Because Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrency mining certificates are "rare" in that their respective hash is less than a very small number, can we leverage their rarity in probabilistic proofs of other interesting problems?

In more detail, in Bitcoin mining miners compete to build a block by constructing a Merkle root of financial transactions, call it root $r$, and also finding a nonce, say nonce $c$, such that a cryptographic hash $H_S(r\Vert c)$, thought of as a number between $0$ and $1$, is less than a moving difficulty target $d$. (The hash is salted with other information $S$, such as the hash of the previous block; however, most of that extra information is constant for each block mined, hence I'm sweeping that under the rug for now.) Miners find such pairs $(r,c)$ about once every ten minutes. The adjustable difficulty $d$ is presently about $2^{-72}$. Thus, miners perform roughly $2^{71}$ hashes every ten minutes or so.

Furthermore, $r$ is $256$ bits while $c$ is $32$ bits. Accordingly, we can consider $r\Vert c$ as a $288$-bit number $q=2^{32}r+c$. A quick application of the prime number theorem suggests that this $288$-bit number is prime about once every $\log 2^{288}\approx 200$ blocks. This corresponds to a beacon of roughly one pair $(r,c)$ every 33 hours such that $q=2^{32}r+c$ is prime. (There may be other ways to increase the frequency of the beacon, e.g. by setting $q'=2^{33}r+2c+1$, etc., but for simplicity $q=2^{32}r+c$ suffices.)

For example, after a little bit of hunting on the main Bitcoin blockchain, at height 520605 Wolfram|Alpha confirms that the hexadecimal Merkle root and nonce


is prime.

We can say that not only is $q$ prime, but also $q$ is rare in that $H_S(q)$ is less than the small target $d$.

Furthermore, given a system $F=0$ of $k$ polynomial equations on $n$ variables, where the maximal degree over all monomials is $D$ and the bit-size of the largest coefficient is $h$, if the system is unsatisfiable in $\mathbb{C}^n$, unconditionally it will only be satisfiable modulo a finite number of prime $p$. Effective Nullstellensatz shows that for unsatisfiable systems without a solution in $\mathbb{C}^n$, there are at most

$$A_F=4n(n+1)D^n(h+\log k+(n+7)\log(n+1)D)$$

primes $p$ such that $F=0\mod p$.

However, if a system of polynomial equations in $\mathbb{C}$ is satisfiable then it will be satisfiable in $\mathbb{Z}/{p\mathbb{Z}}$ for a positive density of primes $p$. Assuming the Generalized Riemann Hypothesis, Koiran showed these primes $p$ will be distributed "evenly" across different equivalence classes, such that there is a "large" gap in good primes between satisfiable systems and unsatisfiable systems. This gap can be verified with only looking at the behavior of "small" primes.

Accordingly, Koiran proposes a protocol of certifying the satisfiability of the system over $\mathbb{C}$ by finding a rare prime $p$ such that both there is a solution to the given system in $\mathbb{Z}/{p\mathbb{Z}}$, and $H(p)=y$ for some randomly chosen hash $H$ and randomly chosen image $y$, where the size of the codomain of $H$ is chosen carefully such that there are enough candidate preimages $p$ to be able to invert the hash $H$ iff $F=0$ is satisfiable in $\mathbb{C}$.

Finally, as an example of using Bitcoin certificates in conjunction with Koiran's result, consider Chao and Gao's description of automated proofs of interesting geometric theorems. Given a problem in plane geometry, Chao and Gao construct systems of algebraic equations for the hypotheses and conclusion, and apply the Wu-Ritt method of characteristic sets to test whether the conclusion polynomial follows from the hypothesis polynomials.

Morley’s Theorem

For example, Chao and Gao prove Morley's theorem, which states that given any triangle $ABC$, trisectors of each angle $\angle ABC, \angle CAB, \angle BCA$ meet at an equilateral triangle $DEF$.

Chao and Gao provide a system of about $k=12$ equations in about $n=12$ variables, where the maximum degree $D=5$ and the maximal bit-complexity of the coefficients is $h=\log_2 6$. Thus, the Effective Nullstellensatz bound for Chao and Gao's description of Morley's Theorem is $A_F\le 2^{40}\ll 2^{72}$.

