: Is your product going to be more for experienced and expert Bitcoiners or will it be something like I would use?
Stepan Snigirev: So I would say that it will focus more on modern Bitcoin developments, but still it will be user friendly. So our main goal is; screw all these altcoins and instead focus on what is happening in Bitcoin in particular, Lightning integration, CoinJoin integration, hopefully side chains and Schnorr signatures as soon as we get them. So really to provide the tool to store your keys or whatever application you are trying to use.
Peter McCormack: So this is going to be the hardware wallet for the maximalists? No shit coins at all?
Stepan Snigirev: I mean, as we are open source and we also give certain access to the developers, to the microcontroller, the altcoiners can build the application or the module for their stuff. But we just don’t want to allocate resources to that
Peter McCormack: Yeah, that’s fair enough.
Stepan Snigirev: Just because there are too many things happening in Bitcoin, so we don’t have time to focus on that stuff.
Peter McCormack: Right. So when do you hope to have a product in market?
Stepan Snigirev: Hopefully in one year after we are done with fundraising. So it just takes around six months to develop security. We are using a custom one and also all the testing stuff takes a while. We want to test with hopefully wallet fail guys and other hackers, so a year unfortunately. But we are planning to release the developer tools earlier. So as soon as we are ready for that! So hopefully in autumn. So the developer board and a secure element that has a Bitcoin functionality in it.
Peter McCormack: So if someone’s listening to this and they want to find out more, even invest, where should they go to?
Stepan Snigirev: They should probably contact me or my other partners. Can we put my Twitter handles on there?
Peter McCormack: Yeah, I mean you can say it now so that people can hear it. I’ll also put it up there.
Stepan Snigirev: So it’s pretty easy, @stepansnigirev.
Peter McCormack: Don’t need to spell that out! Have you got a name for the product?
Stepan Snigirev: That’s a tricky part! We kind of think about something like Votl, but I’m not sure yet. So right now I am more focused to make the prototype for it.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So obviously I don’t think people will get your Twitter from what you just said, because it’s a complicated Russian name. So I will share it in the show notes and put it out there, to make sure they hear about that. Anything else you want to tell anyone about, before we finish up?
Stepan Snigirev: Well, about the quantum stuff, I think that there is nothing to be scared about right now at the moment at least. So maybe in 10 years? I mean, come on, Bitcoin is just 10 years old, right? So in another 10 years, who knows how we will develop all the crypto stuff.
Peter McCormack: But what if it was like some secret Chinese laboratory and they are years ahead and they figured it out and they think, “right, we’re going to fuck with Bitcoin. We’re just going to go and absolutely smash all the private keys open. We’re going to go steal everyone’s Bitcoin!”
Stepan Snigirev: I’m a little bit skeptical about that because the research and fundamental science is also open, like Bitcoin. So what if I would tell you that, okay, there is a certain Chinese Bitcoin that is ways ahead of our Bitcoin that we don’t know about and they are using all that fancy crypto in there.
Peter McCormack: Well it isn’t Bitcoin!
Stepan Snigirev: It isn’t Bitcoin, but I mean that in the fundamental physics field also, there are plenty of conferences and sharing the knowledge and so on. I think that the community driven way is the fastest way to get to the final plan. So if there is some secret lab somewhere, they don’t share their thoughts, they don’t have any feedback and they will be stuck at certain points. So I don’t think that there will be anywhere that is more than, let’s say a couple years ahead of the community in general.
Peter McCormack: And as you said, there’s enough paranoia in the Bitcoin community that people are already considering this. So almost certainly we will see changes before the quantum computer becomes available.
Stepan Snigirev: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that it will happen before quantum computing will be available because it’s much easier to do with math, than with all this experimental quantum unstable stuff. Between the protocol and the implementation, there is a huge gap.
Peter McCormack: All right man, well Stepan this was fascinating. Loved finding out about it. Definitely interesting! I think people will really enjoy hearing about this, so I really appreciate you coming on at an hour’s notice!
Stepan Snigirev: Thank you for inviting me. I was very glad to talk about quantum stuff!