Video - Blockchain vs. Bullshit Thoughts on the Future of Money

In this talk "Blockchain vs. Bullshit - Thoughts on the Future of Money," Andreas outlines the necessary criteria that will help you distinguish blockchains from bullshit, and why the goal of developing this technology should not be "banking the unbanked" but rather de-banking all of us.


IAN MERRINGTON: And we’re going to kick off with a keynote on the future of money so it really is about looking forward we’re going to have a future (0:00:06) session this morning and someone who doesn’t need a lot of introduction other to say he is a world-class expert in his field has come to South Africa to talk to us. Andreas Antonopoulos, welcome to South Africa and welcome (0:00:19).

ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS: Hi, good morning everyone.

AUDIENCE: Good morning.

ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS: I am so excited to be here. So, this conference is called the Bitcoin conference a couple of years ago and now it’s the Blockchain conference next year it’s going to be the DLT technology and then after that it’s going to be the database inspired by but no longer in anyway related to Blockchain conference. An interesting progression. Let me do a quick poll of the audience I want to get an idea of your level of experience and familiarity with this space so I’m going to go back to the yesteryears of Bitcoin. How many of you currently own Bitcoin? Fantastic! And those who don’t own Bitcoin how many of you have conducted a transaction or seen a transaction happen in Bitcoin? Great! And how many do not own any cryptocurrency of any type? Okay, great.

How about people who are involved with Ethereum and own Ethereum? Great! Dash? Monero? Zcash? (0:01:46) interesting, okay. How many own Blockchain? How many have used Blockchain in a transaction or in any way other than the five things I mentioned previously?

All right, okay. So breakdown for you for those who can’t see what the audience is doing – about 60% to 70% have Bitcoin at the moment or have conducted a transaction, about 30% or 40% with Ethereum, smaller minority with Dash, Monero of Zcash, nobody owns Blockchain and this is interesting, this is exciting. Great! So, let’s get started.

What exactly is going on here? Is this the greatest technological innovation, an explosion of innovation since the mobile internet, or maybe even the internet itself? Or is this the greatest load of hype ever (0:02:55) around a technology in the history of technology? Both. And in fact that’s a characteristic of advanced technologies. I often said that where Bitcoin and the other open Blockchains are today is approximately where the internet is in 1992 in terms of technology, in terms of infrastructure deployment, in terms of adoption patterns. This technology is approximately where the internet was in 1992. But the hype around Blockchain is exactly where the hype around the internet was in 1998. You know what comes next. There will be a shake out.

When the waters recede you can tell who on the beach wasn’t wearing a swimsuit. They stand there naked, it’s an empty promise. This will happen in the Blockchain space. There is a lot, a lot of bullshit being peddled to VCs, to investors, to initial coin offering buyers, to an educated investors, there’s a lot of ponzi schemes, there’s a lot of pyramid schemes, there’s a lot o empty promises. There’s also a lot of business as usual disguised as innovation, disguised as disruptive technology. And so, we’re at this strange moment where the underlying technology really is, truly is massively disruptive, massively innovative. The amount of research that’s happening today in applied cryptography is unprecedented. We are looking at the largest civilian deployment of public key cryptography ever because it turns out that people only protect keys when those keys are attached to value and nothing teaches someone security fast enough than having their Bitcoin on a Windows machine. Holding your own Bitcoin very quickly changes your attitude towards information security. You didn’t care about your photos, some didn’t even care about your sexy photos, you didn’t care about your location the fact that everything you do was tracked. You didn’t care about posting your entire life on Facebook you use the same password, password 1234 on 17 different sites. You didn’t know what the factor of indication was and then Bitcoin happened and suddenly you’re on a steep learning curve and getting better every day. Now you’re telling your friends about two factor of indication and you’re horrified to remember how you used to practice security because storing value has this unique ability to focus your mind on the aspects of security that matters.

