Mathematics, Security and Changing What’s in Your Wallet: An Interview with Thomas Arts

Photo By Raphael Andres

With over 20 years of experience programming Erlang, Thomas brings both theoretical and practical experience to the æternity team.

Having worked with Joe Armstrong, the inventor of Erlang at a Computer Science lab in the 1990s, this senior computer scientist and Erlang expert combines an easygoing and curious nature with a strong mathematical background. Thomas’ ability to translate scientific theory in practical applications and stay calm in high-pressure situations are just a few of the reasons why we appreciate his work for æternity. Recently, we asked him about QuickCheck, the Royal Academy of Science, and whether or not he thinks that blockchain technology is here to stay.

When did your interest in computers begin?

I grew up at a time when computers were only in the living rooms of a select few homes. Apple technology had not yet arrived in my country and my uncle and I had built one from components imported from the USA. When I was 10 years old, I was happily programming in the language Basic, and later, Pascal. It was inevitable that I would pursue a career in computer science, and my grades in mathematics even suggested that I should do a double masters. Equipped with a degree in mathematics and computer science, I started a PhD in Theoretical Computer Science in Utrecht.

Although my work is highly cited, I never wanted an academic career.

During my studies, I missed the connection with the real thing; the software. So, I conducted research on the brand new Internet and found that Ericsson was working on a functional language. After one email to Bjarne Däcker, I was on a plane to Stockholm to meet with Joe Armstrong and Mike Williams, among others, in the Computer Science Lab. They had just started several new research projects and I loved the idea of doing some applied research in Erlang. It was then, in 1996, where my Erlang experience began. My focus was on improving software quality by using mathematical methods.

Why did you decide to work with æternity?

Through sheer luck, Ulf Wiger tipped me off about the æternity blockchain. My curiosity was ignited when I heard that each node in the network is a potential malicious node and that you need to build trust in a completely different way than I had ever seen before. This was something new and exciting, with incredible opportunities for learning!

For me, it has been extremely interesting to learn about cryptography, software security, blockchain technology and the æternity team is highly talented and friendly to work with-just what I like.

What do you find most interesting about blockchain technology?

One of the most interesting parts of blockchain technology is its security, there are numerous layers of security and everything needs to work seamlessly together. The first step is to avoid having software errors in your code.

Erlang cannot have buffer overflows, there is no maximum integer, no pointer and no memory access the way other languages have. This makes assuring software quality already a lot easier.

On top of that, we use our specific QuickCheck technology to randomly generate thousands of meaningful test cases from the specifications of æternity’s blockchain. The next step is to use cryptography and security in the right way.

Do you think that blockchain has the potential to change the world?

Technology only can change the world if it fills a vacuum of a certain demand. It’s too early to see if that vacuum is there.

Does that mean you think blockchain in merely a fad?

No. Blockchain technology will stay, even if direct applications are not obvious to everyone yet.

The key is to automate and decentralize accounting. This will move power balances, fueling further innovation.

For example, I recently noticed a little app coming to the market where you get one plastic bankcard that you can use as any card you like. By using your phone you can make the bankcard into a Mastercard, or a Visa card or your miles program or supermarket club card. I’m not sure whether they use blockchain, but it is a demonstration that banks are going to be pushed down the value chain.

What is your connection to the Dutch Royal Academy of Science?

I was recently invited to a workshop on software and security organized by KNAW to contribute to a case study where I proposed the æternity protocol stack.

This is a good research vehicle because it is all open source, accessible, has high security demands, but is also decomposable in smaller, researchable, units.

Therefore, there was clear interest from researchers to work on this, and we split the work into several packages. It was exciting to engage with all these researchers with different backgrounds and expertise, and it proved to be an excellent learning experience.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My advice to anyone is simple: do what you think is fun.

You can watch Thomas’ presentation on property-based testing in blockchain and P2P networks here:

UPDATE: æternity Universe One — the first conference dedicated to the latest R&D in the blockchain space and æternity, took place on September 20–21, 2019 in Prague. Thomas Arts held a talk on the topic: “Security Review of æternity Components”. Watch it below:

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