Friday, December 06, 2013

Bitcoin and other DACs -- a new cyber-lifeform?

Bitcoin is very much in the news. In fact, recent headlines -- that the Bitcoin system has experienced a fair number of "heists" lately, combined with the Chinese government's decision to ban banks from trading in the ephemeral digital currency -- combine to make this the topic of the day.
Cyber utopians raise Bitcoin as an example of how secret transactions can still take place, even in an increasingly transparent world. The most zealous proclaim it as the harbinger of libertarian apotheosis.
What-is-bitcoinWhat is Bitcoin? Aw heck, even after a life spent interacting with fellow scientists and cypher-punk types and writing books about the social implications of the info-age… I admit to having little more than a Wikipedia-level understanding of how these purely digital experimental currencies (there are others: see below) work. They operate through exchange of public key encryption schemes, in which the bit coin seller (person A) who wants some good or service from Person B, sends Person B a code that lets him or her match and claim the public  portion of the coin. Person "B" may then create a new secret key (signature) portion so that no one watching the transaction can claim the coin and that new key will let "B" buy something else with it.
As with most currencies, bit coins are only worth what people - in aggregate - are willing to trade for them. Goods and services and - quite often - dollars. If you've ever used the Linden Money on Second Life or exchanged magical items on World of Warcraft, you know this aspect has precedence.  Only those digital currencies are run, created and supplied by the owners of the game or net world.  Real people meet and plan and decide how many Linden Dollars to keep in circulation.  And the law and courts in the real world can interfere, any time they see something that they do not like.
In contrast, Bitcoins were designed from scratch with ultra-libertarian values in mind.  There is no central repository, mint or controlling entity.  Some suspect that the original designer -- pseudonymous developer "Satoshi Nakamoto" -- may have kept "trapdoor" means of control. (In fact, I have my own reasons for (sort of) hoping it is true.)  But as more and more Bitcoin sub-servers are created from open source kernels, any such control mechanisms will inevitably decay… as new figures attempt to plant their own self-interested mechanisms into the sub-server hosts that they control and proselytize upon others.
Bitcoin-is-growing-upBut put aside those paranoid (if wholly realistic) musings. Part of the system's libertarian appeal is that it appears to be free of any overt and overall human control that could then be suborned or else co-opted or controlled by a corporation or government. Digitally signed payment messages are broadcast to and verified by a decentralized network of computers all over the world, which helps to reduce the problem of "double spending."
In this posting I have embedded three video tutorials that will explain Bitcoins to you - including an introduction from the Khan Academy.
Putting aside the way that Bitcoin empowers secrecy in transactions… which you would expect the author of The Transparent Society to treat with some skepticism. Or the fact that Bitcoin helps to empower skulduggerous transactions, such as the "Silk Road" market for illegal services; this is not seen by cypher-libertarians as a flaw, but as a feature.  It may surprise you to learn that I am blasé about such things.  For one thing, I deem the chance that the system is not fully understood and penetrated by the NSA already to be virtually nil.  One chief effect may be to give the intelligence services their own way to transmit un-traceable cash with near perfect plausible deniability.
Bitcoin-lifeformNo, none of that bothers me as much as the implications of the general type of system Bitcoin represents. It is designed to operate independent of any direct human control.  Its developers perceive it as a new kind of life form.  Because it is based in a distributed network of independent and separate computers, no one of whom is needed for survival, it is the next step upward, for autonomous cyber self-replicating forms, from viruses and simple amoeba-worms, these new systems are deemed "multi-cellular."
Welcome to the Pre-Cambrian  And be careful what you wish for.
== Bitcoin-like behavior in a story ==
Oh… an aside. The latest edition of Starship-Sofa features a wonderful reading-podcast of my creepy and chilling short story "Mars Opposition." Truly, it is a great reading and perfect for that commute…
… but what does this have to do with Bitcoin?  You'll see, as you learn how the Martians get to pay human traitors in untraceable ways that are… cool.
== Will online distributed "robot" corporations dominate the economy? ==
Distributed-Autonomous-CorporationsIn fact, Bitcoin is only the best-known and most widely used example of a wider class of system. So let me link you now to a very interesting… and perhaps necessary… reading for those who would like to have a Big Picture look at the new ecosystem of autonomous networked entities online.
These Distributed Autonomous Corporations -- as named by Stan Larimer of Invictus Innovations -- dwell in the separate computers of thousands of individuals and groups who independently decide to run -- or update -- host software for the system, allowing it to "live."  Like stockholders in a company, or customers, they thus vote for it to exist, by using it and providing it with an array of distributed homes.
The rapid evolution of these DACs cause Larimer to opine that we appear to be heading toward a realm that automatically and organically invokes Isaac Asimov. That this is the way robots have truly arrived.  And they need laws. And "nature" will be pretty much compelled to provide them.
Larimer foresees independent software-residing and internet spanning entities that are "corporate" in that they have a semblance of motivation and life, they thrive when they attract customers based on high reputation, and they defend their existence.  Unlike standard corporations, however, a healthy DAC soon becomes independent of human control EXCEPT the market need to keep attracting and satisfying customers. No other human parameter can interfere, he claims.
Bitcoin-RoboticsIn "Bitcoin and the Three Laws of Robotics," Larimer attempts to show how a set of Generally Stable Attractor States (my terminology here), will make it likely for these DAC's to stay autonomous and healthy in a market ecosystem that naturally and organically tends toward synergies similar to the renowned Asimovian laws (that I channeled and dissected in my novel, FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH).  

