MIT: 3 Big Blockchain Initiatives

MIT has never stood stand still in the presence of change and opportunity. Their Media Lab Currency Initiative is at the forefront of Blockchain and Bitcoin research. With the fracture of the founding core team, MIT stands to become the universal hub for research and development.

The initiative has a team of 22 people and—currently—seven research projects. It nurtures three startups that use cryptocurrency and blockchain in a variety of novel ways. Blockchain research now sits alongside transparent robots that eat real-world fish, solar nebula research, and other imaginative, futuristic projects in progress at the university.

The initiative has already funded the work of bitcoin protocol developers and has supported research, going far beyond bitcoin—even partnering with Ripple Labs and developing enterprise data projects.

Now, the MIT Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative is working on 3 big Blockchain ideas:

  1. Shattering online ‘echo chambers’
  2. Improving blockchain privacy
  3. Building central bank currencies

The DCI is led by former White House advisor and research director Neha Narula. Read about the three BIG blockchain projects at CoinDesk

Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa and The Bitcoin Event. He is columnist & board member at Lifeboat Foundation,
editor of AWildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at the 2017 Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Distributed Consensus: Beyond POW or POS

At the heart of Bitcoin or any Blockchain ledger is a distributed consensus mechanism. It’s a lot like voting. A large, diverse deliberative community validates each, individual user transaction, ownership stake or vote.

But a distributed consensus mechanism is only effective and faithful if the community is impartial. To be impartial, voters must be fairly separated. That is, there must be no collusion enabled by concentration or hidden collaboration. They must be separated from the buyer and seller; they must be separated from the big stakeholders; and they must be separated from each other. Without believable and measurable separation, all sorts of problems ensue. One problem that has made news in the Bitcoin word is the geographical concentration of miners and mining pools.

A distributed or decentralized transaction validation is typically achieved based on Proof-of-Work (POW) or Proof-of-Stake (POS). [explain]. But in practice, these methodologies exhibit subtle problems…

The problem is that Proof-of-Work can waste an enormous amount of energy and both techniques result in a concentration of power (either by geography or by special interest) — rather than a fair, distributed consensus.

In a quasi-formal paper, C.V. Alkan describes a fresh approach to Blockchain consensus. that he calls Distributed Objective Consensus. As you try to absorb his mechanism, you encounter concepts of Sybil attacks, minting inequality, the “nothing-at-stake” problem, punishment schemes and heartbeat transactions. Could Alkan’s distributed consensus mechanism be too complex for the public to understand or use?…

While I have a concern that time stamps and parent-child schemes may degrade user anonymity, the complexity doesn’t concern me. Alkan’s paper is a technical proposal for magic under the covers. Properly implemented, a buyer and seller (and even a miner) needn’t fully understand the science. The user interface to their wallet or financial statement would certainly be shielded from the underlying mechanics.

Put another way: You would not expect a user to understand the mechanism any more than an airline passenger understands the combustion process inside a jet engine. They only want to know:

• Does it work?  •  Is it safe?  •  Is it cost effective?  •  Will I get there on time?

So will Alkan’s Decentralized Objective Consensus solve the resource and concentration problems that creep into POW and POS? Perhaps. At first glance, his technical presentation appears promising. I will return to explore the impact on privacy and anonymity, which is my personal hot button. It is a critical component for long term success of any coin transaction system built on distributed consensus. That is, forensic access and analysis of a wallet or transaction audit trail must be impossible without the consent and participation of at least one party to a transaction.

Ellery Davies co-chairs Cryptocurrency Standards Association and The Bitcoin Event. He is columnist & board member at
Lifeboat Foundation, editor of AWildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Can Bitcoin Flourish with a Capped Supply?

The answer may be counter-intuitive: Not only can Bitcoin be widely adopted under a supply cap, its trust and integrity are a direct result of a provably limited supply. As a result, it will flourish because it is capped.

Everyone Can Own and Trade a Limited Commodity, IF…

…if it is both measurable and divisible. Bitcoin has a capped supply just as gold has a capped supply. Although both assets will be mined for some time into the future, there is only so much that will ever be uncovered. Thereafter, the total pie cannot grow.

But the transaction units will continue to grow as needed, because the pie is divisible into very, very tiny units:

There will eventually be 21 million BTC and each coin is divisible into 108 units. This yields (21 million * 100 million), or 21 trillion exchangeable units. And, it can be divided further by consensus.

As Bitcoin is adopted—whether as a simple payment instrument, an investment asset or even as national currencies around the world—each unit of the limited supply simply rises in value. If thought of as a currency, with a value established by supply & demand, it leads to a deflationary economy.

But, Isn’t Deflation Bad for the Economy?