We can look for a solution in $\mathbb{F}_q^n$ to Chao and Gao's polynomials describing Morley's theorem, or, following Huang and Wong, we can decide that the system does have a solution in time $O(\log q)$ without necessarily finding the solution.

Hence, if one uses a SAT-solver to find a solution to Chao and Gao's system of equations for Morley's theorem in $\mathbb{F}_q^n$ for $q$ as the 288-bit prime root||nonce found above at the Bitcoin blockchain of height 520605, or if one uses Huang and Wong's approach, does one then have something close to a probabilistic proof of Morley's theorem, where the probability of being "wrong" is something like $d\times A_F\le 2^{-31}$ or so?

Comment: Even though I've rewritten this, I'm accepting DW's answer as helping to crystallize thinking.


1 Answer 1


Heuristically: Yes, I suspect this probably works, if the system of equations is committed to in advance (well before mining works), and if the system of equations is small enough. You'll need the random oracle assumption, ERH, and maybe other heuristic assumptions.

In particular, Theorem 5 of their paper upper-bounds the number of prime numbers $p$ such that the system has a solution modulo $\mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z}$. Suppose this bound is at most $2^{32}$. Then, heuristically (in the random oracle model), that the probability that there exists a prime $q$ that could fool you is at most $2^{32}/2^{72} = 1/2^{40}$. So, the probability you are fooled into thinking the system is satisfiable, when it actually isn't, is at most $1/2^{40}$. This assumes the system of equations is small enough that you can get a small upper-bound on the number of primes $p$, e.g., $2^{32}$ or so. That's a major limitation. Once the upper bound gets large, then you lose all guarantees and the proof probably becomes useless. This is in contrast to the more standard zero-knowledge proof, which doesn't have that problem, since there one can adjust the size of the cryptographic hash to be as large as needed to avoid this problem; with your scheme, we're limited to a 72-bit hash. Given that the upper-bound in Theorem 5 has an exponential dependence on $n$ (the number of equations in the system), I am suspicious that you might very quickly run into this limit and thus that your scheme might become useless in practice for all but the most trivial cases.

Important caveat: This requires some way to verify that the system of equations was committed to in advance. Otherwise, a miner could mine a block $(r,c)$, then subsequently construct a system of equations that has a solution in $\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z}$ (with $q=2^{32}r+c$) but has no solution in $\mathbb{C}$; it's easy to construct such a system once $q$ is known.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how this is better than Koiran's original proposal. I'm not immediately seeing an advantage that would make this more useful in practice.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Not thought of your concern of commitment in advance and I agree. Also, as I understand it, Koiran gave two protocols. The first similar to the above requiring Arthur to pick an $H$ and a $y$, and Merlin to find $t$ such that $H(t)=y$ while there's a solution in $\mathbb{Z}/{t\mathbb{Z}}$. The second was using Theorem 9 to find a solution mod at least one prime in a random run of numbers. Is that Koiran's original proposal? With the above, I was thinking the advantage being public verifiability of the random nature of $q$ rather than two separate Arthur/Merlins. Thanks again! $\endgroup$
    – Mark S
    Mar 21, 2018 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkS, if you use a cryptographic hash function $H$ and the random oracle assumption, don't you get public verifiability? $\endgroup$
    – D.W.
    Mar 21, 2018 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DW yes I suppose you are right. But who else, besides Bitcoin miners, are powerful enough to find a preimage that hashes onto a 72-bit string of $0$'s? How else would you implement Koiran? Also, do we have a feel from effective Nullstellensatz for how often the Thm. 5 bound is reached? 72 bits may not be that great but if the Thm. 5 bound is rarely reached in practice, it might be "heuristically" OK to justify the statement "Because this system has a solution mod $p$ for a lot of primes, it is likely to be satisfiable in $\mathbb{C}$." $\endgroup$
    – Mark S
    Mar 22, 2018 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkS I wouldn't assume that a protocol is "Secure" if we only suppose that bitcoin miners only have the ability to compute the problem you have. The global hash rate is a large computer but that doesn't mean that individuals with large computational power such as a botnet or other systems could also do the same task. $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2018 at 15:16

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