Protocols like Bitcoin and Ethereum are considered by many to employ difficult computations which result in a very high demand for electricity – with good reason. IOTA differs greatly from these protocols not only in its unique consensus mechanism, Tangle ledger, and IoT focus, but also in the use of trinary. The cutting edge technology doesn’t stop there, as LiFi is also being experimented with.
Trinary in a nutshell
As you might have learned in school, today’s computers work with binary code. Its smallest digit is called Bit (binary + digit) and essentially means that it can have two values: 0 and I. If you combine 8 bits, you end up with a byte. This is used, for instance, whenever you type a letter via ASCII (American Standard Coode for Information Interchange): every letter is represented by a certain binary code (Base 2): So whenever you type a 5 on your computer, it is encoded as 00110101 in binary to allow the computer’s hardware to process its data. IOTA would be 01001001 01001111 01010100 01000001. With ASCII your computer can turn binary data into a message we humans can understand.
IOTA is not based on this binary system (0/1), but on a system called trinary, which means that three values (+, 0, -; 0,1,2; base 3) can be used per trit (trinary digit). So at the end of the day, trinary is just another way of coding data. The astute reader should now be asking why IOTA has decided to use it.
Reasons for Trinary
First of all, it’s important to know that IOTA started as a hardware project under the name of JINN, with the goal of developing a trinary microprocessor. The main advantage lies in the fact that these processors might not be as powerful as “ordinary” microprocessors, but can potentially be a lot more energy-efficient. Trinary Neural Networks, for example, can demonstrate up to 3.1x better energy efficiency compared to the state of the art while also improving accuracy.
Both IOTA and JINN were specifically designed to meet the requirements of IoT which means that even the smallest units in a production must be able to transfer data to the internet. Since we are talking about tiny elements here (microcontrollers, sensors…), there must be a very energy-efficient solution that’s powerful enough to process data and send it to surrounding devices and networks.
IOTA co-founder David Sonstebo put it this way:
Trinary is the optimal radix, actually Base E (2.71….) is, but you can’t make processors like that. So it comes down to Base Binary (2) vs Base Trinary (3). 3 is closer to the universal optimum 2.71 than is 2. That is the absolute most simple elevator pitch for trinary.
If you ask yourself now why Base e would be optimal, here is the mathematical explanation. Even the maximum supply of IOTAs was chosen to be in accordance with this trinary logic and is thus optimized for trinary computation ((3^33-1)/2) = 2.779 x 10^15 = IOTA maximum supply)
Of course, this is not the ordinary way of building computers and at the same time it is the reason why IOTA is considered to be the only one of its kind. It’s important to understand that the vision involves trinary microprocessors at the edges of networks where energy efficiency is priority rather. High performance computers in areas with large energy availability won’t need these new specialized microprocessors.
Without a trinary processor, this data must be recalculated into binary code in order to make it usable. But with the tiny and energy-efficient JINN processors at the horizon, which are supposed to be used for every IoT device, this will change. The processors will be optimized for IOTA’s algorithms, making it possible for tiniest parts to take part in IOTA’s network and enable nothing short of the next industrial revolution (i.e. Industry 4.0).
What does Li-Fi have to do with all this?
This in itself comes close to revolutionizing the ways computers work. As noted earlier, ternary chips are not meant to replace computers, but rather were designed for IoT devices. IOTA and JINN take this edge-connectivity one step further and have managed to process trinary data transmitted not via WiFi, but via light (LiFi) as Come-from-Beyond, one of the masterminds behind IOTA’s code, revealed on May 9, 2018, on Discord:
What this means is that you will no longer be limited to the availability of WiFi, 4G and the like, but a stream of light is enough to transmit data at a very high speed (more than 200 Gbit/s have been reached already!). Introduced in 2011, LiFi itself is not new. However taking this to the trinary level is epic when you think about what it means to the whole industrial sector.
You don’t need the more expensive WiFi-networks anymore, and instead connect machines to the each other and the internet via light. Every factory has enough LED lights which can be used as the new network access points. Street lights capable of transmitting data in smart cities could collect data from passing cars and transmit it to/from the Tangle. Due to IOTA’s scalability and the high data throughput made possible by LiFi, the possibilities are endless. With this background, David Sonstebo’s tweets about IOTA’s scaling abilities and the speed of light suddenly make sense:
No, we always highLIGHT that the speed of LIGHT can't be beaten. The coordinator is not part of IOTA protocol, it's an onboarding tool.
— David Sønstebø (@DavidSonstebo) October 29, 2017
Trinary potentially takes IOTA to another level in terms of efficiency, thus enabling smallest devices to connect to the IoT. When connected with LiFi, higher data throughput can be achieved while in the absence of WiFi. Calling IOTA a cutting-edge technology might be a fair assessment.