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Whom Do You Trust? America or Facebook?

Do we need it anymore?

The promise of cryptocurrencies is that we can create a widely-acceptable medium of exchange without having to trust anyone.  Cryptocurrencies have no central authority, no government agency to vouch for them. We don’t need to trust a government or a bank or a stock exchange. Elites can’t cheapen our currency because no elites are involved. Indeed, no one is involved. The currency is distributed across multiple computers and multiple networks. To manipulate the currency, one would need to control all the computers in the world – a seemingly impossible task.

In the original conception, the value of a cryptocurrency is based on nothing more than supply-and demand. Value is not linked to any physical asset like gold or oil or even paper currencies like dollars. Since there is no asset behind the currency, no one can manipulate the value of the currency by manipulating the underlying asset. Rather than trusting a government or an agency or a bank, we place our trust in an algorithm distributed around the world.

(The distributed nature of cryptocurrencies also makes them quite slow. Speeding up transactions is a major challenge for blockchain researchers. The most promising solution seems to be “sharding” – a technology worth keeping an eye on.)

Traditionally, we’ve trusted governments to create and maintain the value of national currencies. That’s been a pretty good bet in the United States, less so in Venezuela. But, really, do we need a nation to create a widely acceptable currency? Cryptocurrencies suggest that the answer is “no”.

But there’s a not-so-subtle problem with cryptocurrencies. The elephant in the room is that many people (myself included) view cryptocurrencies as a new version of the Wild West – a territory populated by libertarians, wild-eyed visionaries, snake oil salesmen, drug dealers, scam artists, and terrorists. And, by the way, some person created the algorithm and could potentially manipulate it for illicit purposes. Simply put, the current cryptocurrency scene does not inspire trust.

To fill the trust gap, several “trusted” agencies have stepped forward to offer cryptocurrencies based on a trusted brand and/or on physical assets. Case in point: J.P. Morgan Chase’s “JPM Coin”. Announced earlier this year, (click here, here, and here) JPM Coin is backed by a major bank and based on a physical asset: the U.S. dollar. The company touts JPM Coin as a simpler, faster way to make and clear payments.

This past week, of course, another “trusted” organization – Facebook – announced that it will introduce a new digital currency called Libra next year. (Click here and here). Facebook wraps its announcement in humanitarian gauze – it’s simply providing an effective payment service to the world’s unbanked citizens. As Evgeny Morozov points out, however, Facebook is actually doing two things:

  • Preparing to take on China’s social media giants, Tencent and Alibaba, which already combine payments and communications.
  • Positioning itself as a “as a rebel force against mediocre bureaucrats and sluggish corporate incumbents”. It’s doing battle against a coalition of lazy, inept, corrupt – untrustworthy – bankers, bureaucrats, and politicians. Morozov suggests that Facebook is activating its populist supporters to keep regulators at bay. More broadly, it’s a “plan to break the global financial system.”

Could Facebook’s Libra actually become a global currency at the expense of the dollar, yen Euro, and renminbi? Facebook currently has 2.38 billion active users. That number makes even China’s population look small. If a significant portion choose the Libra over existing currencies, then the money we know today could become irrelevant. If a nation’s currency is irrelevant, how relevant is the government?

Given all this, here’s a basic question — whom do you trust more: 1) the American government; or 2) Facebook?

(Note that JPM Coin and Libra are not truly cryptocurrencies, at least not in the original sense of the word. A cryptocurrency has three elements: 1) No central authority, agency, governing body or processor. Clearly J.P. Morgan and Facebook are centralized governing bodies. 2) No physical assets backing the currency. JPM Coin, uses the U.S dollar as its backing asset – it’s a digital currency based on a fiat currency. Facebook says that Libra will be based on physical assets, though it hasn’t quite defined them. 3) Permissionless – you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to use a cryptocurrency. To use JPM Coin, you need to have an account at J.P. Morgan. To use Libra, you’ll need a Facebook account. Given this, it’s probably best to call JPM Coin and Libra “digital currencies” as opposed to “cryptocurrencies”.)

My Buddy, The Bitcoin Broker

Disrupter

My buddy, Yancey, is a Bitcoin broker. He’s been arranging deals part-time for several years now. About a year ago, he went full time. He seems to be doing fine.

It’s ironic that the Bitcoin needs a broker. In my opinion, the best thing about Bitcoin, and the underlying blockchain, is the potential to disintermediate transactions. By eliminating middlemen, blockchain systems may deliver two major benefits:

  • Reduce the cost of transactions;
  • Make transactions easier and faster to complete.

Conceivably, the blockchain can produce a world of frictionless commerce where we no longer need trusted intermediaries. It’s ironic that Yancey serves as an intermediary for a technology that aims to eliminate intermediaries.