It’s common to associate deflation with economic ills. One need only glance back at the the last century to conclude that deflation coincides with wars, joblessness, recession and a crippling concentration of wealth. Perhaps, just as bad, the tools used to pull a nation out of deflation often force governments to cherry pick beneficiaries of stimulus spending.

But it is important to note that deflation plays no role in causing these things. On the contrary, it is an effect rather than a cause… In fact, when a supply cap is introduced as a designed control input for monetary policy, all sorts of good things follow. I address these in various answers at Quora. Dig in:

Ellery Davies co-chairs Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He was host and producer of The Bitcoin Event in New York.

Bitcoin Arbitrage: Can you profit?

At Quora, I occasionally play, “Ask the expert”. Several hundred of my Quora answers are linked at the top right. Today, I was asked if the difference between quotes at various Bitcoin exchanges presents a profit opportunity.

In addition to my answer, one other cryptocurrency enthusiast offered pithy, one-line response: He said “Buy local, sell internationally and pocket the difference!” I tend to believe the opposite is more likely to generate profit: Buy internationally and sell locally. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Here is my answer [co-published at Quora]…

A Bitcoin exchange in my country quotes a different rate than
international markets. Can I profit from the price difference?

Buying and selling a commodity with the intention of profiting from the difference in price in various markets, regions or exchanges is called arbitrage. Typically, the item must be widely traded and fungible. Although it can be a tangible item (one that must be delivered or stored, like gold, oil, frozen orange juice or soy beans), arbitrage is more practical when applied to an ‘item of account’, such as foreign currency, equity shares, stock futures, or Bitcoin.

With this in mind, Bitcoin qualifies as a fungible item of account. If you see a different price at various exchanges (or if you believe that you can source personal sales at a higher price than the market spot price), then you have found an opportunity for arbitrage. But hold on! It is not so easy…

  1. The arbitrage opportunity is often illusory. For example, the cost difference that you observe in market quotes may be overshadowed by the bid/ask spread or by fees, which can be both fixed and a percentage.
  2. The arbitrage opportunity is transient. It is there for a few seconds and then it vanishes in the next quote. For this reason, successful arbitrage players must be very adept at day-trade techniques. To avoid massive risks, you need up-to-the-second quotes, fast trading tools, and the ability to simultaneously freeze your purchase and sale price.
  3. Trust is never golden! Even with these tools and promises, when a commodity begins to move in either direction, you will find that a buyer or seller often finds a way to renege on the agreed price. These are not random events…When a trading partner abandons a transaction, it always work against you.
  4. Some exchanges (and even some national regulatory agencies) prohibit rapid and repeated trading. This may be to discourage speculation or it may be designed as a circuit-breaker (a mechanism to avert the cascade effect that sometimes results from pre-programmed trades). These halts on quick trades can wipe out your gains, or worse. They can turn your investment into a horrible mess.
  5. Some big exchanges have built-in arbitrage mechanisms that quickly adjust prices and even buy and sell on their own account to keep their limit order books in sync. They are on the front lines and you aren’t! This fact, alone, should give you pause. Opportunity for an outsider is severely limited by these ‘inside’, self-adjusting trades.
  6. Other legal risks: If the transaction is later deemed to be illegal in the jurisdiction of any party, your exchange accounts may be frozen, fined, or your privileges revoked. Unlike p2p Bitcoin transactions, exchange transactions can be reversed. Again, these legal snafus will always work against you. In fact, sometimes, they were pre-planned scams from the start!
  7. Finally , there are sometimes good reasons for different prices in different markets. For example, national and local regulations may burden the consumer cost for an item, or the seller may be required to pay a fee or tax to some authority or regulatory agency. If you dodge these costs, you may be violating laws and subject to penalties or punishment. You may even put your customer at risk.

What about arbitrage pools or affiliate programs? Don’t be a sucker! If Gladiacoin could double your Bitcoin every 90 days, they wouldn’t need to set up a multi-level marketing scheme. They would simply start with a few hundred dollars and become billionaires by endlessly doubling their money.

I am neither an arbitrage player nor a day trader. These are just a few warning bells that come to mind when I think about such activity. You can be sure that this list of risks only scratches the surface. Bitcoin is remarkably fluid and many people flaunt regulations. For this reason, I am confident that opportunities for profitable arbitrage are rare and very tiny (small gain for a big risk).

Have I scared you away from Bitcoin arbitrage? If not, proceed with extreme caution and don’t bet the family ranch! Once you have some experience, come back and post feedback below. I have dabbled in options arbitrage, but never with Bitcoin or any currency. Since I don’t have first-hand experience, your feedback will be appreciated.

