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Dec 10, 2021

Silvio Micali Shares Acceptance Speech for ISSNAF's Lifetime Achievement Award

By: Algorand

On December 9, 2021, the Italian Scientists & Scholars in North America Foundation (ISSNAF) announced Silvio Micali as the recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award. The ISSNAF Lifetime Achievement Award acknowledges outstanding individuals of Italian origin who, thanks to their pioneering spirit and lifetime commitment, have honored their country of origin and given a significant contribution to research, leadership, and mentorship in any field. Below is the transcription of Silvio's acceptance speech.

Dear Ambassador Zappia, President Zuffada, Professor Salleo: from Buenos Aires, Good Day to you and all participants! I also wish a good day to you Consul in Boston, Federica Sereni, who so much contributes to keeping our community together.

Let me start by thanking ISSNAF for the Life Achievement award. It is a great honor to receive it, both as an Italian and as a North American. It is a very special recognition, because it comes from a community that truly shares the two experiences that have defined my life: the passion for knowledge and research, and a life lived across two continents. 

In my remarks, I will attempt to do three things: 

  1. Clarify what it means to me to be part of our diaspora,
  2. Briefly share my personal journey, and 
  3. Touch upon the scientific work to which I am dedicating my life.

OUR DIASPORA

Looking at the list of those who received the Life Achievement Award before me, I am struck by the caliber of the company I am in and by the variety of disciplines represented. Italians have played a great role in the growth of America from the very beginning. Our contribution is not only deep, it is also broad. 

As Italians and Americans, whether biologists, mathematicians, engineers, jurists, professionals, etc., we are leveraging our Italian culture to open new paths and to build a better America and a better World. To act as a bridge between Italy and America. And to raise the profile of Italy in the world. 

This is why I never liked the expression “brain drain”. We are exporting the Italian spirit. By working hard and being appreciated as a result, we actually increase the value of Italian identity, of made in Italy in a broad sense. And so, ultimately, our double citizenship brings an enrichment for all.

MY PERSONAL JOURNEY

Each of us has been through a long journey to get here. The beauty of long journeys is that every step, every change we go through is an opportunity to enrich ourselves, to gain perspective and broaden our minds.

My personal journey started in Sicily. I was born in Palermo, but spent my childhood in Agrigento. Being surrounded by the Agrigento Temples has had a big influence on me. It showed me that if you build something beautiful, it will be appreciated even after millennia. And then, moving to Rome, I got to experience completely different forms of architectural beauty: Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, you name it.  I understood that there are different ways to create lasting beauty. 

Rome is also where, during my classical studies at high school, I was seduced by what ultimately led me here: MATHEMATICS. Euclidean Geometry in particular had a tremendous impact on me. The realization that the truth could be deduced from elementary principles, rather than directly experienced, was MESMERIZING. I decided to become a mathematician.

The steps from math to algorithms to computation was a natural progression. As I followed my passion for mathematics, I was lucky to have professors in Rome who, rather than trying to keep me there working with them, encouraged me to come to the US for my PhD. I am sure that many f you share the same experience. Living in a new culture was also a great way to learn what it means to be Italian.

MY SCIENTIFIC WORK

Berkeley is where I scientifically committed myself to cryptography. Just like the temples in Agrigento, cryptography has been around a long time. The word actually comes from Greek, and it means “secret writing”. The original application of cryptography was to send a message to someone making sure that only the legitimate recipient could understand it. For thousands of years, cryptography was an art more than a science. While a graduate student at Berkley, with my then fellow student Shafi Goldwasser, a life-long collaborator and friend, we started turning cryptography into a science. 

The first thing that we did, was to lay a rigorous foundation. What does it mean that an encrypted message doesn’t reveal anything, that it does not reveal any partial information, unless it is decoded? There are innumerable varieties of partial information that we want to secure. For instance, an enemy should not only be unable to decode the message in its entirety, but he should also be unable to tell whether it is a praise or a criticism. Defining and achieving such security mathematically was a big challenge. Fortune, they say, favors the prepared. Well, in our case she must have made an exception, because we were utterly UNPREPARED  for the task. Thus, I consider ourselves doubly fortunate for having succeeded.  

