Blockchain can dramatically reduce pollution, traffic jams

The World Economic Forum has posted an article that hints at something that I have also suggested. (I am not taking credit. Others have suggested the idea too…But advancing tech and credible, continued visibility helps the idea to be taken seriously!)

I am not referring to purchasing and retiring carbon credits. I like that idea too. But here is an idea that can enable fleets of autonomous, shared, electric vehicles. Benefits to individuals and to society are numerous. And the blockchain makes it possible early in the next decade. It is not science fiction.

The future is just around the corner. Non-coin applications of the blockchain will support great things. Goodbye car ownership. Hello clean air! The future of personal transportation is closer than you think.

Read about it at the World Economic Forum.

Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa & Bitcoin Event, columnist & board member at Lifeboat, editor
at WildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.


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.

Blockchain Scalability: Proof-of-Work vs BFT Replication

Research can seem bland to us laypersons. But, Marko Vukolić shares many of my research interests and he exceeds my academic credentials (with just enough overlap for me to understand his work). So, in my opinion, his writing is anything but bland…

Vukolić started his career as a post-doc intern at IBM in Zurich Switzerland. After a teaching stint as assistant professor at Eurecom and visiting professor at ETH Zurich, he rejoined the IBM research staff in both cloud computing infrastructure and the Blockchain Group.*

As a researcher and academic, Vukolić is a rising star in consensus-based mechanisms and low latency replicated state machines. At Institut Mines-Télécom in Paris, he wrote papers and participated in research projects on fault tolerance, scalability, cloud computing and distributed trust mechanisms.

Now, at IBM Zurich, Vukolić has published a superior analysis addressing the first and biggest elephant in the Bitcoin ballroom, Each elephant addresses an urgent need:

  • Scalability & throughput
  • Incentivize (as mining reward withers)
  • Grow & diversify governance & geographic influence
  • Anonymize transactions to protect privacy
  • Recognize & preserve ownership

Regarding the first elephant, scalability, Bitcoin urgently needs to grow its Blockchain dynamics into something that is living and manageable. To that end, Vukolić refers to a transaction bookkeeping mechanism that works as a “fabric”. That is, it does not require every miner to access the history-of-the-world and append each transaction onto the same chain in serial fashion. Rather than growing an ever bigger blockchain—with ever bigger computers—we need a more 3D approach that uses relational databases in a multi-threaded, transactional environment, while still preserving the distributed, p2p trust mechanisms of the original blockchain.

While clearly technical, it is a good read, even for lay enthusiasts. It directly relates to one of the elephants in the room.

I have pasted Marko’s Abstract below. The full paper is 10½ pages (14 with references).

Bitcoin cryptocurrency demonstrated the utility of global consensus across thousands of nodes, changing the world of digital transactions forever. In the early days of Bitcoin, the performance of its probabilistic proof-of-work (PoW) based consensus fabric, also known as blockchain, was not a major issue. Bitcoin became a success story, despite its consensus latencies on the order of an hour and the theoretical peak throughput of only up to 7 transactions per second.

The situation today is radically different and the poor performance scalability of early PoW blockchains no longer makes sense. Specifically, the trend of modern cryptocurrency platforms, such as Ethereum, is to support execution of arbitrary distributed applications on blockchain fabric, needing much better performance. This approach, however, makes cryptocurrency platforms step away from their original purpose and enter the domain of database-replication protocols, notably, the classical state-machine replication, and in particular its Byzantine fault-tolerant (BFT) variants.

In this paper, we contrast PoW-based blockchains to those based on BFT state machine replication, focusing on their scalability limits. We also discuss recent proposals to overcoming these scalability limits and outline key outstanding open problems in the quest for the “ultimate” blockchain fabric(s). Keywords: Bitcoin, blockchain, Byzantine fault tolerance, consensus, proof-of-work, scalability, state machine replication

* Like Marko, Blockchains, Cloud computing, and Privacy are, also my primary reserach interests, (GMTA!). But, I cede the rigorous, academic credentials to Marko.

