Joining The Team At MaidSafe

(This is a repost from the MaidSafe blog)

As we hurtle towards the end of 2017, it’s time to take stock. And the verdict’s in: it’s been a crazy year in the world of cryptocurrency. But thankfully, in most cases, that’s crazy-good, as opposed to crazy-bad. That’s certainly the case for me personally at least. And this is why…

Back in January 2014, I organised the first Bitcoin Meetup in Scotland. As I wrote at the time, it felt like a bit of a leap of faith. Not in terms of the organisation (thanks to Meetup). But because the prevailing view amongst those few who’d actually heard of this ‘magic internet money’ was that the whole thing was a scam and destined to end in tears.

Whether real or perceived, it crossed my mind that there might be a reputational risk in becoming so deeply involved as an organiser. I don’t consider myself risk-averse in any way. But as someone who had enjoyed/endured a legal career of more than a decade, I’m hardly the best person to judge. After all, the risk of loss-aversion has well-known effects on decision-making.

But try as I might, I couldn’t get past one simple fact. I’d spent many months by that stage falling deeper down the proverbial Bitcoin rabbit hole. Late nights wrestling with explanations about the technology, engaging with the economic implications, debating the future potential and limitations. To me, it was clear that change – at a fundamental, disruptive level that would resonate across multiple areas of everyday life – was coming. And yet, as far as I could make out, no-one in Scotland had got together in a room  to discuss what was going on. The decision was made. I might be left sitting alone in that pub one evening – but surely there had to be others out there.

The story of how the scene in Scotland developed after that first meetup (for which, to be clear, I claim no credit!) is an interesting one. But it’s not the focus here. Nor is the purpose of this post a chance for me to say ‘I told you so’ when we look at Bitcoin in 2017. I believe Bitcoin remains a technology in evolution with an indeterminate end state that has plenty of room left to run. The key thing here is the paradigm shift that’s taking place.

But that very first night in Edinburgh was important for another reason. I’m still in contact with many of the people that I met for the first time that night. But undoubtedly one of the most impactful conversations I’ve had was with someone who’d been one of the first to sign up for that meetup – a guy called David Irvine, who travelled all the way across from the West Coast of Scotland, from an outfit that went by the name of MaidSafe.

I’d tried to research everyone who’d signed up before the meetup. Not in a creepy ‘let’s-track-you’ kind of way. But in a ‘let’s-build-the-community’ kind of way. I wanted to help people to keep the conversations going after the event. And I have to admit, my feeble brain had struggled to understand what MaidSafe did before the Meetup. But that changed when I spoke to David on that evening. And I was dumbfounded by the fact that a project with such huge ambitions and such far-reaching implications was taking place pretty much under my nose in Scotland.

Since that time, I’ve been heavily involved in the Bitcoin/blockchain scene, particularly in Scotland. But I’ve always been convinced that something big was happening in the mythical shed in Troon. Throughout my travels, I kept pointing people in the direction of the SAFE Network and discussing what it represents. That included asking Nick (Lambert, COO) to give a talk when I put on the Scottish Bitcoin Conference in 2014, running a Maidsafe-focused meetup and also sharing in the rollercoaster excitement of the MaidSafe fundraising in April 2014.

Fast forward four years and I’m delighted to say that I’ve now joined MaidSafe full-time as Marketing and Outreach Coordinator. Most people who start at a new company talk platitudes about their new employers. But you’ll have to take my word for it in this case. I’d continue to sing the praises of the SAFE Network even if I wasn’t working here.

This is why.

MaidSafe’s mission is no less significant than building a new secure network that will revolutionise the way that every one of us uses the internet. Many years ago, David had worked out that we collectively needed a better solution. And MaidSafe is in good company, with none other than the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, sharing similar concerns. In fact, Tim is working on addressing the same sort of issues with his Solid project at MIT.

Over the past couple of years, the problems of data storage and security have only worsened. The concerns so presciently raised by MaidSafe eleven years ago have intensified in the collective awareness of society. We now see daily examples of sensitive personal information and data being hacked or misplaced by third parties. Arguments over privacy and net neutrality dominate the news. And new concerns over the excessive power wielded by giant internet companies are raised daily.

In short, as the internet has increased in importance to our daily lives, so has the visibility of its major flaws. And crucially – these aren’t issues that will simply solve themselves. We can’t sit back and expect things to improve. Technologies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have helped to bring the benefits of decentralisation to the forefront of discussion. And even amongst those who remain cynical, few still believe our current architecture remains fit-for-purpose when it comes to the next few decades of human evolution.

In addition to playing a small part in helping to build a solution to a problem that increases with each passing day, there’s another big motivating factor at play for me here. With the emergence of MaidSafe so early in the chronology of recent events, I believe that many over the past few years have simply not had the opportunity to spend  the time to find out what the ultimate success of this project represents. I’ve been a member of MaidSafe’s forum (https://safenetforum.org/) since it was set up (not by the company but by enthusiasts around the world, it should be noted) a few years ago – and I’m constantly bowled over by just how engaged, respectful, intelligent and enthusiastic this community is.

