Did IOTA Plagiarize NKN’s Cellular Automata-based Consensus Model?

IOTA recently announced the ‘next step’ in its evolution: a new blueprint called ‘coordicide’ which would remove IOTA’s centralized Coordinator. The Coordinator is currently responsible for controlling transactions and security on the IOTA blockchain. It was designed to thwart attacks against Iota’s Tangle system.

The Coordinator has long been subject to criticisms. It comes down to what Vitalik Buterin called the “Blockchain Trilemma.” The trilemma underscores the fact that, as of now, no model has been invented which has scalability, security, and decentralization. IOTA claimed to have two — scalability and security — but failed to be decentralized. Ethereum, in comparison, has security and decentralization but scales poorly.

With the announcement of Coordicide — a play-on of ‘killing the Coordinator’ — IOTA claims to have resolved the Blockchain Trilemma. However, upon further investigation, it seems that IOTA has merely part-copied another lesser-known project known as a New Kind of Network (NKN) without giving them any credit.

Did IOTA plagiarize NKN? Let’s investigate.

The Evidence: Comparing the Two Whitepapers

Just a small snippet from IOTA’s section 6.2.2.

Cellular automata (CA) is proposed by the team as a (likely) solution to the Coordinator problem. In CA, nodes are thought of as cells which ‘monitor’ the state of their neighbors. It’s modeled after biological systems, hence its name.

It’s a great idea, but here’s the problem — the IOTA team acts as if they were the first to apply this concept to solve the Blockchain Trilemma. Other than saying it developed from the Ising Model (a system within statistical mechanics), there are no citations aside from a 1968 book.

IOTA is definitely not the first to apply this theoretical concept to the cryptocurrency space. A New Kind of Network (NKN) published a detailed, mathematically-dense whitepaper on the topic way back in March of 2018. NKN’s CA-based system (called ‘MOCA’) has been active since last year, currently boasting over 10,000 TestNet nodes and set for MainNet release in June, 2019. Yet, somehow in IOTA’s ‘research’ on CA, this is suspiciously omitted. CA is not just a minor part of NKN’s project: the concept is central to their underlying technology. It is also easily findable on Google.

Section 5 of NKN’s 2018 whitepaper is all about Cellular Automata consensus.
Part of NKN’s 2018 whitepaper where they link CA to the Ising Model.

Cellular automata (CA) is a concept which has been around for decades, however it was first proposed as a possible mechanism of consensus in the crypto-world by a New Kind of Network (NKN). Therefore, it would be difficult to argue that IOTA developers researched ‘Celullar Automata’ as it pertains to blockchain technology and did not stumble on NKN.

So what’s the deal with this? Why not give credit where credit is due?

Is it Plagiarism?

Again, IOTA’s entire CA section has only two citations — one 1925 book citing Ernst Ising, who invented the Ising Model, and a book on CA from 1968. Neither of these are really relevant to IOTA’s explanation of CA and, if you’ve ever written academic papers, you can tell they’re just fluff.

How did IOTA put together this rough sketch of ‘Cellular consensus,’ for example?

The entire explanation of the CA algorithim has no citations.

Did IOTA really come up with CA as a possible consensus mechanism all on their own? No — and not a single citation to any relevant cryptocurrency project working on CA is in the paper. Not even a mention of modern implementations and theories regarding CA. Nothing.

For those of you who believe IOTA reached their findings on CA independently of NKN, that’s a hard case to make. Since stumbling on NKN’s CA consensus model is inevitable when researching the topic, this seems outright impossible. Moreover, the lack of citations in the section entirely — on a topic which is highly specialized and mathematically-complex, no less — points towards this being a conscious omission rather than some accident.

If you just type “cellular automata consensus” in Google, NKN’s technical posts come up first or second.

Same goes for “cellular automata blockchain.”

NKN Responds

NKN’s tweet to IOTA yestetday.

NKN’s co-founder, Yilun Zhang, tweeted something similar. He was also wondering why IOTA’s explanation of Cellular Automata completely lacked any citations of NKN or its advisor, the famous mathematician Stephen Wolfram. Wolfram joined the NKN project as technical advisor back in December 2018 and has a vast collection of academic work pertaining to CA. He is arguably the most prolific writer on this topic. Yet, IOTA mentions none of it.

The Verdict

Let’s be honest: IOTA is a big fish in the cryptocurrency space. NKN is still only worth around $20M, a tiny drop in the bucket compared to IOTA’s market share. They likely thought lifting NKN’s work was no big deal and that it would be brushed aside. The least IOTA can do is give proper credit and cite ideas that come from these smaller projects instead of claiming it as their own. IOTA’s proposed CA solution to the Coordinator is not their own and they did not invent it. And they should be called out for it or else we will further see larger cryptocurrency projects eat up and plagiarize smaller, innovative ones.

Here’s the good news, though: IOTA has admitted it is still far from ever actually implementing Cellular Automata as a consensus mechanism. It would need to try it on testnet first before it could ever come to fruition, and that’ll take a long, long time.

With NKN launching their MainNet by the end of June, IOTA — despite claiming NKN’s ideas without citation — is still light years behind.

Thanks for reading.

Took me a long while to write this up. If you found this informative, give me a tip for all my hard work? :)

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ETH: 0xf675d14042E65c0172845037998c27BDEEE271da

NKN: 0xf675d14042E65c0172845037998c27BDEEE271da

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