The MtGox bitcoin exchange failure illustrates exactly how capitalism should work.
This post originally appeared on Andreas Antonopoulos’ personal biographical site; it is republished here with permission.
In the free market, failure is always an option. The United States has one of the world’s most vibrant entrepreneurial cultures, where millions of people start small businesses, create new products and invent new technology. Part of the startup culture is the idea of failing fast, failing cheap and failing toward success by learning the lessons taught by failure. Cultures that punish even minor failure in business with shame, exclusion and stigma are far less likely to foster entrepreneurs because they prevent experimentation by making it too risky.
Recently, the US has been infected by the “failure is not an option” mantra, a toxic hubristic fallacy, disguised as a truism, which promotes the idea that risk can be removed from life; that 100% security and 100% control are possible, even desirable. Those who attempt to remove the possibility of failure, to de-risk financial systems, end up creating the probability of spectacular failure. By removing the option to fail cheap and fail fast, they instead concentrate risk and ensure we will fail hard, fail expensively, and fail across the board.
Over time, crypto-currency networks such as bitcoin will get stronger
If a crook gets access to the credit card or wire transfer networks, it’s a disaster. That’s because, as I explained in my recent article about security models, these traditional financial networks achieve trust by excluding bad actors through access control. Effective access control requires exclusivity and strict vetting, only a small carefully vetted group of “trusted actors” are granted control.
Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies based on the blockchain invention are different. Trust is based on computation, not access control. On the bitcoin network you trust math so everyone can have access. That also means that there will be bad actors, arguably just as there are on access control networks, and nuisance attacks. Fortunately, these types of attacks cannot affect the distributed asset ledger, the blockchain, because to achieve the level of trust to write into the ledger you must apply enormous distributed computation. The root of trust is in the majority of computing power, not individual actors or any central authority.
A shift from trusting people to trusting math.
Bitcoin is a distributed consensus network that maintains a secure and trusted distributed ledger through a process called “proof-of-work.”
Bitcoin fundamentally inverts the trust mechanism of a distributed system. Traditionally, as we see in payment and banking systems, trust is achieved through access control, by carefully vetting participants and excluding bad actors. This method of trust requires encryption, firewalls, strong authentication and careful vetting. The network requires investing trust in those gaining access.
The result is that such systems tend to be closed and small networks by necessity. By contrast, bitcoin implements a trust model of trust by computation. Trust in the network is ensured by requiring participants to demonstrate proof-of-work, by solving a computationally difficult problem. The cumulative computing power of thousands of participants, accumulated over time in a chain of increasing-difficulty proofs, ensures that no actor or even collection of actors can cheat, as they lack the computation to override the trust. As proof-of-work accumulates on the chain of highest difficulty (the blockchain), it becomes harder and harder to dispute. In bitcoin, a new proof-of-work is added every 10 minutes, with each subsequent proof making it exponentially more difficult to invalidate the previous results.
A taxonomy of alt-coins, meta-coins and blockchain-riders.
Just like the IP protocol, bitcoin is the culmination of several important advancements, all combining to form a paradigm-changing innovation. The Internet Protocol was not just an arrangement of headers and payload. It also represented the triumph of packet-switching, layered protocols and distributed routing algorithms — four or five critical innovations, combined in a single implementation that changed the world. Bitcoin is a combination of several innovations, arranged in a novel way: a peer-to-peer network, a proof-of-work algorithm, a distributed timestamped accounting ledger and an elliptic-curve cryptography and key infrastructure. Each of these parts is novel on its own, but the combination and specific arrangement was revolutionary for its time and is beginning to show up in more innovations outside bitcoin itself.
Take a look around bitcoin and you will quickly notice that these four parts are being mashed up in even more novel ways. There’s an ecosystem of innovation boiling around the bitcoin proof-of-concept implementation, in the form of alt-coins, meta-coins and blockchain-riders. Read more…
If you equate Bitcoin with digital cash, you're missing the bigger picture.
Bitcoin is much more than just a digital currency. It is a protocol, a network, a currency and a transaction language. Most of all, though, it is an application programming interface (API) for money. Nowadays, bathroom scales and fridges have APIs, so why not money?
Traditional money does have APIs, but they are closed. You can program the merchant API of the VISA network if you are a trusted merchant. You can send and receive FIX messages if you are a stockbroker or exchange. Regular people, however, don’t even have APIs into their bank accounts, let alone the broader economy. Bitcoin changes all that by not only offering an API for accounts (wallets) and transactions, but also making that API available to everyone. Read more…