Martin Hellman: We’re playing Russian roulette

Martin Hellman achieved legendary status as co-inventor of the Diffie-Hellman public key exchange algorithm, a breakthrough in software and computer cryptography. That invention and his ongoing work in cryptography and digital signatures earned him a Turing award in 2015. He has since followed that up with a second act devoted to promoting world peace and personal development.I was recently able to meet with Mr. Hellman for a far-ranging conversation about the technological and personal synergies that have shaped his thinking and defined his career. It was both a pleasure and an honor to interview one of the true luminaries of technology innovation.Tyson: I feel I must begin by thanking you for your work in making private communication possible. I think many of us don’t recognize just how Orwellian the internet age could have been without Diffie-Hellman.Now, can I start with a broad question? You have been involved in technology for a long time. What surprises you about how things have evolved?Hellman: I’m not as surprised as most people, but that’s partly because I’ve studied the issue so much. Even in 1975, I could foresee the coming computer-communications revolution, and have observed the larger-scale movements since. (See my Lindau talk. There’s also a written version of that talk on my Stanford Publications Page.) One of the most important realizations I had was that the technological and the human can never really be separated. But there is a temptation for the technologist to slip into a thought silo. Tyson: That Lindau paper is eye-opening on several fronts. When you and Whitfield Diffie first introduced public-key cryptography, you had a major battle with the government snooping industry, most especially the National Security Agency. What do you think about the state of digital spying today? Hellman: There’s a need for greater international cooperation. How can we have true cyber security when nations are planning—and implementing—cyber attacks on one another? How can we ensure that AI is used only for good when nations are building it into their weapons systems? Then, there’s the grandaddy of all technological threats, nuclear weapons. If we keep fighting wars, it’s only a matter of time before one blows up. The highly unacceptable level of nuclear risk highlights the need to look at the choices we make around critical decisions, including cyber security. We have to take into consideration all participants’ needs for our strategies to be effective.Even before the war in Ukraine, which has elevated the risk, I estimated the risk of a major nuclear war was roughly equivalent to pulling the trigger in “nuclear roulette” once every fifteen years, so about five times over the life of a child born today. The war in Ukraine and the war between Israel and Gaza have increased that risk, so that now we are probably pulling the trigger about once a year that those wars go on. That doesn’t contradict those who say that a nuclear war is unlikely. After all, the most likely outcome in Russian roulette is that you walk away just fine. But no one in his right mind would play that “game” even once, much less repeatedly.Tyson: Your battle with the government to make private communication available to the general public in the digital age has the status of folklore. But, in your recent book (co-authored with your wife Dorothie), you describe a meeting of minds with Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, former head of the NSA. Until I read your book, I saw the National Security Agency as bad and Diffie-Hellman as good, plain and simple. You describe how you came to see the NSA and its people as sincere actors rather than as a cynical cabal bent on repression. What changed your perspective?Hellman: This is a great, real-life example of how taking a holistic view in a conflict, instead of just a one-sided one, resolved an apparently intractable impasse. Those insights were part of a major change in my approach to life.  As we say in our book, “Get curious, not furious.” These ideas are effective not just in highly visible conflicts like ours with the NSA, but in every aspect of life.  Tyson: I love the story there of how Admiral Inman kind of created the opening for bridging between you and the NSA. Switching tracks, what are your thoughts about blockchain and cryptocurrency? Hellman: The original ideas behind blockchain go way back, at least as far as Digital Time Stamp Inc.’s plan to use Merkle trees and publish the root node in the New York Times. I don’t know very much about cryptocurrencies, so I will defer to others on that.Tyson: You and Whitfield Diffie devised the watershed algorithm that now bears your names—Diffie-Hellman. But despite a patent, much of the financial benefit went to the folks at RSA who built on it.  