BFT = Byzantine Fault Tolerant consensus protocols

Related—and recently in the news:

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

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.

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.

Will The Blockchain Outlive Bitcoin?

I was asked to answer this question by an editor who—like Mike Hearn—presumes that Bitcoin will die because of the current forking crisis. I believe that the future for both Bitcoin and the Blockchain is bright, despite current issues related to mining, block size, a transaction bottleneck and code evolution. My thoughts on Bitcoin are sprinkled all throughout this Blog, and especially at Quora. And so, I shall direct an answer at the other half of the question. Let’s rephrase it:

“The Blockchain is gaining popular recognition and related investment is booming. Why is this happening now—eight years after it hit the scene inside Bitcoin?”

First, a brief refresher in the Blockchain-Bitcoin parentage…

Bitcoin is the original Blockchain implementation. But, significant controversy has arisen around Bitcoin.

  • Some proponents believe that it is money—and that it may even have the potential to replace national currencies and disrupt state controlled monetary institutions
  • Others feel that it is simply a mechanism to transmit money (like a debit card or a Western Union cash transfer)
  • Some armchair pundits see Bitcoin as brief economic fad, like the tulip bulb mania that swept over Holland in the 17th century
  • Still others see it as a criminal tool, with little potential to transform businesses or consumer habits

But there is far less controversy about the underlying technology. The Blockchain is a method of distributing a ledger across all users (or as many who care to participate) in a manner that validates historical transactions,blockchain-01 but requires no central nexus and is permissionless.

With sufficient user participation, the blockchain offers advantages to complex transaction systems:

  • high user confidence (i.e. among customers, voters, taxpayers,
    land owners, patients, scientists, etc)
  • low cost
  • increased trust
  • robust data retention (i.e. distributed, fault tolerant storage)
  • security from hacking
  • resistance against human error or natural disaster
  • quick data extraction and ongoing auditing

These are compelling advantages for almost any transaction system designer. And so, all manner of financial institutions, genetic researchers, voting system designers, and, of course, bookkeepers, blockchain_logoaccountants or data aggregators, are rushing to exploit the potential for improving their business model by incorporating a blockchain into their design methodology.

This answers the question—But, allow me to add a caveat, because there is a catch—at least until a more universal understanding spreads across the community…

The Catch

The blockchain is still a new concept. It was introduced along with Bitcoin in a 2008 Whitepaper by an anonymous cryptographer Because it is so new, pundits, process designers and investors must be very astute in implementing or justifying the use of blockchain based architecture. If they don’t, early investors or system users will likely as if they were sucked into another tulip bulb mania.

In a recent article, I explain that to qualify as a Blockchain (and, thereby, to convey the benefits listed above), a database design must embody 5 key concepts. It must be:

  • Open-source
  • Fully distributed among all users.
  • Any user can also be a node to the ledger
  • Permissionless to all users and data originators
  • Access from anywhere data is generated or analyzed

The article is brief, but the punchline should be gospel for anyone thinking of implementing a blockchain-based system. Here is the spoiler:

A blockchain is practically worthless if it is not both open source and permissionless.

Yet, it is these two design elements that many rushing to stake a claim are refusing to embrace. That’s because the desire to retain a proprietary interest or to ‘own the books’ is very alluring. It is built into our business DNA. For the past 40 years, business schools teach that controlling data is the key to profits. We have been taaught that blockchain-02losing control over data leads to lapses in security or losing the edge over competitors.

For commercial ventures, it seems reasonable that releasing control or outright ownership of critical business data would undermine the value of a service or system. For complex government systems, transparency and loss of control would seem to weaken public security.

On the contrary! Although the Blockchain is not appropriate for every data storage system or transaction processing mechanism, partial blockchains are charlatans (i.e. systems that embody distributed storage, but are not both open source and permissionless). They do not achieve the benefits that designers are chasing.

Without a network that is fully distributed among its users as well as permissionless, open-source and readily accessible, a blockchain becomes a blockchain in name only. It bestows few benefits to its creator, none to its users—certainly none of the dramatic perks that have generated media buzz from the day Satoshi hit the headlines.