Wallis Workshop

We’re pleased to announce a sequel to the Ada Lovelace Hackathon. Specifically, we’re organising a workshop on Sunday 27th November 2016 to commemorate the 400th birthday of John Wallis, Cambridge mathematician and Parliament’s chief cryptographer. His developments include early analysis (infinitesimals and convergence) and the eponymous Wallis’ Product which expresses π as an infinite product expansion:


He also analysed a reciprocal structure designed by Leonardo da Vinci, resolving forces to show that it is stable without any external support. This is considered to be the first example of structural analysis, and involved solving linear equations in the 25 variables illustrated in the following diagram:


He also coined the lemniscate symbol for infinity, ∞, and wrote a book on grammar. As such, broad themes of the event will include infinity, non-standard analysis, reciprocal structures, and cryptography. More suggestions are available on the website.

There will also be a baking competition, as before, and fancy dress is encouraged. If you need reminding, here is one of the entries from last year:


We’ll also endeavour to actually nominate a winner this time…

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Is Craig Wright?

Today there has been an explosion of media interest in the claim by Craig Wright that he is the identity behind the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. However, his blog post is rather suspicious, as it contains various misconceptions that one would not expect from an expert in the field, let alone the originator of Bitcoin.

“A process known as combinatorics”

Several paragraphs into the post, he begins discussing technical details and making various errors:

Wright writes: The SHA256 algorithm provides for a maximum message size of 2^128 – 1 bits of information whilst returning 32 bytes or 256 bits as an output value.

No, the SHA-256 algorithm only supports inputs of length up to 2^{64}-1. Specifically, there is a preprocessing stage where extra bits are appended to the end of the input as follows:

  • Input data (n bits)
  • Padding (512 – (n+64 mod 512) bits)
  • Binary representation of n (64 bits)

This ensures that the prepared input has a length divisible by 512, which is necessary for the mixing algorithm which operates on blocks of 512 bits.

Anyway, this error is just about excusable since it pertains to the obscured internal details of an algorithm which people often use simply as a ‘black box’ for generating cryptographically secure message digests. The next sentence was much more concerning, since it suggests a serious mathematical misconception:

Wright writes: The number of possible messages that can be input into the SHA256 hash function totals (2^128 – 1)! possible input values ranging in size from 0 bits through to the maximal acceptable range that we noted above.

This does not even remotely resemble the correct number of possible inputs, which is 2^{2^{64}} - 1. The use of a factorial to count the number of binary strings should immediately trigger alarm bells in anyone with a rudimentary undergraduate-level understanding of discrete mathematics.

This is followed by the rather amusing deviation:

Wright writes: In determining the possible range of collisions that would be available on average, we have a binomial coefficient (n choose k) that determines the permutations through a process known as combinatorics [1].

The reference is to a paper by Lovasz, a great mathematician who would be either amused or offended to hear the field of combinatorics described as ‘a process‘. Moreover, binomial coefficients count subsets, rather than ‘determine permutations’, and most professional cryptanalysts would struggle to decipher the phrase ‘possible range of collisions that would be available on average’.

Nitpicking the code

In one of the images on Craig Wright’s blog post, there is a screenshot of Notepad displaying a putative shell script for verifying an ECDSA signature. With the comments removed, the code reads as follows:


if [[ $# -lt 3 ]] ; then
 echo "Usage: verify <file> <signature> <public_key>"
 exit 1

base64 --decode $signiture > /tmp/$filename.sig
openssl dgst --verify $publickey -signature /tmp/$filename.sig $filename
rm /tmp/$filename.sig

Note that the antepenultimate line says ‘signiture’ instead of ‘signature’, so the script doesn’t do what is claimed. In particular, it reads the signature from the environment variable ‘signiture’ rather than from the command-line argument. Hence, if you populate the environment variable with your own public-key, rather than Satoshi’s, you can cause the test to pass!

Whether this was indeed a malicious trick to convince spectators (or economists, as the case may be) or simply an innocent typo is unclear. But in the latter case, the script clearly was never tested; otherwise, the error would have been quickly detected. Either way, this seems somewhat suspicious.

“I’m Satoshi, and so’s my wife”

This is by no means the first time someone has claimed to be Satoshi. However, on this occasion there is the added caveat that two well-known Bitcoin developers, Jon Matonis and Gavin Andresen, purport that Wright is indeed right. This rules out the possibility that Wright is merely trying to seek attention, and instead suggests the following dichotomy:

  1. Matonis and Andresen genuinely believe that Satoshi is Wright.
  2. The triumvirate have ulterior motives for perpetuating a ruse.

Several explanations for (2) have been proposed. In particular, there is a rift amongst the Bitcoin developers between the ‘big-blockians’ and the ‘little-blockians’ (to parody Jonathan Swift), which I shall attempt to summarise here. Firstly, note that block size is essentially a measure of how many transactions can be handled in a 10-minute interval.

The little-blockians want the block sizes of Bitcoin to remain small, and thus for it to be a pure decentralised currency that can be used by anyone with a computer. This would maintain it as a peer-to-peer currency, but would limit its growth.