So this technology is driving this ground swell of security awareness, it’s driving the most incredible research in applied cryptography we’ve ever seen. Some of you are probably quite technical, you’re involved in computer science, you’ve seen what’s happening here, nobody thought that we would be doing applied (0:06:35) signatures. Nobody thought we’d be looking at advanced elliptic curve applications. Nobody thought we’d be doing things like ring signatures and range proofs for confidential transactions. The state of anonymity and privacy is advancing rapidly, we’re building a whole new world in terms of cryptography and this is applied cryptography on the largest cryptographically secured network the world has ever seen. That’s not business as usual. It’s highly disruptive.

Now, out of that came this fantastic saying Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin which is incorrect. Blockchain is one of the four foundational technologies behind Bitcoin and it can’t stand alone but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to sell it. Blockchain is Bitcoin with a haircut and a suit that you parade in front of your board. It’s the ability to deliver a sanitized, clean, comfortable version of Blockchain of Bitcoin to people who are too terrified of actually disruptive technology and so you get into this very strange world where the words no longer mean anything.

Can you define Blockchain for me? I think a few people in this room could probably define Blockchain but the real challenge would be can you define Blockchain in such a way that I can do search and replace with the word database and still make that sentence work because that’s the challenge. If what you’re doing is a database with signatures it’s not interesting, it’s boring. What is the essence of Bitcoin? It’s not Blockchain. The essence of Bitcoin is the ability to operate in a decentralized way without having to trust anyone. The essence of Bitcoin is to be able to use software to authoritatively, independently without appeal to authority verify everything yourself. You don’t trust the other notes (0:09:04) you’re talking to, you assume they’re lying. You don’t trust the miners, you don’t trust the people creating the transactions, you don’t trust anything other than the outcome of your own verification and validation. And through that you end up trusting in something more important, the network effect.

Bitcoin introduce the concept of decentralized securities for computation and this has not yet sunken. What Bitcoin does is it allows you to replace a security model that is based around concentric circles of access and control with an institution in the center. With a security model that is inside out, open and accessible to everyone. A security model that is based on market forces and gang (0:09:58) theory. It is the first market based security model where series of incentives and punishments ensure that the ultimate result is you can trust the platform itself as a neutral arbiter that is not controlled by anyone without third-parties, without intermediaries. Bitcoin revolutionizes trust.

Now, it’s difficult to have that conversation if you only focus on Bitcoin and arguably a lot of people have said “But it’s not just about currency what about the other applications? And it’s not just about Bitcoin what about the other Blockchains?” And so in that sense the term Blockchain means something but only if you define it very, very narrowly. I used the qualifier “open” to talk about open Blockchain. What I’m interested in is the applications of this technology that enable you to run a decentralized trustless system that does not rely on anyone as an intermediary of trust because that is the disruption here. That is the essence in this technology.

So, that essence is seen in other systems. Ethereum exhibits it for the application of smart contracts but those smart contracts only work if you don’t have to trust anyone to execute the smart contract correctly. And you could only trust that that’s going to happen if everyone can participate in an open manner and verify each other, if access to the underlying consensus algorithm and mining is open to everyone. And so out of these characteristics come power of these Blockchain technologies, open and that’s the key word. Borderless. There are no borders. Transnational. This is no longer about nation states, this is about network-centric trust.

Without third-parties the network is the trusted party and only if you verify everything, neutral because it isn’t serving the goals of any one organization or institution. It follows the consensus rules neutrally, everyone follows the consensus rules neutrally. Your transaction, there’s not good thing as a good transaction or bad transaction, a valuable transaction or spam transaction, an authorized transaction or an unauthorized transaction, a legal transaction or an illegal transaction. In these systems there’s only valid or an invalid transaction based on the consensus rules and it doesn’t matter who the sender is, who the recipient is or what the value or asset or smart contract that’s being executed as neutrality, radical neutrality and, of course, censorship resistance. The ability to ensure that in order for the system to be open and borderless and transnational and neutral it must be able to defend these properties by making it impossible for any actor or even several colluding actors from censoring, disrupting, blacklisting, restricting, seizing, freezing transactions, users, countries from participating in this network. Those are the important characteristics of these new, open, decentralized systems of trust that do not depend on institutions.