This suggests the blockchain has not yet reached its full potential. My question for Yancey: will it ever? I chatted with Yancey for about an hour last week. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Bitcoin was an experiment. Nobody expected it to sweep the world. It’s more like a science fair project than a NASA space shot. The surprise is that it works not that it’s imperfect. Don’t judge the viability of blockchain or of digital currencies based solely on the Bitcoin experience.
  • Bitcoin’s base software ensures that the system can never produce more than 21 million Bitcoins. People can “mine” the coins through computationally intensive transactions. The more miners participating, the more challenging the transactions become. The world has now mined approximately 17 million Bitcoins; we’re still several years away from the limit. This architecture delivers two additional benefits:
    • It’s so difficult to create coins that no one entity can dominate the entire system. Dispersed responsibility and record keeping are the keys to Bitcoin’s security, veracity, and trust.
    • When the limit is reached, no more coins can ever be created. Thus the currency can’t be inflated as fiat currencies can. If demand rises and supply can’t respond, the value of each Bitcoin will also rise. (As values rise, we’ll need to subdivide Bitcoins into ever-smaller units for day-to-day use. Today, a satoshi is the smallest available sliver – it’s one-hundredth of one-millionth of a Bitcoin or .00000001 BTC.)
  • While Bitcoin has captured the headlines, the blockchain is potentially a much greater disrupter. We can make virtually any information fraud-proof. As I’ve reported before, Peruvian landowners are storing their titles in blockchain databases to prevent land fraud. Sports memorabilia collectors want to create a chain of evidence that proves that this baseball was the one Mark McGwire hit for number 70 on September 8, 1998. Antique and fine art dealers similarly want a tamper-proof record of provenance. Authors, artists, and scientists want to prove that their important discovery or manuscript or painting existed on or before a given date. Before blockchain, we needed trusted intermediaries to verify these facts. With blockchain, perhaps we don’t.
  • It’s still the Wild West in crypto/block land but settlers are bringing barbed wire to set up fences. Banks, in particular, sense that they are ripe for disintermediation. Why should customers wait for days for a check to clear – while the bank reaps the float – when we can make instantaneous transfers without a middleman? Banks would prefer to cannibalize themselves than have someone else do it for them. To do so, they need some guardrails but would rather not invite full-bore government regulation. They need to show that they can police themselves. (J.P. Morgan’s announcement of JPM coin– which debuted while I was chatting with Yancey – is a step in this direction.)
  • People worry about the use of cryptocurrencies to support terrorism, but some constraints are already in place. These include:
    • KYC – Know Your Customer – helps institutions identify “bad actors” throughout their transaction chain.
    • AML – Anti-Money Laundering – a set of procedures and regulations that help to identify and stop money laundering.
    • CTF – Counter-Terrorist Financing – helps institutions identify, trace, and recover illegally obtained assets.

Additionally, the structure of the blockchain itself can help prevent fraud. What’s stored in the blockchain can’t be changed. A bad actor could conceivably add to the blockchain but such additions are easy to identify and trace.

  • Arbitrage by hedge funds is driving much of the trading in Bitcoin (and other digital currencies) today. Hedge funds can lock in a price (for two or three hours) and find a buyer at the same time. The fund buys at the spot price minus one or two percent and immediately sells at the spot price. I asked Yancey how I could play this game. He asked if I had $40 million to get started. Not yet.
  • Stablecoins are the next wave. Bitcoin has no assets behind it – its value is simply a question of supply-and-demand. In other words, it’s just like a fiat currency. Stablecoins are based on some asset – like Venezuelan oil or Zimbabwean gold. Stablecoins aim to reduce the wild price fluctuations seen in so many digital currencies. The downside? Someone or some entity has to manage the physical asset. Once again, we have to place our trust in an intermediary.
  • The JPM Coin is an interesting variant of a stablecoin. It’s linked to the dollar: one JPM coin = one dollar. So, the coin is based on an asset. But the asset – the dollar – is not based on anything. It’s a fiat currency. It’s not clear if this will help or hinder the adoption of JPM Coin.
  • The next wave of competition will come at the platform level. Several different companies have created platforms for creating blockchain systems. It feels like the database wars of the early 80s. Which one (or ones) will dominate? More on that the next time I catch up with Yancey.

 

Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Five Years

What’s next?

I first wrote about Bitcoin on this website five years ago today. (Click here). I decided not to buy any at the time because the price had surged to well over one hundred dollars! Clearly it was a bubble. If only I had known that the price would peak at $18,000 a few years later. (Today, the price is about $6,800).

So what’s happened over the past five years? Let’s look at Bitcoin’s benefits and then investigate some of the ways that it has changed our world.