Accelerando_(book_cover)Indeed, Charles Stross' Accelerando, popularises this concept of autonomous economic legal entities, demonstrating in accessible ways this concept as one logical set of ends.
On the other hand, this market-home model of distributed markets that are out of human supervision has a scary side, since there may be a critical mass of humans willing to provide networked home bases for any kind of activity, including bazaars for evil, like hiring assassins. Indeed, the last vestige of human control… customers and members setting up virtual homes in distributed computers… may seem quaint when we approach the cloud-like cyber world forecast by William Gibson and Vernor Vinge, way back in the 1980s.
Without any doubt, Larimer's incantation and prediction is fascinating, even persuasive…
… until we recall that it is still an incantation and a polemic. A just-so story, like countless we have been told about markets, like Supply Side "economics," that just ain't necessarily so.
Me? I think parallels for these new software  forms are found in biology, all right.  But not in the leap from single cell to multi-cellular life. The true fundamentals span all of that, going back to life's very beginning -- predation, parasitism and so on.
Life, for most of its eras, never saw a lick of cooperation or genuine, deal-making quid pro quo, but rather ferocity, voracity and ruthless taking-advantage. These basic drives and successful methods have a billion years more precedent than the much more recent -- and demonstrably unstable -- regime of human-made markets, corporations and libertarian conceptions of fair exchange.
Khan-BitcoinShow me the benign "market" of voluntarily-exchanged goods and services that evolved organically in the Cambrian! Or Devonian, or Permian, or Cretaceous. It might have happened on other worlds! It might have happened here - letting animal species trade in positive sum games - that is, it might have, had the market state of quid-pro-quo been as automatically compelling in the real world as Mr. Larimer implies, in breathless enthusiasm. Just as Karl Marx and Murray Rothbard and other transcendentalist logicians urged us to believe in their if-therefor incantations.
But biology did not spontaneously evolve or create quid-pro-quo markets. Although there certainly have been symbiotic relationships -- e.g. between plants and pollinators -- these arose amid death and exploitation and almost never involved the kinds of knowing reciprocity that Larimer describes as happening automatically with his beloved DACs.
Bitcoin-videoElsewhere I describe how close we may be to quasi intelligent information systems that grow spontaneously and unsupervised, bursting onto the scene of artificial intelligence from a wholly unexpected direction… making "Skynet" look like Mr. Rogers… programmed with exactly this age-old voracity, with parasitism lying at its newborn heart. A scenario motivated by short-sighted, human greed and one that we allow to play out, at our great peril.
Pain, exploitation and death were the attractor states for a billion years.  Mr. Larimer and other cyber transcendentalists bear a burden of proof that This Time It Will Be Different..
== An alternative: making goodness part of it ==
I won't  raise more than one eyebrow at the "mining" process by which hackers with strong computers and mathematical programs can create new bit coins by cracking "proof of work" puzzle problems. Sure some of these are involved in maintaining the system, or verifying transactions or preventing double-spending. And some proof-of-work systems are communally productive, e.g. adding the sort of friction that deters denial of service attacks. Nevertheless, when it comes to "mining," it would seem to be a system inherently built for unfairness and abuse. Or subornation by the mighty.
Indeed, it could have been just as easy to set things up so that the mining operations would reward those who do the most useful work in solving crowd-sourced scientific or medical problems of value to the real world.  The same kind of reward for finesse and hacking ability… but doing something more useful than uber-nerding-out.