Since then, cryptography quickly expanded its range of action from secret writing to digital signature, to pseudo-random number generation, to interactive proofs, to zero-knowledge proofs, to secure protocols… In sum, it became a general theory of interaction in the presence of an adversary. Initially, we used to think of an adversary as someone who wanted to understand your secret messages. But an adversary can take many forms. It can be someone who wants to forge your digital signatures or, more broadly, to impersonate you other the Internet. In pseudo-random generation, it is someone who wants to predict the bits your computer is  generating. In a proof system, it is someone who wants to convince you of a falsehood. In a secure election, voters interact with each other, without any trusted party, so as to compute who the winner is without revealing who voted for whom. Here, the adversary is someone who wants to figure for whom an individual vote has been casted, or someone who wants to alter the correct result of the election. 

More generally, any sufficiently complex system that runs for sufficiently long eventually behaves adversarially. Give it enough time, and what may stat as simple malfunctioning, eventually morphs into a malicious adversary, capable of corrupting and controlling more and more parts of the system. Cryptography helps defeating the adversary in all these different scenarios. In particular, it is our best way to guarantee the reliability of our increasingly complex systems, on which our survival as a species will increasingly depend.

Surprisingly, the same techniques defeating the adversary in the secret-writing application also work in all other scenarios. There are obviously many mathematical techniques involved. But the queen of these techniques is the one-way function: a function for which it is very easy to go from X to F(x) but incredibly difficult to come back from F(x) to X. One-way functions are the mathematical counterparts of the one-way phenomena with which we are very familiar in our daily lives. It is very easy to break a glass. It is harder to put the glass back together. It is easy to scramble an egg. It is essentially impossible to reconstruct the original egg.

Why are one-way functions so powerful? Because they combine two opposites: ease and difficulty. Easy in one direction, difficult in the other. So, by carefully leveraging the opposite nature of one-way functions, it is easy to generate random numbers, while hard to predict them. It is easy to sign documents digitally, while hard to forge signatures. It is easy to encrypt a message ensuring that is easily understood by its intended recipient, while hard for an eavesdropper to understand any partial information about the message. It is easy to prove a true statement, but really hard to prove a false one.

The latest and truly revolutionary application of cryptography is the blockchain. The blockchain is a novel frontier for humanity. Our generation has already experienced the communication revolution. We needed to be in person in order to talk to someone, then the telephone arrived and we could talk to people one-on-one, and now, with Facebook and other social channels, we can send a message to millions of people. But the blockchain is more than communication: it is shared knowledge. When I receive a message via Facebook, I don’t know who else sees it nor if other people are seeing the exact same message. When I read something on the blockchain, however, I know that what I read is the same thing everyone else reads. For humanity, shared knowledge is a technological first.

At the highest level, the blockchain is a distributed database, where everyone can write an entry, everyone can read what has been written, and no one can alter the content, or the order, of what has been written. This is already incredibly important. It eliminates information asymmetry and guarantees transparency. Yet, the blockchain is more than a static and incorruptible database. It enables all kinds of transactions that remain secure even though they are NOT mediated by any kind of third parties, and even though the party you are transacting with is dishonest. This is important, because traditional mediators are expensive and do not care about, nor have the financial incentive to help, ordinary people in their ordinary transactions. By enabling anyone to transact securely, and at nominal costs, the blockchain will play a crucial role in the democratization of finance.

Let me conclude with one final thought. I am receiving the ISSNAF Life-Achievement Award as a scientist and as a technologist. Technology is deeply human. When we created our first tool, we became more not less human. But we should also be cognizant that humanity’s journey is a tortuous one. To use Dante, often we found ourselves in una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita. We found ourselves in a dark forest ’cause the straightforward path had been lost. There is no question that people have built technologies and used them to oppress people, to deprive us of our humanity and our privacy. As we speak, technology that enables us to keep in touch with our friends also demands that we surrender our information about ourselves. This is not acceptable. 

I accept this award, as a scientist who is committed to build good technology, and to use it for the betterment of humanity. I believe and hope that the many great young Italians who are starting a similar journey, here in North America or anywhere else in the World, will do the same, in whatever disciplines they may choose. I wholeheartedly wish them the best of success. 

Godspeed!

Silvio Micali