A Tour of Emerging Cryptographic Technologies

Historically, progress in the field of cryptography has been enormously consequential. Over the past century, for instance, cryptographic discoveries have played a key role in a world war and made it possible to use the internet for business and private communication. In the interest of exploring the impact the field may have in the future, I consider a suite of more recent developments. My primary focus is on blockchain-based technologies (such as cryptocurrencies) and on techniques for computing on confidential data (such as secure multiparty computation). I provide an introduction to these technologies that assumes no mathematical background or previous knowledge of cryptography.

Then, I consider several speculative predictions that some researchers and engineers have made about the technologies’ long-term political significance. This includes predictions that more “privacy-preserving” forms of surveillance will become possible, that the roles of centralized institutions ranging from banks to voting authorities will shrink, and that new transnational institutions known as “decentralized autonomous organizations” will emerge. Finally, I close by discussing some challenges that are likely to limit the significance of emerging cryptographic technologies. On the basis of these challenges, it is premature to predict that any of them will approach the transformativeness of previous technologies. However, this remains a rapidly developing area well worth following.

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