By comparison, the big-blockians believe Bitcoin should grow into a universal currency, expanding the block size to accommodate absolutely every transaction. The downside is that this is beyond the computational limits of domestic machines, thereby meaning that Bitcoin could only be regulated by banks, governments, and other large organisations: thereby moving it away from a libertarian idyll into something more akin to a regular currency.

Matonis, Andresen and Wright are all big-blockians. Having the esteemed creator Satoshi on their side would help their argument, and it is entirely plausible that there are several large organisations who would benefit from having more control over the regulation of Bitcoin.

Whether these motives are indeed the case, rather than mere speculation, will require further evidence. But as the evidence stands, I would not like to bet any money, cryptographic or otherwise, on the validity of Wright’s claim…

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March miscellany

Several rather interesting developments have occurred this month. In inverse chronological order, they are summarised below:

E8 and Λ24 lattices actually are optimal

The lattices E8 and Λ24 are lattice packings of unit spheres in 8 and 24 dimensions, respectively. They possess many exceptional properties, including being highly symmetrical and efficient sphere packings. Indeed, it was shown that, among all lattice* packings of spheres in 8 and 24 dimensions, E8 and Λ24 have the highest density. Moreover, it was known that no packing whatsoever could be more than microscopically more efficient than either of these exceptional lattices.

*that is to say, ones where the group of translational symmetries acts transitively on the set of spheres.

Now, it has actually been proved that E8 and Λ24 have the highest density among all sphere packings, not just lattice packings. Maryna Viazovska made a breakthrough which allowed her to prove the optimality of the 8-dimensional packing; subsequently, she led a group of collaborators who refined this approach to apply to the 24-dimensional Leech lattice.

More on this story here.

AlphaGo defeats Lee Sedol in a 4-1 victory

A team of researchers at Google DeepMind developed a program to play the board game Go at the professional level. It was pitted against a 9-dan professional Go player (that is to say, one of the very best Go players in the world), Lee Sedol, winning four of the five matches. Lee Sedol was able to obtain a single victory, his fourth game, by observing that AlphaGo was less strong when faced with unexpected moves (despite having made several of its own, described by spectators as ‘creative’!).

The algorithm ran on a distributed network of 1202 CPUs and 176 GPUs. It uses a combination of brute-force tree searching (like conventional chess algorithms), Monte Carlo simulations (where many plausible futures are simulated and evaluated) and pattern recognition (using convolutional neural networks). These convolutional neural networks are much larger and deeper than the one I implemented on the Analytical Engine, with 192 feature-maps in the first convolutional layer. In particular, AlphaGo used:

  • A value network to evaluate how favourable a position appears to be;
  • A supervised policy network to learn how a human would play;
  • A reinforcement policy network to decide how it should play;
  • A fast rollout policy network which is a simpler, cruder, and faster counterpart of the above (used for the Monte Carlo rollouts).

The supervised policy network was trained on a huge database of human matches, learning to recognise spatial patterns with its convolutional networks. After quickly exhausting the database, it had no option but to play lots of instances of itself via reinforcement learning, using competition and natural selection to evolve itself. In doing so, AlphaGo had effectively played more matches than any human had ever seen, growing increasingly powerful over a period of several months (from when it played the 2-dan European Go champion Fan Hui).

A much more detailed description of the algorithm is in the Nature paper.

Unexpected pattern discovered in Conway’s Game of Life

It transpires that, despite 46 years of interest and hundreds of thousands of CPU-hours of Monte Carlo searching, there was a piece of low-hanging fruit in an area no-one had thought to explore. This was the copperhead, a spaceship with the unusually slow speed of c/10:


Alexey Nigin wrote an excellent article describing its discovery. In the next few days after the article’s publication, there were additional breakthroughs: Simon Ekström discovered that the spaceship could be extended to produce a profusion of sparks:


This extension is capable of perturbing passing objects, such as reflecting gliders. A convoy of these creatures can consequently catalyse more complex interactions, such as duplicating and recirculating gliders to yield an unterminating output; the following example was constructed by Matthias Merzenich:


As you can see, there is a steady stream of NE-directed gliders escaping to the right.

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Presidential endorsement paradox

Cornelius for CUSU President

At hustings, Varsity political reporter Louis Ashworth asked the wonderful question: “Who of the other presidential candidates would you most and least likely vote for?”. The results bothered me, because they clearly showed that endorsements are everything but transitive (transitivity means that if A implies B, and B implies C, then A implies C). Have a look at the figure to see what I mean.

Unfortunately, due to CUSU’s awkward election rules,  I’m not allowed to mention who candidates A and B are. The Tab, Varsity or TCS will be able to fill you in on that if they pick up on it.


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Deep Learning with the Analytical Engine

In December we held a hackathon to celebrate the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace. In the last post, the results of the baking competition were mentioned along with our efforts to program the Analytical Engine emulator. Although I briefly alluded to a project I undertook last month which built upon these ideas, the implementation was only completed a few hours before I had to present it in a talk. As such, the actual results are hitherto undocumented, except in the deepest recesses of a GitLab repository.