Bitcoin is based on a blockchain stored in multiple locations. This gives it two major advantages: it can’t be erased and can’t be tampered with. Simply put, it’s like writing checks in ink rather than in pencil, using paper that can’t be destroyed. A blockchain can record transactions and ensure that they will always be available as a matter of public record. Bitcoin uses this feature to buy and sell things. Each transaction is recorded forever, meaning that you can’t spend the same Bitcoin more than once.

Bitcoins can also reduce inflation because they can’t be printed at a government’s whim. Instead, they’re “mined” through complex mathematical calculations. The process gradually grows the supply of coins. The money supply grows in predictable ways. This appeals to anyone who worries that governments will artificially inflate their national currencies.

Bitcoin is also anonymous – just like cash. Unlike cash, however, it’s not physical. It can easily be moved around the world as electronic blips. That makes transactions convenient and inexpensive and could conceivably cut out banks as middlemen. This makes Bitcoin attractive to many groups, especially criminals.

So, what’s happened? First, the idea of the blockchain has spread. There’s no reason to limit the blockchain to currency transactions. We can store anything in blockchain and ensure that it never disappears. In other words, we believe that it is more trustworthy than government or financial entities.

As Tim Wu writes, we are undergoing, “… a monumental transfer of social trust: away from human institutions backed by governments and to systems reliant on well-tested computer code.” Wu notes that we already trust computers to fly airplanes, assist in surgery, and guide us to our destination. Why not financial systems as well? A well-organized cryptocurrency could become the de facto standard global currency and eliminate the need for many banking services.

But we don’t need to limit the blockchain to financial transactions. Any record that must be inviolate can potentially benefit from blockchain technology. Some examples:

  • The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has suggested that we can combat poverty by storing land ownership records in blockchain systems. Land ownership disputes in Latin America can last for centuries. Blockchain could simplify the process and ensure that those who hold title to land can’t be cheated out of it.
  • De Soto’s proposal eliminates the government as the arbiter of land titles. This is part of a broader trend to disintermediate governments. Why should governments be information czars? Better to store our records in blockchain. This could include land titles, personal identification, health records (including our DNA), the provenance of art works, stock ownership, international fund transfers, and self-enforcing contracts.
  • Tim Wu suggests that we’re moving our trust from governments to code. But we’re only part way there. In our first step away from governments, we put our trust in giant Internet companies like Facebook and Google. We’re now discovering that these entities are no more trustworthy than governments. Indeed, they may be less trustworthy. What’s the next step? Many suggest that it’s the blockchain.
  • Meanwhile, afraid of being disintermediated, governments are starting to plan cryptocurrencies of their own. Russia has proposed a digital currency with several former soviet socialist republics. Sweden and China are both interested in their own cryptocurrencies and have established study groups. But the first government out of the gate seems to be Venezuela, driven by a financial crisis. Venezuela’s printed currency, the Bolívar, suffers from inflation rates around 4,000%. So the government has just announced a new cryptocurrency called the Petro, based on the nation’s oil revenues. The government is essentially saying, “We’re incompetent to print paper money but you can trust the Petro because it’s based on code, not a bumbling bureaucracy. We humans can’t interfere with it.” Will it work? Stay tuned.

Of course, we can also use blockchains for less noble pursuits. The blockchain can store any information, including pornography. That’s a problem but it’s the same problem that was faced by myriad new technologies, including VCRs and the Internet itself. Criminals can also use cryptocurrencies for ransomware attacks, and to traffic in contraband or avoid taxes. We can ameliorate these problems but we probably can’t eliminate them. Still, the advantages of the technology seem much greater than the disadvantages.

So … what happens over the next five years? The New York Times reports that venture capitalists poured more than half a billion dollars into blockchain projects in the first three months of this year. So, I expect we’ll see a shakeout at the platform level over the next five years. Today, there are many ways to implement blockchain. It reminds me of the personal computing market in, say, 1985 – too many vendors selling too many technologies through too many channels. I expect the market will consolidate around two or perhaps three major platforms. Who will win? Perhaps IBM. Perhaps R3. Perhaps Ethereum. Perhaps Multichain. Rather than buying Bitcoin, I’d suggest that you study the platforms and place your bets accordingly.

In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: Are we really willing to forego our trust in traditional institutions and put it all into computer code?

Disrupting the Lawyers

Filling out unemployment forms.

Filling out unemployment forms.

Last week, I wrote about the process of disintermediation and how it will disrupt banks and bankers. By encrypting transactions and distributing them across a peer-to-peer network, we will no longer need banks to serve as trusted intermediaries in financial transactions. We can eliminate the middleman.

Can we eliminate lawyers as well? You bethca.

We have lawyers for the same reasons that we have bankers: we don’t trust each other. I don’t trust that you’ll pay me; I want your bank to guarantee it. Similarly, I don’t trust that you’ll honor our contract; I want a lawyer to enforce it.