Over the past few years, I’ve given many talks on Bitcoin and the blockchain scene in general. But the reality is that my advocacy has always been a response to the level of community engagement out there. The more people that found out about the subject, the keener they were to explore further. The similarities to me are striking. Today, I don’t think most people are aware that the SAFE Network project has been active for eleven years. Just let that sink in for a moment. Pre-Bitcoin. The project even had a prototype crypto-currency before Satoshi’s White Paper. As I said at the start, in the context of 2017, the SAFE Network is so far from being a hyped product it’s not funny. But it’s clear to me what the SAFE Network is: an open-source project that’s open to all that invokes a passion and belief in a community who are all driving in the same direction.

Remind you of something?

As I start working with the team on a unique project, I can’t wait to get out and do my bit. I remember a comment David made years ago. It was along the lines of “It doesn’t matter who achieves our goal in the end – but it does matter that someone does”. Joining a team that have been toiling away at some of the hardest technical challenges out there for over a decade – for the most part entirely unheralded and under the radar – there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s going to change soon. And I can’t wait to get started.

If you want to get in touch and have a chat, please reach out. I’m pretty active on Twitter (@dugcampbell) or you can sign up and speak to thousands more via the forum (https://safenetforum.org/). In the meantime, we’re looking for some more people to join us at MaidSafe – so if you’re a UX/UI Designer, Software Support Analyst or Testing & Release Manager and fancy joining the team, please get in touch!

Bitcoin and the Trust Web

I always try to share something that I found either valuable or interesting every day on this blog – even if it’s only of interest to me. Today, however, I’m pretty sure it should be of interest to everyone as the standout article was undoubtedly the one by David Cohen and William Mougayar published on Techcrunch entitled, ‘After the Social Web, Here Comes The Trust Web‘. William published one of my favourite articles on Bitcoin last year (here) and it’s great to see Techstar‘s Cohen also co-authoring the piece.

The article does a great job of summarising – and simplifying – the value of Bitcoin and the promise of blockchain-related developments for the newcomer. It frames the innovation that’s taking place as unstoppable force and one that represents a renaissance for technology, computer science and cryptography.

I couldn’t agree more.

It also helpfully distinguishes between the most visible revolution (the new manifestation of money) and the less-visible but even more important revolution that the blockchain is kickstarting, not least by virtue of the fact that the technology creates a new way to write software.

In case you don’t have time to read it (you should), here’s a few key points:-

Focus on new models, not old

If you truly want to see innovation in action, don’t see how Bitcoin fits uncomfortably within the existing paradigms. To understand the real potential, look at how Bitcoin and blockchain technology is forging a brand new path. Tackling regulatory concerns and obstacles placed by incumbents is ultimately futile in their view. Bitcoin does not require permission. Technology is neutral by definition and in this case simply functions as a low-level protocol (a set of rules that govern how a network communicates), just as the Internet relied on the TCP/IP protocol. The real magic happens when clever people build useful things on top of it.

“It’s better to invent new things instead of fighting all things, and it’s easier to create new systems that circumvent the old ones”.

The concept of decentralised consensus

Normal practice over the years has been to rely on one database to confirm whether a transaction is valid or not. With Bitcoin, the authority and trust that would otherwise be in one centralised database has been transferred to many nodes. These nodes record transactions publicly and sequentially, with the technology (cryptography and blockchain) ensuring that no duplication of recording takes place within the decentralised network.

The future of money?

Bitcoin provides a solution for half of the world that remains unbanked, with a simplicity that has been proved to be valuable by well over half of the population in Pakistan and Kenya (in easypaisa and M-Pesa respectively). Whilst legacy banking either can’t or won’t service this demographic, the $400bn + remittance industry will also be disrupted by the cost savings that Bitcoin brings.

In addition, with legacy infrastructure costs making small online payments uneconomic, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general represent a far more cost-effective way of sending small amounts of money – whether that involves tipping or donations.  It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to pay more over the medium-term when they have an option.

Finally, it’s a fact that when the Internet was created, there was no native currency created that could work in an integrated fashion with it. Bitcoin represents that solution.

Smart Property / Digital Rights

An asset that knows who owns it is known as ‘smart property’. By recording ownership on the blockchain, suddenly you can use your unique cryptographic signature to prove your ownership beyond doubt. Others can then confirm that you own this property by simply checking the blockchain, whilst your explicit consent is required before any such rights of ownership can be removed from you.

It’s not hard to understand just how powerful an auditable database is likely to be that enables you to “establish a persistent link between [your] identity, reputation, a digital file and its meta-data“.

Smart contracts based on proof of work

In one sense, proof of work is simply a right to participate in the blockchain system. Using the technology that underpins Bitcoin, it’s possible to create contracts that are self-executing, relying on the blockchain for verification as opposed to any centralised judge or court, for example.

Decentralised peer-to-peer marketplaces    

These days, semi-centralised businesses such as Amazon, eBay and Uber rule their niches. With Bitcoin and the innovations that are currently being developed within the ecosystem, person-to-person marketplaces are evolving quickly that make the role of middleman redundant. The nature of this technology is such that trust is not required for a transaction to take place between two peers and therefore this cost is saved.