Ellery Davies is a frequent contributor to Quora. He is also co-chair of Cryptocurrency
Standards Association, host of The Bitcoin Event (New York), and editor at A Wild Duck.

Is it Too Late to Get into Bitcoin and Blockchain?

At Quora, I occasionally play, “Ask the expert”. Several hundred of my Quora answers are linked at the top right. Today, I was asked “Is it too late to get into Bitcoin and the Blockchain”.

A few other Bitcoin enthusiasts interpreted the question to mean “Is it too late to invest in Bitcoin”. But, I took to to mean “Is it too late to develop the next big application—or create a successful startup?”. This is my answer. [co-published at Quora]…

The question is a lot like asking if it is too late to get into the television craze—back in the early 1930s. My dad played a small role in this saga. He was an apprentice to Vladamir Zworykin, inventor of the cathode ray tube oscilloscope. (From 1940 until the early 2000s, televisions and computer monitors were based on the oscilloscope). So—for me—there is fun in this very accurate analogy…

John Logie Baird demonstrated his crude mechanical Televisor in 1926. For the next 8 years, hobbyist TV sets were mechanical. Viewers peeked through slots on a spinning cylinder or at an image created from edge-lit spinning platters. The legendary Howdy Doody, Lucille Ball and Ed Sullivan were still decades away.

The Baird Televisor, c.1936

But the Televisor was not quite a TV. Like the oscilloscope and the zoetrope, it was a technology precursor. Philo T. Farnsworth is the Satoshi Nakamoto of television. He is credited with inventing TV [photo below]. Yet, he did not demonstrate the modern ‘cathode ray’ television until 1934.

Farnsworth demonstrates TV

The first broadcast by NBC was in July 1936, ten years years after the original Baird invention. (Compare this to Bitcoin and the blockchain, which are only 7 years old).

Most early TV set brands died during the first 10 years of production: Who remembers Dumont, Andrea and Cossor? No one! These brands are just a footnote to history! Bear in mind that this was all before anyone had heard of Lucille Ball, The Tonight Show or the Honeymooners. In the late 1950s, Rod Serling formed Cayuga Productions to film the Twilight Zone in New York. Hollywood had few studios for dramatic television production, and the west coast lacked an infrastructure for weekly episode distribution.

Through the 1950s (25 years after TV was demonstrated), there was no DVR, DVD or even video tape. Viewers at home watched live broadcasts at the same time as the studio audience.

The short answer to your question: No! It’s not too late to get into Bitcoin and the blockchain. IIn fact, we’re still in the very early era. The ship is just pulling into the dock and seats are mostly empty. The big beneficiaries of blockchain technology (application, consulting, investing or savings) have not yet formed their first ventures. Many of the big players of tomorrow have not yet been born.

At this early stage, the only risk of missing the Bitcoin boat is to assume that it is a house of cards—or passing fad. It is not! It is more real than the California gold rush. But in this case, prospectors are subject to far less risk and chance.

Ellery Davies is co-chair of Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He is also a frequent contributor to Quora and editor at A Wild Duck.

Diminishing Bitcoin Mining Rewards

By now, most Bitcoin and Blockchain enthusiasts are aware of four looming issues that threaten the conversion of Bitcoin from an instrument of academics, criminal activity, and closed circle communities into a broader instrument that is fungible, private, stable, ubiquitous and recognized as a currency—and not just an investment unit or a transaction instrument.

These are the elephants in the room:

  • Unleashing high-volume and speedy transactions
  • Governance and the concentration of mining influence among pools, geography or special interests
  • Privacy & Anonymity
  • Dwindling mining incentives (and the eventual end of mining). Bitcoin’s design eventually drops financial incentives for transaction validation. What then?

As an Op-Ed pundit, I value original content. But the article, below, on Bitcoin fungibility, and this one on the post-incentive era, are a well-deserved nod to inspired thinking by other writers on issues that loom over the cryptocurrency community.

This article at Coinidol comes from an unlikely source: Jacob Okonya is a graduate student in Uganda. He is highly articulate, has a  keen sense of market economics and the evolution of technology adoption. He is also a quick study and a budding columnist.

What Happens When Bitcoin Mining Rewards Diminish To Zero?

Jacob addresses this last issue with clarity and focus. I urge Wild Ducks to read it. My response, below touches on both issues 3 and 4 in the impromptu list, above.

Sunset mining incentives—and also the absence of supporting fully anonymous transactions—are two serious deficiencies in Bitcoin today.
I am confident that both shortcomings will be successfully addressed and resolved.

