Bitcoin, or the inelegance of technology

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Blockchain is a very promising technology. But for now it is young, flawed and still a bit inelegant.

A tech-addict friend of mine recently confessed to me the frustrating pain he felt when he desperately tried, a few weeks ago, to explain the concept of elegance in technology to his smirking colleagues. I padded him he back with compassion, and thought : “OK I will have your back on this. I will write about it”.

Meanwhile I thought about it and realized : “Holly cow ! There is no better example to explain this than to talk about cryptocurrencies !”

But first thing first…

What the hell is elegance in technology ?

This concept, which is utterly nerdy, is in fact extendable to any kind of “problem solving”.

A solution to a problem shall be deemed as “elegant” if it reaches its objectives in a simple, efficient and exceptions-robust way.

An “inelegant” solution, at the opposite, would still reach its objectives, but will be highly resource inefficient, overly complex, or have large limitations in its further applications.

To make it short, the concept can be pretty well imaged by this quote:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –

But how does this relate to Bitcoin ?

I am pretty sure that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did not think about bitcoin and cryptocurrencies when writing this ( he was a visionary and genius, but still ). However, this quote does in fact very well apply, one century later, to blockchain, bitcoin and its cryptocurrency siblings.

The topic is hot so this might get touchy…

Let’s just say it and please pardon me crypto huggers !

Blockchain, as currently designed, is an “inelegant” technology.

I know a lot of you are annoyed right now, because they adore bitcoin and blockchain. So I have to explain myself, and more importantly why does it matter.

To do this I have to talk a little bit about the classical problem blockchain founders actually “solved”. Let’s talk about this original problem which is known as :

The Byzantine generals problem !

Here it is :

Imagine that 3 (or more) generals are besieging a city and decide to attack it. They need to agree on a exact attack time in order for their attack to succeed. They can only communicate through messengers. BUT, messengers, and other generals, can be traitors and loyal generals cannot verify the authenticity of messages they receive.

Now design a preconceived messaging and agreement protocol between all generals (a “consensus protocol”) that would allow them to securely agree on a reliable attack time and take the city…

Okay stop trying to solve this. As you probably guessed, it is a crazy difficult problem, that you and I have no chance to solve, ever.

But, in a even harder version of it, the bitcoin founders did solve it, allowing bitcoin owners ( “the generals” ) to reach a consensus on the legit transactions blocks (“the attack time”) despite possible numerous malicious owners ( “traitor generals”) or corrupted transactions (“traitor messengers”).

They managed in more barbaric terms to “reach a trustless consensus on a distributed network“. I know, this sounds very nerdy, but  this is how it is called !

This was NOT easy. This is indeed a formidable achievement and a great progress in information technology. They did find a first solution, and it is working.

Well it is working, but it is “inelegant”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not able to do better. God no. They are geniuses, I am not.

But the solution they found has, sadly, huge limitations, which makes it somehow inelegant, and more importantly, probably unable to survive, in its current design.

The solution they found is called the “proof-of-work” consensus system and is used in almost all big blockchains and therefore cryptocurrencies (another method called “Proof of Stake” consensus exists but has different drawbacks and is not much used, for now…).

And this “Proof of work” consensus method has 2 drawbacks :

  1. First it uses a growing amount of computer power. And it will continue growing theoretically indefinitely. It is designed to, its economic model and security relies on participants whipping their computers harder and harder. It will grow if it attracts more users, and it will grow if it record more transactions. And this computer power, as the related energy consumption used to sustain it, is huge. So blockchain, as it is designed right now, with a Proof of Work consensus, is not sustainable and not scalable. It cannot be the final solution because the electric energy it consume will quite fast be so large that it would not be economically possible to sustain it. And I am not even talking about its carbon footprint, which is obviously troublesome.
  2. It is vulnerable to an attack called the 51% attack, meaning that malicious participants owning more the 51% of the computational power of the network can  possibly take control of it and do pretty much what they want. I am sure you understand how this would be “problematic”. While this is practically almost impossible for large blockchains where the network is so big no one would ever be able to do that, it is indeed a real concern for smaller blockchains. Moreover, the increasing concentration of miners in certain blockchains, especially Ethereum where the two biggest miner pools usually mine more then 40% of transactions, make this problem even more vivid. And I am not even talking of the fact that 80% of the worlds miners are located in China, which is obviously troublesome too.

So for now one can say that the blockchain technology, despite its complexity and initial smartness, is in its current state still inelegant, and flawed.

But this does not mean that it has no future. The problem is that this technology is extremely promising, but is still in its very early stage of development. Academic and private research continues and I sure hope that a reliable, sustainable, scalable and well, elegant solution will be found because potential applications are innumerous, and overwhelmingly positive.

In fact the biggest problem of this technology right now is cryptocurrencies, which have drawn way too much unwanted and selfish interest in a way too young tech. Rogue speculation and predatory behaviors has meddled into what should have stayed an academic and open community of positive thinkers and researchers.

The idea of blockchain is here to stay, but it is still a long way from been perfectly “elegant”. I hope it will.

 

 

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