As pointed out in the article, one of the fascinating areas of decentralisation technology comes from the shift that we are collectively starting to experience: we previously relied on the centralised organisation for a wide range of things that are now being delivered by the decentralised marketplace (think of trust, rules, identity, reputation and payment choices).

Cryptoequity and DAO’s

I’ve touched on both before but I’ll save the detailed explanation of the possibilities of issuing a reimagined form of share equity that is recorded permanently on the blockchain or Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (businesses that run autonomously without human involvement according to a strict set of rules enforced by software) for another time given the complexity of both topics. But it’s worth noting that both have the power to completely restructure certain industries.

Decentralised identity

As has been previously noted, we have a problem with online identity. Millions around the world currently rely on centralised institutions to log-in to services, mostly for the simple fact of convenience (Facebook or Twitter log-in’s, for example). But of course, doing so provides such companies with extensive data about our activities and interests that they then monetise. Bitcoin provides the start of a solution – an alternative way in using the blockchain to decentralise (and – crucially – control) our own identities and reputations.

It’s great to see a mainstream website such as Techcrunch put out an informed and detailed article about the potential in the area. Hopefully, there will be many more to follow. There’s no doubt it’s been a bumpy start to 2015 in the court of public opinion when it comes to Bitcoin – but then again, what’s new?

 

Trust Me, I’m A (Block Chain) Computer

Noted polymath Nick Szabo published a new article yesterday, “The Dawn of Trustworthy Computing“.

Celebrated within the Bitcoin community, he’s the guy that came up with the concept of BitGold before Bitcoin and has written some of the most significant essays in the field over recent years (see ‘Shelling Out – The Origins of Money’ and his seminal paper on Smart Contracts, ‘Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks‘).

There are a few points from this new piece that really drive home the power of the technology that underpins the system. I recommend that you go and read it yourself (here) but given its importance, I thought that for today’s post, I’d try to give a high level summary of what is invariably, yet again, another excellent piece of work.

Szabo starts by pointing out that we currently rely on a system that is designed in such a way that the ‘other end’ of our computers (i.e. the web servers etc) has to be run by an individual or collection of people that we are required to trust. The system simply could not work unless you did. This has a significant downside as it means that no security measures will ever be able to prevent the data that you share in this way from being hacked or leaked if it is sufficiently valuable to someone else.

But think of how commerce operates. When you pay to see a film at the cinema, you simply hand across the money. We benefit from controls embedded within the system (the guy behind the desk checks you’ve paid the right money and gives you a ticket without asking your name). OK, so the process may be slow if there’s a queue but we receive a ticket and the cinema can control how many people get into the screening. However, compare that with an online transaction online. As we’ve established, the system of computers that we currently rely on is not very trustworthy, given that it is liable to hacks or leaks. However an online transaction will usually force you to fill out forms containing additional valuable personal data. We are forced to accept the risk of this data being lost because the time-saving from having computers involved (rather than requiring all customers to visit a shop to pay in cash, for example) is so significant.

But block chain computing changes all of this.

In this new system, a virtual computer that is protected by cryptography and consensus technology is now shared across many computers. It is a system in which each computer is required to check the work of the other computers in the network. The result? We can now explore interactions that were just too risky before this system was invented. We no longer need to place our trust in an individual or group on the other end of our computer.

The use of the word trust can often be confusing. For newcomers who are confused by people talking about ‘trustless’ systems, Szabo suggests ‘trust-minimised’ would be more accurate.  So instead of having to rely on (i.e. trust) unknown third parties to do what they’ve promised, each computer will reliably execute the instructions that we provide (subject to the 51% issue of course). Within this new network, we couldn’t trust the computers if we relied on them as individuals. But together, when all of the computers are constrained by mathematical rules, the end result is a reliable and secure network.

This is a powerful concept. Initially, we’ve seen block chain computers have been used primarily to develop a currency solution, namely Bitcoin. But now we are faced with an unforgeable record of transactional data being recorded in the block chain, we’ve can start to accelerate the development of further applications.

One area that fascinates me in particular is that of smart contracts. As Szabo writes:-

“The block chain can also make the search, negotiation, and verification phases of contracting more reliable and secure. With on-chain smart contracts we will be able to buy and sell many online services and financial instruments by button and slider instead of by laboriously filling out forms that disclose our private information.”

It’s worth noting that in order to achieve such powerful advantages of security and reliability, the decentralisation inevitably costs more (in terms of both money and time) when compared directly with the current system in which you rely on one web server alone. However, those advantages outweigh the negatives by an order of magnitude. Be careful however not to assuming that it is merely the fact that this improvement is simply because of the fact that the system has been decentralised:-

“It’s actually the protocol (Nakamoto consensus, which is highly distributed) combined with strong cryptography, rather than just decentralization per se, that is the source of the far higher reliability and and much lower vulnerability of block chains.”

It appears to be Szabo’s intention to follow up in the future by really digging into some of the applications are now possible on top of such a trust-minimised block chain. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. In the meantime, if you’re more interested in the computer science behind the block chain itself, check out this handy list of papers.