Thoughts about Issues #3 and #4: [Disclosure] I sit on the board at CRYPSA and draft whitepapers and position statements.*

Blockchain Building: Dwindling Incentives

mining-incentive-02Financial incentives for miners can be replaced by non-financial awards, such as recognition, governance, gaming, stakeholder lotteries, and exchange reputation points. I am barely scratching the surface. Others will come up with more creative ideas.

Last year, at the 2015 MIT Bitcoin Expo, Keynote speaker Andreas Antonopoulos expressed confidence that Bitcoin will survive the sunset of miner incentives. He proposed some novel methods of ongoing validation incentives—most notably, a game theory replacement. Of course, another possibility is the use of very small transaction fees to continue financial incentives.

Personally, I doubt that direct financial incentives—in the form of microcash payments— will be needed. Ultimately, I envision an ecosystem in which everyone who uses Bitcoin to buy, sell, gift, trade, or invest will avoid fees while creating fluidity—by sharing the CPU burden. All users will validate at least one Blockchain transaction for every 5 transactions of their own.

Today, that burden is complex by design, because it reflects increasing competition to find a diminishing cache of unmined coins. But without that competition, the CPU overhead will be trivial. In fact, it seems likely that a validation mechanism could be built into every personal wallet and every mobile device app. The potential for massive crowd-sourced scrutiny has the added benefit of making the blockchain more robust: Trusted, speedy, and resistant to attack.

Transaction Privacy & Anonymity

Bitcoin’s lack of rock-solid, forensic-thwarting anonymity is a weak point that must ultimately be addressed. It’s not about helping criminals, it’s about liberty and freedoms. Detectives & forensic labs have classic methods of pursuing criminals. It is not our job to offer interlopers an identity, serial number and traceable event for every transaction.

Anonymity can come in one of three ways. Method #3 is least desirable:

  1. Add complex, multi-stage, multi-party mixing to every transaction—including random time delays, and parsing out fragments for real purchases and payments. To be successful, mixing must be ubiquitous. That is, it must be active with every wallet and every transaction by default. Ideally, it should even be applied to idle funds. This thwarts both forensic analysis mining-incentive-03and earnest but misguided attempts to create a registry of ‘tainted’ coins.
  2. Fork by consensus: Add anonymizing technology by copying a vetted, open source alt-coin
  3. Migrate to a new coin with robust, anonymizing tech at its core. To be effective, it must respect all BTC stakeholders with no other ownership, pre-mined or withheld distribution. Of course, it must be open, transparent and permissionless—with an opportunity and incentive for all users to be miners, or more specifically, to be bookkeepers.

That’s my opinion on the sunset of mining incentives and on transaction anonymity.
—What’s yours?

* Ellery Davies is co-chair of the Cryptocurrency Standards Asso-
  ciation. He was host and MC for the Bitcoin Event in New York.

Bitcoin Fungibility: A Benefit of privacy & anonymity

I was pointed to this article by Jon Matonis, Founding Director, Bitcoin Foundation. I was sufficiently moved to highlight it here at AWildDuck.

On Fungibility, Bitcoin, Monero and ZCash … [backup]

This is among the best general introductions I have come across on traceability and the false illusion of privacy. The explanation of coin mixing provides and coin_mixing-03excellent, quick & brief overview.

Regarding transaction privacy, a few alt-coins provide enhanced immunity or deniability from forensic analysis. But if your bet is on Bitcoin (as it must be), the future is headed toward super-mixing and wallet trading by desgin and by default. Just as the big email providers haved added secure transit,
Bitcoin will eventually be fully randomized and anonymized per trade and even when assets are idle. It’s not about criminals; it’s about protecting business, government and individuals. It’s about liberty and our freedoms. [Continue below image]


How to thwart forensic investigation: Fogify explains an advanced mixing process

The next section of the article explains the danger of losing fungibility due to transaction tracing and blacklisting. I can see only ONE case for this, and it requires a consensus and a hard fork (preferably a consensus of ALL stakeholders and not just miners). For example, when a great number of Etherium was stolen during the DAO meltdown.

My partner, Manny Perez, and I take opposing views of blacklisting coins based on their ‘tainted’ history (according to “The Man”, of course!). I believe that blacklists must ultimately be rendered moot by ubiquitous mixing, random transaction-circuit delays, dilbert-060219and multiple-transaction ‘washing’ (intentionally invoking a term that legislators and forensic investigators hate)—Manny feels that there should be a “Law and Order” list of tainted coins. Last year, our Pro-&-Con views were published side-by-side in this whitepaper.

Finally, for Dogbert’s take on fungible, click here. I bought the domain many years ago, and I still haven’t figured out what to do with it. Hence this Dilbert cartoon. 🙂
The author is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association.
He also presents on privacy, anonymity, blind signaling & antiforensics.