Had such altruistic puzzle-solving been the embedded "mining" method, it might have had profound effects upon future artificial intelligence, since (as described above) some AI experts consider it possible for these systems to "evolve."  The underlying ethos of always expecting-requiring a positive sum outcome with altruistic side-effects might have drifted the evolving system toward Asimov's Laws, or the Golden Rule, rather than self-serving rapacity. It all seems rather foolish, redolent of sophomoric sanctimony...
But then, I should be careful what I say and whom I offend!  Given that these fellows are among the cleverest (if not wisest) folks on the planet -- well, ahem -- let me now assuage any ill will that my questioning-poking might have aroused! I will now mollify by offering the one modern phrase that excuses all!
"Hey… I'm just sayin'…"
== Transparency Miscellany: Self-Logging exhibitionists, and more ==
Transparent-societyRead about something I predicted in EARTH (1989) -- compulsive self-loggers who wear 360 degree camera arrays that click at intervals, posting everything online in accessible stores of "mere" terrabytes (now cheap) of glimpses at the dully mundane activities of a boringly typical fellow homo sapiens.  Cathal Gurrin, a computer scientist at Dublin City University, wears a wide-angle camera around his neck which snaps several pictures of his field of view every minute, recording its location and orientation each time it does so. He has been using such devices for more than seven years. Over that time he has built up an archive of 12m images, and he currently produces about a terabyte of data a year. That is more computer memory than was available on the whole planet 50 years ago. Today it can be bought, or leased in the cloud, for well under $100.
To which, my unusual response is… yawn.  Though it is only an extreme case of a more useful general trend, like the use of dashboard cams in Russia to staunch the tsunami of false traffic accident claims and police shakedowns. Or lapel cams to help police work… or others to protect us from bad police. Or assistance to the elderly, or other examples in this interestign article.
How it ought to be done. I lived in London when the police were putting up vast networks of surveillance cameras.  But neighbors in New Orleans choose a difference approach, setting up a net of 1200 privately owned camera systems. Police have to ask - please - to see footage. And nearly always the answer is yes - since crime plummets. But they CAN say no, till subpoenaed. Slower reaction times, but it is off the public budget.  And folks have the ultimate recourse of deciding to "go blind" if the police become questionable.  A Transparent Society.
It is the true essence of libertarianism, instead of the sham now followed by lemmings.
AvaTwist, a "privacy service" might be a step toward the pseudonymity and reputation mediation services that - I predict -- will be billion dollar industries when someone catches on… or it could be just another deceitful offer of actual privacy-through-obscurity, which would be a scam .  Someone out there try it out and report back!  
An interesting talk by Vinay Gupta, the inventor of the hexa-yurt emergency shelter, about how new living technologies are emerging from two movements: the camping industry and "appropriate technologies," interplaying to develop ultralight methods over creating the basics: shelter, light, power, heat.  It starts interesting and devolves toward the end into a bit of a rant… in fact, kind of loony.  But still, with enough interesting and original insights to make you think.
cellular-convergenceYour cell phone is the perfect surveillance tool,  writes Stephen Wicker in his new book Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy. But Wicker says there are ways to change the system and to reclaim privacy.
and now… time for the cyber-libertarians to respond - in comments.  Welcome home, fellows n' cuz's. Put your feet up. Let me fix some tea.


