Every so often, someone will be desperate to point out to me that Bitcoin has a high cost – namely the vast amount of electricity burned by miners across the world who carry out the essential function of processing transactions within the network. How can Bitcoin, they complain, the largest distributed computing project that has ever existed in the history of mankind, a project that harnesses processing power far greater than the combined processing power of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, be so wasteful?
Now it’s true that Proof of Work comes at a significant cost. And I’ll leave the whole Proof of Work versus Proof of Stake (etc) conversation for another day. But I wanted to highlight one project in particular that really drives home both the incredible power that’s arguably under-utilised within the current system and also precisely how the correct incentivisation can drive success for a far wider demographic than just us Bitcoin geeks.
Back in 2000, a distributed computing project was started at Stanford University which continues to this day called Folding@Home. The project asks volunteers around the world to download software on their computers. Once installed, it uses idle processing power to simulate protein folding in the body. The more of this work your computer carries out, the easier it becomes for medical researchers to carry out vital investigations into how different proteins work. This knowledge enables essential medical research into the causes of serious diseases to take place. Check out the video for more information.
The project’s been running for a long time and is now the world’s second largest distributed computing project in the world (behind Bitcoin) Before going any further, I suggest you – at the very least – look at helping out by visiting the website. You can start helping immediately by simply running the folding simulation within a Chrome browser.
Folding@Home’s been highly successful. Once the software was released, people all around the world joined in with no motivation other than to simply “do something good”. And this valuable human behaviour has been encouraged by simple gamification – individuals automatically earn points according to the processing power that they’ve spent folding and move up and down leaderboards daily as a result.
Enter Bitcoin – or, more accurately, Counterparty. I’ve already declared myself a fan of Counterparty but I’ll recap quickly.
Counterparty is basically a platform that sits on top of Bitcoin’s blockchain that provides additional functionality. Unlike many other proposals that aim to improve upon Bitcoin by standing alone, it is actually this direct relationship with Bitcoin that provides Counterparty with significant benefits. By piggybacking on the most established blockchain technology in the world, the most significant benefit for Counterparty is that the platform is secure from Day One as it can rely on the protection of the existing Bitcoin network. Other alternatives face the often insurmountable problem of having to attract miners with significant levels of processing power quickly in order to secure the network before it comes under attack.
Now, I don’t want this post to turn into an explanation of the 51% attack. The point is that Counterparty allows anyone to create assets very simply on top of the power of the existing Bitcoin blockchain. These assets can represent anything you like. And herein lies the kernel of a brilliant idea.
We’re agreed that people using their home computers to fold proteins is a good thing. So wouldn’t it be a great idea to incentivise people to take part in a way that enhances the simple feelings of altruism and point-scoring? It would but there simply isn’t the cash available to pay people to take part. If we can’t use cash, why not reward them with a token?
The longer you spend considering the value of tokens and what they really have the potential to represent in society, the easier it becomes to understand the power of the FoldingCoin concept. After all, what are all these coins and notes that we stuff in our pockets if not tokens? We believe such token money to have a certain value in our daily lives and therefore pass them around accordingly. But how is this different? After all, we already know that FoldingCoins have value because – as we’ve all agreed – medical research is, by definition, valuable.
Of course, no-one is saying that FoldingCoins can be used to pay your shopping bills tomorrow. But if you haven’t yet considered how the concept of money works within the current system that we have constructed, I urge you to do so.
With Folding Coin, you simply fold proteins in the normal way using the software on your computer but add your contribution to the FoldingCoin team within the Stanford project. Then, at the end of every day, you receive a share of that day’s fixed number of FoldingCoins, allocated in proportion to your daily contribution to the team.
As an interesting aside, the developers of FoldingCoin are looking to roll it out as the unofficial currency of Meetups around the world. It’s definitely something I’m going to look into as the organiser of the Edinburgh Bitcoin Meetup. It’s powerful because it represents an easy way (arguably even more so than ChangeTip’s recent viral success) to show people the power and usefulness of crypto-currency. With no mention of Bitcoin or any other technical details, you simply present a compelling use-case (donating processing power to help cure serious diseases is a good thing) and suddenly this crazy internet money thing isn’t such a hard sell after all. That’s something we’ve all been waiting for. And for the Bitcoin faithful, it has the added advantage of being a way to finally use all that idle mining equipment that sitting unused in your house after you were steamrollered in the mining arm’s race
Put simply – thanks to Counterparty, you’re not securing a Blockchain. You don’t have to explain any of that. You’re just helping to develop medical research.