Jason Kim: On What Tech Can Be Tomorrow

Photo courtesy of Jason Kim.

Jason Kim has had about a decade of experience in start-ups, having founded Taloflow, a software company backed by the prestigious Y Combinator, before launching Big Whale Labs, a zero-knowledge social protocol that offers increased privacy and security through emerging branches of cryptography.

Can you explain to a less tech-literate person, the principles and capabilities of zero-knowledge products?

Zero-knowledge is a concept in cryptography which basically allows users to verify information or verify a statement without revealing more information than they need to. In layman’s terms, let’s say you’re trying to buy alcohol where the legal drinking age is 19. How authentication is done today is you go to a liquor store, and you show your ID. But the issue with that is your driver’s license has way more personal information on it than what is needed in that authentication — you may have your full name, your address — basically, a whole slew of information gets leaked during the process.

What zero-knowledge allows people to do is to verify certain statements like, “I am over 19, but maybe you don’t need to know my name and my address.” And so, you can issue credentials that say, “I’m over 19,” versus giving away more information than you need to. That’s the main benefit.

The less data that gets exchanged, the less likely it is for sensitive information to get leaked, or your own personal data to get taken advantage of. It’s very useful, not just in the crypto space, but just in general [when] using the internet because, while authenticating in person may happen only when you get carded or when you go to the hospital, digital authentication or verification of statements are happening at a much larger scale — and many more times in a day. By reducing the surface area for data leakage, we can help maintain more privacy.

What are the challenges and risks for new tech in your sphere that you look out for, and how do you deal with them?

In the zero-knowledge space, there are a lot of challenges. I think the top two challenges I see are — one — while it provides a lot of benefits like privacy, it’s also very computationally taxing. It requires more energy, more time, more effort for these applications to go to production and then be used by users, which means that you’re fighting an uphill battle. One of the ways you can solve that is just by optimizing it so that it doesn’t hinder users, as much as possible. And the space in general is improving rapidly over time, so there’s a lot of progress being made there.

Secondly, because the latest sets of technology are so new around zero-knowledge — although the field has been around for decades — it’s quite challenging to find engineers and scientists that actually know how to utilize the technology. You have to create your own repertoire to learn a lot of this. Some [knowledge] comes from academia. Some knowledge comes from small hacker groups on the internet. Some comes from cryptography groups all over the world.

How we’re addressing that is we’re building everything in a way where it’s open source. All the code that we write at Big Whale Labs is open source, which means that anybody can just look through the code and see how it works. I think that’s the best way to contribute to an emerging field because you’re showing your work. Other people can build on top of it and critique it and the space overall, and the level of knowledge overall can improve together.

Do you have any opinions on cryptocurrency?

For crypto to actually take off as a space, we need to move beyond just pure speculation and actually build products and services that users want, need, and use. That’s going to be the next frontier. I think there’s a ton of teams, us included, that are working to solve that.

I know right now [in July 2022] this is a little bit of a contrarian statement because the amount of usage volume and trading activity around NFTs have dropped off significantly; however, I still strongly believe that NFTs are a useful technology and something that is going to get more and more widely adopted as time goes on.

The initial use cases around NFTs were about art, collectibles, and different things like that, but in the next wave of NFTs, I think you’ll see a lot of things like credentials, things to do around identity — which is exactly what Big Whale Labs is working on. When you’re trying to assess technology, it’s not just good to look at like what it is today, but you really got to think about what it can be tomorrow.

Rose Ho | Contributing Writer



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