Ed said...

"But biology did not spontaneously evolve or create quid-pro-quo markets."

Has Mr Brin become a creationist?

Obviously if positive sum markets exist anywhere in human society they are ultimately the result of spontaneous evolution.

That's not to disagree with the observation that they are very new, so we have no data on their long term likelihood or stability going forward. But their manifest success is a positive sign.

John Kurman said...

(One of) Bitcoin's flaw(s) is pointed out in the very first page of the Nakamoto technical paper: "The system is secure as long as honest nodes collectively control more CPU power than any cooperating group of attacker nodes".

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I stayed away from Bitcoins because of the libertarian fan club, but now I'm in ... luckily before it started it's recent boom.

If you focus on the technical, bitcoin as a money transfer system, it really is quite good.

Anonymous said...

A well reasoned review of Mars Opposition:

David Brin said...

Anonymous, thanks for sharing that pile of drivel. The fellow (1) could only see the story in terms of his own hobby horse and (2) gets every aspect of his hobby horse and complaint diametrically wrong and (3) clearly does not know a thing about his own passion - libertarianism.

An idiot. But then, we are immersed among a sea of such.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Is Bitcoin the new libertarian version of the South Sea Bubble?

Paul451 said...

AvaTwist appears to just be a limited (and thus user-simple) commercial proxy service with some extra sauce for "consistent identity".

Tony Fisk said...

Show me the benign "market" of voluntarily-exchanged goods and services that evolved organically in the Cambrian! Or Devonian, or Permian, or Cretaceous.

OK. I'll bite*:

Bacteria 'trading' packets of genetic information, thereby allowing antibiotic resistance and, most likely, other win-win goodness to propagate.

* just for the hell of it. btw should that be 'byte'?

Paul451 said...

While horizontal gene transfer is often referred to as "exchange", I suspect the process occurs when one bacterium consumes another, so "my win is your loss".

Alfred Differ said...

Calling it a bubble is probably unfair. I suspect the libertarians are deluding themselves, though, when they call it a currency that can replace fiat currencies. The underlying problem is that it is difficult to use in contracts that require the ability to rake it back if terms are not met. Options and futures contracts are typical instruments of a mature currency. Bitcoin is TOO secretive to support these tools right now. While the libertarians might not care to want them, most of the world does and with good reason. A great many transactions can be understood as options contracts and those only work if the payment offered is held by agents in the middle or there is a way to accomplish a charge back. Even a simple 'deposit' placed on something is an option contract, so this is fundamental stuff.

This flaw with Bitcoin might be repairable, though, with a secondary block-chain for crypto-contracts. Such thinks would lock Bitcoins up until they were resolved, thus leveraging options would be constrained to avoid double spending of the collateral. We LIKE leveraging, though, and the credit industry relies upon it, so this is only a partial fix.

Alfred Differ said...

Hmm... there IS a parasitic angle to this stuff. When I set up the bitcoin client on a small machine here at home, I had to dump one of the @Home screensaver projects doing science in order to ensure the bitcoin client could keep up.

I guess I better go buy more memory for the little machine and do the right thing. 8)

Paul451 said...

Alfred Differ,
[I posted a reply to you on juries in the previous thread (to avoid polluting this one.)]

" I had to dump one of the @Home screensaver projects doing science in order to ensure the bitcoin client could keep up."

Ah, civilisation's eternal dilemma.

locumranch said...

Bitcom is a lifeform?? Such an argument is so specious, so wrongheaded & so irrational that it is hard to know where to begin.

First, Bitcom is unreal, lacking any sort of objective existence. Second, being virtual, Bitcom is purely symbolic. Third, being symbolic, Bitcom is no more novel than any other relative human monetary system based on pencil scratchings, digitized information or beaver pelts. And fourth, Bitcom is metaphoric, existing in a purely analogous rather than a literal sense, so much so that only a zealot (or a moron) confuses the literal with analogy.

I despise this type of 'argumentum ad nomen' (argument by nomenclature) as the illogically magical nonsense that it is, an attempt at glamour, as if giving some old idea a new name imbues it with some new claim to existence, as in the case of 'Distributed Autonomous Corporations' (DAC) ... which is merely another name for deliberately dispersed electronic information that is neither 'autonomous' nor 'corporate'.


Prakash said...

You can check out sunny king's work. His peercoin transitions from proof of work to proof of stake creating an energy effcient currency in the long run. Another of his works is Primecoin which finds out chains of prime numbers. This is just the beginning of crypto currencies. They have a long way to go.