So, what I’d like to equip you with is a set of criteria to understand when you are being presented with something perhaps to invest or to be employed or to engage in some way and it calls itself a Blockchain or a distributed ledger or one of these other names that are coming out. How can you tell? Blockchain or bullshit. They both start with a B what’s the difference? If you can replace the word Blockchain with database and the brochure reads the same it’s business as usual, it’s not decentralized, it’s not borderless, neutral, censorship resistant, open. It re-establishes trust in intermediaries. It’s just a database and that’s not disruptive.

The idea we’re going to take this technology and use it to improve the operating margins of centralized institutions of trust so that they can continue business as usual. I’d say it’s a (0:15:20) but that’s a strong word, it’s just boring, really, really boring. No one got into this in order to make a few billions for financial services clearing house and if you did I’m really sorry. That’s boring.

What’s really exciting is the possibility of fundamentally changing the way we allocate trust on this planet opening up the ability to collaborate, transact, engage on a global level with everyone. Simply by means of downloading an application you can become part of a giant platform of trust that doesn’t care who you are or where you came from, that doesn’t require permission to participate or innovate where a twelve-year-old JavaScript programmer has the same influences, power as JP Morgan Chase, more in fact because they’re doing open source and feeding into a community of collaboration that is creating a Tsunami of innovation. Taking this technology and using it to strengthen the same centralized institutions so that they can improve their bottom line is boring. That is not what Blockchain is, that just a database and it doesn’t change anything. In fact, there’s some rather disturbing possibilities in this model. Let’s think about it for a second. The most commonly expressed application for this new distributed ledger technologies is to replace the function of a centralized clearing house with a consortium of N participants where N is two, three, four, five, ten known permissioned control participants who will assemble transactions and sign them rather than compete through market forces in a security model like Bitcoin. We discard currency as the underlying mechanism for building market based security. We discard proof of work as wasteful because all it allows you to do is decentralized secure neutral censorship resistant Blockchain and we trust five named parties to sign transactions. At that point they don’t need to assemble these transactions in blocks they can just sign the individual transactions. They don’t need to chain them together because absent proof of work and a system of currency incentives rewriting that is easy, there’s no immutability so it’s not a Blockchain anymore because there’s no blocks and there’s no chain.

Now that’s the technical level but let’s look at the more important level. What do you achieve by replacing a clearing house with a consortium of players? You know there’s something unique a clearing house does. If you understand the role of a clearing house one of its most important functions is that it is not a participant in the market. It has not skin in the game. The New York Stock Exchange is not an active trader. That’s not an accident. That’s called separation of concerns.

The clearing house is an independent party with oversight that is not a market participant. If you take that party out and replace it with five banks all of which have skin in the game, how do you run a consensus algorithm when the incentives to cheat front run, manipulate the market and break the consensus rules even adversarily against the other four parties are so high. There’s no incentive to keep the consensus rules. All you’re doing is you’re saying trust us we’re in a consortium. Trust us? These five banks? Where were you in 2008? Where were you when labor was fixed? Where were you when the gold markets were fixed? Where were you when front running and high-frequency trading was creating these monsters of chronic capitalism? Trust us? Hell, no.

Removing the clearing house and replacing it with – what’s the word? It’s not consortium, cartel – that’s the word. With the cartel of the same market makers who have manipulated and compromised every market in history and doing that in a way that closes this from transparency, that’s not a recipe for efficiency, mutability, security, transparency. That’s not a Blockchain, that’s a bullshit. It’s a very profitable bullshit. It requires you to have confidence in the game, a con game as it’s known. Be careful what you evaluate when you see these technologies taking something whose fundamental purpose is to remove trusted intermediaries and create an open, borderless, neutral system and turning it into a tool for a bunch of untrustworthy trusted parties to manipulate markets is going to be a disaster and they’re going to do it.

I have some consolation in the fact that their keys will leak because when you centralize a system you have to keep the security of those five keys and none of them have ever managed to do that. All of the companies involved in this brave new business as usual space have been hacked, breached, leaked, whistle blown a dozen times. They can’t keep information secure, no one can.