The project was to implement a machine-learning algorithm within the confines of the Analytical Engine (which amounts to about 20 kilobytes of memory and a very minimalistic instruction set). If you have 35 minutes to spare, here is my talk introducing the project. My apologies for the hesitant beginning; the talk was unscripted:

It transpired that, at the time of the talk, there were a couple of mistakes in the implementation; I was later able to detect and remove these bugs by writing additional Analytical Engine code to facilitate debugging. After making these modifications, the machine-learning code learned how to recognise handwritten digits surprisingly well.

As mentioned in the talk, a simple neural network would occupy too much memory, so I implemented a deep convolutional network instead (with extra optimisations such as using the cross-entropy cost function and L2 regularisation in the final fully-connected layer). Specifically, there are 5 feature-maps in the first convolutional layer, and 10 in the second convolutional layer:


Code generation was performed by a combination of a Bash script (for overall orchestration) and several Python scripts (for tasks such as generating code for each layer, implementing a call-stack to enable subroutines, and including the image data in the program). The generated code comprises 412663 lines, each one corresponding to a punched card for the actual Analytical Engine. Even if the punched cards were each just 2mm thick, the program would be as tall as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai!

The following progress report shows a dot for an incorrect guess and an asterisk for a correct guess; it is evident that the code is rapidly learning:


You can see during the first training epoch that its performance increases from 10% (which is expected since an untrained network equates to random guessing, and there are 10 distinct digits {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9}) to 79% from training on 5000 images. This was followed by a testing phase, in which a different set of 1000 images were presented to the network without the labels; unlike in the training phase, the network isn’t given the labels for the testing images so it cannot learn from the test and subsequently ‘cheat’. The testing performance was 79.1%, broadly in line with its performance on the training data towards the end of the epoch as one would expect.

We then repeat this process of training on 5000 images and evaluation on 1000 images. The performance improved again, from 79.1% to 84.9%. After the third epoch, it had increased to 86.8%, and by the end of the ninth epoch it had exceeded 93%. At that point I accidentally switched off my remote server, so the results end there. If you set the program running on your computer, it should overtake this point after about 24 hours.

[Edit: I subsequently tried it with 20000 training images and 10000 evaluation images, and the performance is considerably better:

  1. 89.69%
  2. 93.52%
  3. 94.95%
  4. 95.53%
  5. 95.86%
  6. 96.31%

and is continuing to improve.]

Theoretically the architecture should eventually reach 98.5% accuracy if trained on 50000 images (confirmed by implementing the same algorithm in C++, which runs about 1000 times more quickly); I urge you to try it yourself. Complete source code is available on the Deep Learning with the Analytical Engine repository together with additional information and links to various resources.

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Lovelace hackathon: results

In the previous post, I mentioned the hackathon we were organising to celebrate the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace. The event was a huge success, and it is safe to say that all attendees had a most enjoyable, creative and productive time. For posterity, here is a recount of the various aspects of the hackathon.

The baking competition

Many of the attendees produced delicious treats in advance of the hackathon. These were designed to sustain us throughout the latter half of the event (i.e. after the café upstairs closed at 16:00). Everyone else constituted a committee of ‘impartial judges’ who would decide amongst themselves the winning entry. But before I announce the results, here are the entries:

Edible Tantrix tiles (Simon Rawles, Deepa Shah, Adam P. Goucher):


We only had three colours of icing and an insufficient amount of gingerbread to constitute a standard-issue Tantrix set (cf. the decidedly inedible tiles surrounding the plate). Also, I was responsible for cutting the hexagons and was in something of a rush due to having to catch a bus back to central Cambridge in time for a feast.

Hackathon title (Jade-Amanda Laporte, Jardin-Alice Laporte)


Delicious, pertinent, and with a stylised ‘200’ resembling the digits embossed on the wheels of the Analytical Engine.

Miscellaneous shapes of variable genus (origin unknown)


Definitely the tastiest three-holed torus I’ve encountered.

Hyperbolic tessellation (Tim Hutton, Neela Hutton)


Somewhere between the Poincare and Beltrami-Klein models.

The results

The impartial judges were far too terrified to vote! Due to fear of offending the other entries, they didn’t reach any conclusion! As such, no entry was declared the winner, much to the disappointment of the contestants.

Programming the emulator

We succeeded in implementing an absolute-value function and (later) an activation function for a neural network, verifying its correctness using the Analytical Engine Emulator.


After a while, we managed to get an actual plot of the activation function using the Curve Plotting Apparatus (which Babbage proposed as part of his design for the Analytical Engine). This research eventually culminated in a project to realise a machine learning algorithm on the Analytical Engine (cp4space post coming soon!).

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Ada Lovelace Day: 10th December 2015

After several months of planning, I would like to announce that there will indeed be an event in Cambridge to celebrate the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace (10th December 2015):


The organising committee is composed entirely of volunteers, so the event is completely free to attend: just turn up on the day! Details, including the date, time and location, are on the official website in addition to the Facebook event page.

We hope to see you there!

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