Our experts tell us how a complex cryptographic concept found application in the cryptosphere. And why startups that use ZK technology attract millions of dollars from investors
As early as 2019, cryptocurrency-oriented venture capitalists have been supporting startups. Which are engaged in the development of technical solutions somehow related to zero-knowledge proofs technology (zero-knowledge proofs or ZK-proofs, ZK). It is largely thanks to the cryptosphere that the complex cryptographic concept has become a successful marketing tool for startups. Who are creating tools to optimize Ethereum and other networks.
Matter Labs has raised nearly $0.5 billion from foundations to develop its zkSync solution. And the launch of Polygon’s zkEVM software environment by Polygon Labs, with similar funding, was an event in the cryptocurrency community. Projects like Starknet or Scroll are worth billions of dollars. And they all use ZK-proofs technology in one way or another.
In 1985, scientists Shafi Goldwasser, Silvio Micali and Charles Rakoff published a paper called “Knowledge Complexity of Interactive Proof-Systems. This was the first theoretical formulation of zero-disclosure proof technology.
To greatly simplify, this cryptographic technique allows you to prove that you know something without revealing exactly what you know. In the context of cryptocurrency, this can be illustrated, for example, as verifying that the user has the funds to transfer. And without revealing to the other participants of the network who this user is and how much money he has in his wallet.
Such proofs are technically complex and computationally intensive
Since it is very complicated, this technology did not come to any practical realization for quite a long time. And it was discussed mainly in scientific circles. But starting in 2010, researchers realized that ZK-proofs can be implemented on current computers.
So too with the emergence of faster computers and more funding for research in cryptography. And researchers, including Georgetown University associate professor Justin Thaler, have described how to generate zero-disclosure proofs on real computing machines. Thaler is also a researcher at a16z crypto, a division of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He also manages four funds to invest in blockchain projects totaling more than $7 billion.
The launch and distribution of cloud computing has also given further impetus to the adoption of the technology. Laptops or smartphones, for example, are slower than the combined power of Amazon’s servers. But with ZK-proofs, a single computer can confirm that multiple computers have executed the program correctly.
When Bitcoin emerged in 2009, there was early discussion about reducing the computational burden on the blockchain and privacy in the blockchain. And then two problems emerged – the relatively slow performance of the blockchain because of its decentralized structure. And also its transparency, allowing analysts to identify and track wallets with ties to real users.
In 2013, a group of scientists, based on improvements in the implementation of ZK-proofs technology, laid out proposals for a Zerocoin solution. And which was supposed to help make Bitcoin transactions completely anonymous. Teaming up with Zuko Wilcox, they eventually launched the cryptocurrency Zcash (ZEC). It was probably the first implementation of ZK-proofs technology on a large scale.
Essence of ZK technology for cryptocurrencies
The essence of technology in the context of cryptocurrencies is not just about privacy. When Ethereum grew in popularity with the spread of blockchain technology. And more and more developers were creating more complex applications to run on it. But they, in turn, needed ways to increase the speed of applications. Ethereum, to simplify things a bit, is essentially a decentralized computer that runs relatively slowly.
Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin has repeatedly said that it is solutions using ZK-proofs. And in particular the so-called ZK-rollups will help to increase the bandwidth of the network. And in the future will be integrated into its software code.
Zero-disclosure proofs allow one to prove the truth of something without checking each statement. Using this property, solutions such as zkSync “minimize”. That is, they compile and process transactions outside of the main Ethereum blockchain and prove that they did so accurately. Already then the main blockchain only verifies this proof. And that takes significantly less time compared to verifying each transaction in the usual way.
Dozens of startups are developing a flood of solutions using ZK, including the same zkSync, Aztec, Scroll, Starknet and others. They compete with another group of Ethereum scaling solutions collectively called Optimistic rollups. And the best known of which are the Optimism and Arbitrum projects. The companies have formed an entire industry within the crypto market and have collectively attracted several billion dollars from investors.
On June 8, the Taiko project announced that it had raised $22 million to develop its own zkEVM. It is a solution that Vitalik Buterin called essential for scaling the Ethereum blockchain.
The zkEVM (Zero-Knowledge Ethereum Virtual Machine) is a development that combines Ethereum capabilities with the concept of zero-knowledge proofs. It was the company behind the zkSync solution that Matter Labs first deployed its version of zkEVM to the public along with the launch of the zkSync Era network.
The zkEVM solution is primarily a tool for scaling Ethereum. But which also includes privacy enhancing features. It combines the benefits of ZK-proof technology and compatibility with the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) application environment. While providing faster, cheaper and simultaneously more private transactions.
Simply said, zkEVM allows developers to create second-tier solutions such as ZK rollups. This helps reduce congestion and bandwidth constraints on the core Ethereum network. And that leads to faster and cheaper transfers. The approach of projects like zkSync allows fast and inexpensive transactions in Ethereum. While maintaining data security and privacy.
Our experts point out that the slow operation of the network and high commissions hinder the mass spread of blockchain technology. Therefore, it makes sense for investors to support startups that offer efficient solutions.