In this paper, we obtain several new results on lower bounds and derandomization for ACC⁰ circuits (constant-depth circuits consisting of AND/OR/MOD_m gates for a fixed constant m, a frontier class in circuit complexity):

1) We prove that any polynomial-time Merlin-Arthur proof system with an ACC⁰ verifier (denoted by MA_{ACC⁰}) can be simulated by a nondeterministic proof system with quasi-polynomial running time and polynomial proof length, on infinitely many input lengths. This improves the previous simulation by [Chen, Lyu, and Williams, FOCS 2020], which requires both quasi-polynomial running time and proof length.

2) We show that MA_{ACC⁰} cannot be computed by fixed-polynomial-size ACC⁰ circuits, and our hard languages are hard on a sufficiently dense set of input lengths.

3) We show that NEXP (nondeterministic exponential-time) does not have ACC⁰ circuits of sub-half-exponential size, improving the previous sub-third-exponential size lower bound for NEXP against ACC⁰ by [Williams, J. ACM 2014].

Combining our first and second results gives a conceptually simpler and derandomization-centric proof of the recent breakthrough result NQP := NTIME[2^polylog(n)] ̸ ⊂ ACC⁰ by [Murray and Williams, SICOMP 2020]: Instead of going through an easy witness lemma as they did, we first prove an ACC⁰ lower bound for a subclass of MA, and then derandomize that subclass into NQP, while retaining its hardness against ACC⁰.

Moreover, since our derandomization of MA_{ACC⁰} achieves a polynomial proof length, we indeed prove that nondeterministic quasi-polynomial-time with n^ω(1) nondeterminism bits (denoted as NTIMEGUESS[2^polylog(n), n^ω(1)]) has no poly(n)-size ACC⁰ circuits, giving a new proof of a result by Vyas. Combining with a win-win argument based on randomized encodings from [Chen and Ren, STOC 2020], we also prove that NTIMEGUESS[2^polylog(n), n^ω(1)] cannot be 1/2+1/poly(n)-approximated by poly(n)-size ACC⁰ circuits, improving the recent strongly average-case lower bounds for NQP against ACC⁰ by [Chen and Ren, STOC 2020].

One interesting technical ingredient behind our second result is the construction of a PSPACE-complete language that is paddable, downward self-reducible, same-length checkable, and weakly error correctable. Moreover, all its reducibility properties have corresponding AC⁰[2] non-adaptive oracle circuits. Our construction builds and improves upon similar constructions from [Trevisan and Vadhan, Complexity 2007] and [Chen, FOCS 2019], which all require at least TC⁰ oracle circuits for implementing these properties.