But what if we could create a contract that didn’t need a lawyer to interpret and execute it? We could eliminate the lawyer as an intermediary. That’s exactly the idea behind smart contracts (also known as self-enforcing or self-executing contracts).

First proposed by Nick Szabo back in 1993, smart contracts use software to ensure that agreements are properly executed. Not surprisingly, smart contracts use blockchain technologies spread across peer-to-peer networks. If you think that sounds like Bitcoin, you’re right. Indeed many people think that Szabo created Bitcoin using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

So how do smart contracts work? Here’s how Josh Blatchford explains it:

“… imagine a red-widget factory receives an order from a new customer to produce 100 of a new type of blue widget. This requires the factory to invest in a new machine and they will only recoup this investment if the customer follows through on their order.

Instead of trusting the customer or hiring an expensive lawyer, the company could create a smart property with a self-executing contract. Such a contract might look like this: For every blue widget delivered, transfer price per item from the customer’s bank account to the factory’s bank account. Not only does this eliminate the need for a deposit or escrow — which places trust in a third party — the customer is protected from the factory under-delivering.”

Smart contracts, in other words, precisely define the conditions of an agreement — not unlike dumb contracts. They also execute the terms of the contract by automatically (and irrevocably) transferring assets as the contract is fulfilled.

Blatchford wrote his description in VentureBeat – an online magazine that helps venture capitalists identify and invest in leading edge technologies. This suggests that the money to fund smart contract platforms is already flowing.

Indeed, the first smart contract platform – Ethereum – launched in July 2015. Ethereum’s website describes the endeavor as “… a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts: applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference.”

Ethereum seems to be essentially a developer’s platform today. Developers can use the platform to develop applications that eliminate the need for trusted (human) intermediaries. Should lawyers be worried? Not yet. But soon.

Blockchain Beyond Bitcoin

Blockchain - It's not just for Bitcoin anymore.

Blockchain – It’s not just for Bitcoin anymore.

In 1979, Paper Mate introduced the world’s first ballpoint pen with erasable ink. Technology analysts considered it an important breakthrough and the news made headlines around the country. Many of us thought, “Wow! Finally I can write in ink and then erase it. How cool is that?” After a few moments of reflection, we had a second thought, “Why would I ever want to do that?”

Before erasable ink, we thought of ink’s permanence as a drawback and a disadvantage. After erasable ink appeared, we realized that ink’s permanence was actually its primary benefit. Write it once and you know it will never go away. If you might want to erase something, use a pencil.

In an odd way, permanence may also be the primary benefit of the blockchain technology that underlies Bitcoin. We think of databases as interactive, up-to-date records of the world as it is. The closer to real-time, the better. If you want to know what’s happening right this millisecond, high-speed databases will tell you.

But what if you want to know what happened some time ago? And what if you want assurances that the information you retrieve is tamper-proof and immutable? In other words, what if you want the electronic equivalent of permanent ink?

That’s exactly what blockchains on distributed ledgers give you. You can’t change the blockchain unless you can decrypt it – and that’s very difficult. Even if you can decrypt it on one network node, many original copies exist on other nodes. It’s fairly easy to restore the status quo ante. You can be very confident that the information you retrieve is unchanged from the original. It’s an immutable, permanent record.

The blockchain/ledger technology allows Bitcoin to keep a permanent record of all transactions. That’s important if you want to create a trusted financial system. But why stop at financial transactions? Are there other transactions that might benefit from permanent, tamper-proof records?

Indeed, there are. Here are a few that are in production or beta today:

  • Ascribe – allows artists to “…lock in attribution [and] securely share and trace where your digital work spreads.”
  • Storj – a potential weak point of cloud storage is that, ultimately, your data is assigned to one server. What if that server fails or is corrupted or hacked? To improve security and privacy, Storj breaks your data into blockchains and stores it on multiple servers.
  • BitHealth – while Storj can store most any kind of data, BitHealth focuses on healthcare data. It claims to provide highly secure, uninterruptible, tamper-proof health data around the world.
  • Everledger – where did your fancy diamond come from? How did it get here? Where is it insured? For how much? Everledger keeps a permanent, immutable “ledger for diamond certification and related transaction history.”
  • Proof Of Existence or Bitproof — you want to prove that you had an idea at a certain date (preferably before anyone else). You could file a patent application. But that’s expensive, time-consuming, and public. Or you could register your document in the Proof of Existence or Bitproof blockchain databases.
  • Warranteer – you buy a product that comes with a warranty, which is described in a document. The product goes bad at approximately the same time that the document goes missing. Why not save the warranty in Warranteer’s blockchain, cloud-based database?

I could go on and on. (If you want to dig deeper, click here, here, and here). While Bitcoin popularized the technology, blockchain extends far beyond the financial world. Indeed blockchain may disintermediate and disrupt supply chains around the world. If so, the world will get much more efficient. Is that what we want?

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