The whole point of a decentralized Blockchain is you don’t keep the information secure, you spread it out so thin there’s no place to attack it directly. That’s what makes it secure. So what happens when you concentrate it among five participants? I can’t wait until the anonymous WikiLeaks collaborative dump of the titans of Wall Street and their ledger of every transaction they’ve ever done. I can’t wait it’s going to be so much fun and it is going to happen. You cannot secure these things. So does that mean there’s nothing there? No. Again, we go back to the other side there is an incredibly promising technology and that technology is based on an architecture of openness.

People are examining these markets and they’re grasping and reaching out in darkness. When you have a brand new disruptive technology you can’t see the margins it’s like stumbling around a dark room somewhere in there is a billion dollar company, somewhere in there is an opportunity and you have to figure out what market exist that will create opportunity, that will change the world, that will have an impact on humanity. 

Entrepreneurs look at other people’s problems and see them as opportunities. When journalists in 1997 were writing about the imminent failure of the internet because of the impossibility of finding anything Larry Page and Sergey Brin were finding stuff and building a multibillion dollar empire on solving the unsolvable problem of search.

There are seemingly unsolvable problems in the open, decentralized, public, transparent, neutral, censorship resistant global trust list network platform that is the Blockchain and these other Blockchains Bitcoin, Ethereum and the many other systems that are gradually trying to find their niche, where are those markets?

There are three elements to success in this industry. The first one is identifying a viable market, right? You’ve got to stumble in the dark and find something useful and very often the people stumbling in the dark they don’t find anything useful, right? In 1997 Petco was building an online commerce empire for pet supplies it was too early the market didn’t exist. Webgrocer, Webvan was delivering groceries to homes in San Francisco failed miserably. Was that the right market? Maybe but it was the wrong time. So the second important element, right? – timing. You can identify something that at some point will be enormous but you’re off by a decade and then the most important factor sequencing the prerequisites.

Why did Facebook not happen in 1992? You didn’t have enough density of adoption. You didn’t have mobile devices that were permanently connected. You didn’t even have home-based internet that was permanently on. You didn’t have a dense social network in order to engage with the people you knew because the people you knew barely had e-mail or didn’t have e-mail, right? So you can’t build a system of complexity that depends on many-to-many interaction with high-density when you’re still doing applications that are one-to-one with low density, right? It’s like trying to fuse hydrogen directly into carbon. Can’t do that. You’ve got helium, lithium, beryllium, you’ve got a long way to go, keep smashing things together before you get enough density that you can start doing interesting things in organic chemistry, right, to use an example from science.

Bottom line is you can’t do advanced real estate title applications voting on the Blockchain retail markets, you can’t do consumer-to-consumer dense markets, you can’t do point-of-sale retail with these systems yet. You can’t do most of the thing yet that might be very interesting markets and the reason you can’t do them is because there’s not enough liquidity, there’s not enough users, there’s not enough adoption. The user interfaces are terrible, the applications are still at their infant stage. That doesn’t mean these things can’t happen it just means they’re not happening this year. We’re going to see this play out.

In order for people to have the trust to put the tile to their home on this Blockchain it has to be able to secure not billions but trillions of dollars in assets and in order to be able to secure trillions of dollars in assets it has to have liquidity and infrastructure, it has to have broader option. You’re not going to get adoption on a transaction that most people do twice in their life time when you can’t even get them to use it for transactions they do every day, right? We’re not going to be doing digital identity so that everyone can have a bank account because it takes a long time until you have adequate adoption.

For the first 15 years of the internet the application was e-mail and not until everybody had it, had to have it, needed it for work did we see the second layer emerge because that created the density of adoption. And currency is the e-mail of Blockchains. Payments are the fundamental infrastructure that will enable density of adoption. It’s very, very enticing to say this is about more than money. It is absolutely. In the long term the vision of this technology is far beyond money but you can’t build that unless you first build the money part. That’s what creates the security. That’s what creates the velocity, the liquidity, the infrastructure, that’s what (0:29:29) the entire ecosystem. And in the end when we do deliver perhaps digital identity to people it will be so they can open a bank account because this isn’t about banking the unbanked, it’s about debanking all of us. Thank you.

Written by Andreas M. Antonopoulos on April 22, 2017.