Acacia H. said...

Here, Dr. Brin: an article that all scientists, politicians, and commentators on this blog should keep in mind. Especially Locum. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

My own crackpot notion? We should have several shadow congresses. Start with a Science Congress.

Each representative from a congressional district gets to appoint a science advisor/delegate from among the scientifically trained persons in his/her district. These shadow members would both advise the congressperson and deliberate with other appointees in discussions of scientific and technical matters.

This would achieve several goals:

1- it would ensure that every congress member at least HAS a science advisor with whom he/she is comfortable. That alone could have positive effects.

2- It would ensure that sci-tech matters would be actively and intensely deliberated, by men and women who have the ears of our true, legal representatives. The hearings can be much more extensive than busy representatives can time-afford. .. even if, to save money, the deliberations are mostly held online. They cannot help but be elevating and informative to a viewing public.

3- From my biased point of view, this would have salutary effects by blatantly exposing the mental inferiority of the appointees chosen by wide swathes of the dogmatic political wings.

Paul451 said...

With several hundred science advisors routinely exposed to the deep muck of politics from the inside, you might see a lot more scientists decide to run for congress. "These people are idiots, I can do this".

Paul451 said...

Apparently no one has any fun building nuclear reactors any more, according to Freeman Dyson.

Which means no weird ideas are tried, which means little progress is made. Which is why the industry seems so stuck.

Fusion, otoh...
Piston fusion engine, FTW.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Apparently no one has any fun building nuclear reactors any more, according to Freeman Dyson

Back in the 70's I did an undergraduate course in "Nuclear Engineering"

I decided not to join the industry because given the nature of the beast there would be at least ten engineers checking for every engineer creating.

One of my Materials lecturers had worked on one of the main problems with the AGR's
The CO2 coolant reacted with the Stainless piping
He wanted to add something (can't remember what) to the gas mix,
No way they were going to let him, instead they dropped the temperature - with predictable results on the efficiency

Back then I could easily see it was not going to be fun working in that industry

Alfred Differ said...


Got it. I replied over there for the same reason, but I think I'll hang out on the current post more so I can take a poke at locumranch's humorous use of objectiveness and symbols in the same breath. 8)

Alfred Differ said...


Bitcoin would qualify as a lifeform in Popper's world #3. The individual bitcoins aren't alive anymore than a viral instructions are, but the bitcoin concept propagates into world #2 and impacts world #1, therefore it exists.

Symbols are the stuff of world #3.

Tacitus said...


You have had your share of criticism of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. It must have pleased you on some level that on 4 December they spent a few hours of what seems like reasonable discussion on the possibility of alien life.

Democratic critics called it a waste of time when more pressing issues were out there, but I guess I am just whimsical, I found it rather charming.

Sorry they did not call you to testify!

gregory byshenk said...

David, this piece in the Observer by David Simon might resonate some with your political comments.

locumranch said...

Alfred appears to be correct as in regard to Bitcoin. It WOULD qualify as a lifeform in Popper's World #3, an imaginary world where cloud-based mental entities play the harp & dance around the throne of objective knowledge, assuming (of course) that anyone & everyone was moronic enough to confuse figurative metaphor with literal truth.

Frankly, I find Tacitus' observation on political reasonableness (above) to be that much more valid as the desire to become more than we are, take risks, escape the bonds of gravity, colonize space or search for extraterrestrial life cannot be considered 'reasonable' in a strict word sense, especially when terms like 'reasonable' and 'rational' are most commonly used to connote convention.

This is because such goals, however noble, laudable or awe-inspiring, spring from desire & emotionality rather than logic, so much so that no amount of rationalization cannot make them either reasonable or rational.

So why bother ?? Why spend so much time & effort justifying what you desire ?? Just do it. Go into space, suspend civil rights, investigate alternate energies, beam messages to ET, cheat a neighbour or bomb Iraq if that's what you desire because you can always justify it in the end, after the fact, by citing some such canard like terrorism, climate change, WMDs or science.


David Brin said...

Tacitus, could you please give us a citation for democratic critics attacking those hearings as a waste of time? Was it one twit? Or a chorus, reciting one talking point (the general way GOP reps behave)?

Tacitus said...

