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A coalition of 22 leading zero-knowledge technology companies, foundations, and funds including Advanced Micro Devices, Aleo, Anoma, the Ethereum Foundation, Matter Labs, Mina Protocol, Polkadot Pioneers Prize, and Polygon have launched a contest to advance the technology.

The companies will give away $7 million in the ZPrize contest to accelerate zero-knowledge cryptography, which can make blockchain technology — used in everything from games to crypto art — more efficient and less wasteful when it comes to computing power and transactions.

The contest is modeled after the famous XPrize competitions that have used private contributions to fuel advances in a variety of areas including spaceflight, adult literacy, and ocean health. For the ZPrize, teams will compete for awards by engineering new algorithms and techniques that achieve performance metrics unmatched by the best zero-knowledge systems deployed in the blockchain industry today.

One of the most promising approaches for scaling zero-knowledge technology is to use specialized hardware like graphics processing units (GPUs) or field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). So ZPrize is collaborating with AMD-Xilinx to provide access to cutting-edge hardware such as the Varium C1100 blockchain accelerator card for competing teams to develop the best solutions to the ZPrize challenges.

“Incorporating zero-knowledge cryptography in a blockchain platform is critical for widespread adoption of the technology, but it comes with a significantly increased compute workload,” said Hamid Salehi, director of product marketing at the AECG Data Center Group at AMD, in a statement. “FPGAs are uniquely positioned to accelerate the zero-knowledge protocol efficiently, at the hardware level, to create scalable blockchain solutions. AMD-Xilinx is proud to support the ZPrize competition with our FPGA-based accelerators to enable the community to create innovative solutions that help advance zero-knowledge technology.”

Zero knowledge proofs

The ZPrize is modeled after the X Prize.

As blockchain technology and Web3 expand into more use cases, it faces the challenge of scaling to hundreds of millions of users while at the same time remaining trustless, secure, and accessible. Zero-knowledge is a new technology that shows great promise in solving these problems. Since its introduction by ZCash in 2016, the technology has evolved through rapid-fire innovation. That’s why industry and academic experts alike view it as the key to enabling mainstream adoption of Web3 and blockchain technology.

To understand the significance of zero-knowledge proofs, you need a basic understanding of blockchain, the transparent and secure digital ledger which uses a network of computers to verify the truth of a piece of data on one computer. If the distributed and immutable ledger confirms that the data is the same across that network, then that data is verified.

Blockchains such as Ethereum have become popular for hosting blockchain games with nonfungible tokens (NFTs), which use blockchain to authenticate unique digital items in games. But those blockchains can consume a lot of energy when they use the network to verify every little detail in a game, like who beat a boss or won a match.

It’s a form of cryptography that allows for basically verifiable computations. What that means is that an application runs a piece of code and you offer a proof that this result came from that code. That magic basically lets you shortcut and fast track a ton of steps that you otherwise would have the network run for you.

By doing this, a game can utilize the company’s own servers for doing things like crafting of in-game items, rather than running that on the blockchain in a way that consumes a lot of energy and costs. Wu said you can take take a complex logic, like fighting a boss and play out that entire battle between your character and boss — but do it off the blockchain, rather than on it. That uses a lot less computing power and energy, but it could be less secure.

The game company can create a full log, or a full transcript of what happened during that entire process, and just give the final outcome along with the proof. The proof is sent on the blockchain and the network that verifies transactions on the blockchain can verify the proof. If it mathematically checks out, then it concludes that you really played this battle with the boss. That is, it can verify the accuracy of the data without activating the blockchain network’s host of computers.

Then the game company can circumvent replaying the entire set of events that happened and just accept the final outcome on the network. The partners send that proof to the network with the final outcomes so that it can then be recorded onto the blockchain. Aleo is building its own Layer 1 blockchain to host this type of technology, similar to others like Dapper Labs with its Flow blockchain. But Aleo is also implementing a multi-chain ecosystem.

The ZPrize challenge

Teams will compete to win financial rewards in both dollars and tokens across a range of categories that the sponsors have identified to be of particular importance for practical application of zero-knowledge systems. Submissions will be judged against the existing technical benchmarks, with the highest rewards paid out for the greatest improvements on the current state-of-the-art.

“Espresso Systems is proud to sponsor the ZPrize, an industry-wide collaboration which we believe will be crucial to advancing zero-knowledge as a technology,” said Jill Gunter, chief strategy officer for Espresso Systems, in a statement. “Zero-knowledge systems are paving the way toward mass adoption of decentralized applications as they transform the way we interact and transact online and the ZPrize is an important effort to accelerate that progress.”

The cooperation of competing entities embodied by ZPrize centers around the shared objective of making widespread application of this technology practical and enabling privacy and scalability in web 3. To that end, winners of the competition must open-source their challenge solutions so that the entire community can access and benefit from them fully.

“The goal of the ZPrize is to spur a quantum leap in zero-knowledge cryptography that so many Web3 protocol and application developers are waiting for to enable their products to scale to millions,” said Alex Pruden, chief operating officer of Aleo and founder of the ZPrize initiative, in a statement. “The sponsors of ZPrize not only represent an industry but a united community of believers in this technology. We share a collective desire to turn these exciting academic ideas into a deployed reality. With the ZPrize, we’re advancing the state-of-the-art to form the bricks of the technological foundation that will scale and secure the next-generation web.”

ZPrize sponsors include, in alphabetical order, 0xPARC, Aleo, Algorand, Anoma, Aztec Protocol, Celo, CoreWeave, DZK, Espresso Systems, Ethereum Foundation, Findora, Harmony One, Kora, Manta Network, Mina Protocol, Matter Labs, the Polkadot Pioneers Prize, Polychain Capital, Polygon, RISC0, Trapdoor Tech, Zero Knowledge Validator

Anyone with academic or industry experience in mathematics, cryptography, electrical engineering, hardware engineering, or optimization is encouraged to apply.

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