Can you talk a bit about how this affected you, your journey to reconciliation, and the power of forgiveness?Hellman: I was mad at RSA for a long time, but again, I found that inconsistent with my approach to life. It’s easier said than done, but rising above anger to empathy is critical. That’s described in the story starting on page 50 of our book.Tyson: Do you have any advice for younger folks that are involved in technology?Hellman: I’d encourage them to embrace “The Wisdom of Foolishness.” See my Stanford Engineering Hero talk with that title, as well as the part of my Lindau talk that relates to that phenomenon.Tyson: The wisdom of foolishness is very Zen, as well as akin to the mindset of many technology innovators.You’ve worked on non-technical issues like nuclear non-proliferation, national defense, and recently the conflict in Ukraine. Are there hidden or surprising synergies with these efforts and mathematics or software, or perhaps game theory?Hellman: The main thing to learn is that the narrative we (and other nations) tell ourselves is overly simplified and tends to make us look good and our adversaries bad.Putin was wrong to invade Ukraine, but the story is more complicated than our media (and we) make out. As just one example, a poll done in Ukraine by the University of Chicago four months after the invasion found that, while 85% of the Ukrainians polled blamed Russia for the war, 70% also held their own government responsible, and 58% said that about the United States.I spoke with one of the lead researchers at the university and the main bias she could identify made the poll more pro-Ukrainian than average. They used Ukrainian cell phone numbers that tend not to work in the occupied territories. I talk a lot about “embracing our shadow side,” which is a concept Carl Jung discusses. The shadow is the parts of ourselves that are so unacceptable to us that they are hidden from our conscious minds and can cause many problems by working at an unconscious level.Tyson: As a programmer, I’ve experienced this, and also the tendency to kind of bury everything in work. Much of the time, for people in the trenches of software and technology, trying to make a living, fighting deadlines and competitive markets, it can be hard to lift the head up and think about larger issues like cultivating peace and contentment. Do you have insight on that?Hellman: Yes. Working on these issues also makes life far better. I can’t point to one nuclear weapon that I’ve eliminated or one war that I’ve stopped. But my life is better every day because my wife and I no longer fight. We talk and we disagree, but we’ve come to see disagreements as opportunities to learn from one another. Again, the notion of “holistic solutions” applies.Tyson: You write about the relationship of world and personal peace. Can you describe how and why you came to this insight?Hellman: About 10 years into our marriage (we’ve been married for 56 years now), we had ruined a beautiful relationship. As we note in our book, when we met, we were madly in love. But two kids, a house we couldn’t afford, and following society’s advice (stupid, given that the divorce rate is around 50%) had brought us to the brink of divorce. I had blinders on and didn’t know this, but Dorothie had thought of leaving me because life was so unbearable. Fortunately, when she met me, she had decided that I was “the one,” and she still felt that way in spite of the pain she was in. So, she went looking for catalysts that could help us transform our relationship. This is amazing since she’d never experienced the kind of relationship she craved.She was working as a CPA at Touche Ross, now Deloitte, and one of the partners and his wife were in a group called Creative Initiative (search on that in our book for more details) that Dorothie became enamored of as just the kind of catalyst she was looking for. She dragged me to meetings and seminars for almost a year before I saw that “these people knew something I had to learn if my marriage was going to survive.” So I dropped my resistance and opened up to seemingly crazy ideas.The most important were the ideas Dorothie had that differed with mine. “Get curious, not furious!” But, in doing so, I also opened up to some truly crazy ideas. When we left the group after seven or eight years, we had to sift and keep the good ideas that had initially seemed crazy and discard those that truly were. But it was an important stepping stone on our path to “creating true love at home and peace on the planet.” That is the subtitle of our book, which is freely available as a PDF.Creative Initiative worked simultaneously at the micro level (in our case, bringing peace to our home) and the macro level (bringing peace to the world), a connection with which I still emphatically agree. Our book explains the connection, especially the section “Where the Personal and Global Meet.” One reason we wrote the book was that everyone we knew in Creative Initiative (and its successor, Beyond War) initially came to the group out of a need to improve (often save) their marriages, not out of a desire to save the world. But the two go together.Tyson: It is very helpful to hear a tech icon discuss these issues so frankly.There has been talk of you being the first person to win both Turing and Nobel Peace prizes. Any thoughts about that before we close?Hellman: Unlikely, but it would be a nice boost to the work I do.

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