Sorry, read it in my old fashioned dead tree newspaper this morning!

Here ya go..

Although the Democrats on the committee praised the witnesses and seemed to enjoy the discussion, the hearing, called by committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, inspired partisan mockery outside the room. A news release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the Republicans were holding a hearing on "space aliens" rather than on such issues as immigration reform or a minimum-wage increase.

"No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet - they're more interested in life in space than Americans' lives," said the DCCC's Emily Bittner. "Saying this Republican Congress has misplaced priorities is an understatement of galactic proportions."

Emily Bittner...does sound rather like a twit. I will let others comment on the makeup of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.


LarryHart said...


I don't know the specific newspaper, and I certainly am not up on the make up of the DCCC. So this is just me...

I'd say what you're seeing there is what is taken for reporting these days: If you mention Republicans doing anything, then the next sentence has to be some "Democratic response" about that thing being bad. And vice versa, of course.

Which means that when either party does something really stupid or harmful, the "response" is drowned out in the noise. Republicans calling President Obama out on (say) invading Syria registers with the reader equivalently with Republicans objecting to Presient Obama's long-form birth certificate being a clever forgery. Since it becomes taken for granted that "the other side" will condemn everything and everything the one side does, then there's no urgency to legitimate criticism by a loyal opposition. It's all politics now.

More's the pity for democracy.

Tacitus said...


I think it was an AP report. Very few papers do any specific reporting these days.

No argument with your observations. The press is in sad decline.


Alfred Differ said...


Ha ha! Playing harps and dancing around objective knowledge. You should probably capitalize 'literal truth' or at least use proper case when you say it that way, though. You obviously use it as if it has some fundamental meaning. 8)

I don't really care whether one wants to model their universe as one world (physical), two worlds (mind/body), or N worlds. Who cares? If there is no way for me to falsify a model, I sure don't. I'll use many of them if they suit my purposes and not fret the truthfulness of any of them focusing instead on their usefulness. A model is just a model, though in Popper's model a model is a world #3 object.

Dismiss this stuff if you like, but I find it amusing material. When I finally read the book Popper wrote advocating indeterminism and an open universe, it reminded me of parts of one of David's Uplift stories. If I recall correctly it was an FTL technique where you went to some other place populated by ideas and the machines were especially vulnerable there. It was very amusing to make the connection years later after reading the stories.

Tacitus said...

slight correction. It was a Washington Post story.

Regards the original topic, I would never invest in Bitcoin. Stay well away of things you find incomprehensible.

It is also why I usually do not carry on a dialog with Locumranch...there might be something important in there but I can't claim to comprehend it.


Jonathan S. said...

There, at least, we are in complete agreement, Tac. :-)

David Brin said...

Actually, I am rather glad that locumranch is part of the community. I know snarky-bright teens very well. It makes online feel like home. And there are flashes of real wit, amid the sophomorisms.

Tacitus said...

agreed. the deficiency is mine. there is treasure hidden in many ways that one could invest time or money. well hidden sometimes.


jim said...

Show me the benign "market" of voluntarily-exchanged goods and services that evolved organically in the Cambrian! Or Devonian, or Permian, or Cretaceous.

I will bite too.

Endosybiosis of mitocondria and chlorplast.
Gut bacteria in gerneral.
The bacteria in termites in particular.
Nitrogen fixing bacteria in the roots of legums.

David Brin said...


Acacia H. said...

Remember how I keep stating that "American Decline" is a myth and a lie?

Well, I'm no longer alone in this assertion, and the person who wrote a book on the subject had some fascinating things to say about it. One interesting aspect was also that if all the wealth truly is concentrated in 1% of Americans, it WILL cause the economy to falter and THEN we'd see decline.

So. There is hope.

Rob H.

Poor Richard said...

Brin wrote:

"Pain, exploitation and death were the attractor states for a billion years. Mr. Larimer and other cyber transcendentalists bear a burden of proof that This Time It Will Be Different.."

Ha ha. The "burden of proof" only applies to science and jurisprudence. Humanity goes to war over hypothesis, opinion, and speculation. Very few ever set about proving or asking for proof of anything!

diana said...

Very interesting and informative article, it was very helpful for me.

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