CRYPTO Hall The key to paradise, especially the financial type. This, at least, is the argument of the fans. Greedy intermediaries, such as banks, will be replaced by smart contracts (self-executing rules) that run on blockchains (distributed databases). This will give rise to efficient and innovative financial services, collectively called “decentralized money” (DeFi).
Although the foundation of this building is shaky. Today’s blockchains may be a masterpiece of coding, but they are demonically complex, energy-hungry, and, perhaps, counterintuitively focused. Despite working year after year, crypto developers are still trying to overcome the underlying trade-offs of technology.
You may want to ask banks to maintain large, opaque databases that contain information about customer accounts and the money they contain. Depositors need to be confident that these institutions work in their best interests. Sometimes, however, banks may not do that: they may make bad investments and collapse; Or they may seize depositors’ accounts at the behest of the government.
For their supporters, blockchains provide a kind of monetary basis that avoids such problems. Account databases will be maintained by computer users, not by central authorities. An account can only be frozen if a certain majority of blockchain maintainers agree to do so.
For the system to work, the universally accessible blockchain has two special features. One is the “consensus process”, a way for users to agree on how to enter new transactions into a database. The other is a set of incentives that keep the system alive. Rewards need to draw enough users to help maintain the blockchain. And the fines should stop them from attacking, say, imitating lots of fake users to overwhelm the system.
In the case of the Bitcoin blockchain, the carrot is the newly created coin. Every ten minutes or so, thousands of specialized computers, known as “Manikar”, participate in a lottery to solve a mathematical puzzle. The computer that first finds a solution alerts other miners and if they confirm the result, it updates the blockchain and is paid (each puzzle is solved is rewarded with 6.25 coins, valued at লেখ 308,270 at the time of writing). . Number crunching also works as a stick: the more miners want to win the lottery, the more they have to invest in computing gear and power. To rewrite blockchain on their behalf, say a counterfeit transaction, they need to control the mining power of more than half. Yet the engineering of such an attack will be costly, and will probably reduce the system they want to benefit from.
This method called “work proof” is simple (as far as blockchain goes) and it has not been hacked yet. But it has some major drawbacks. For one, it doesn’t scale up. Bitcoin can handle only seven transactions per second and the fees can be higher. The system has also created some forms of centralization. Most puzzles are solved by a few large “pools”. These allow miners to pool their resources and increase their chances of winning rewards, but also give them the ability to influence the evolution of their system (as changes are often voted on). In addition, the work-proof energy guzzles. According to some estimates, Bitcoin’s electricity consumption is approaching Italy.
The appetite and concentration of power follows from increasing returns to the scale of work evidence. These pushes keep the minerals wide. The more computing power they have, the more chances they have of winning prizes. The bigger they are, the more they will earn and the more they will be able to expand.
So come up with a better blockchain. Chia, for example, is a system based on “evidence of space and time”. Like Bitcoin, the carrot is that the participating users earn coins. Yet the stick is different: instead of wasting computing power, Chia wastes digital storage. It is not yet clear, though, whether Chia will prove to be more durable and less centralized than Bitcoin if it is widely used.
Smart digital means so on the other hand: proof of betting. The decision to update the blockchain here is made not by a computing arms race, but by a vote among cryptocurrency holders. How many holders are willing to bet on the outcome depends on the voting power as well as the share of the prize. This part can be destroyed if a participant misbehaves. Both carrots and sticks are cryptocurrencies in this system.
Evidence of betting uses much less energy. And its latest incarnations are much faster than Bitcoin: Avalanche, a blockchain that uses the method to process thousands of transactions per second. But it still has big problems. Coders are trying to move Ethereum, the preferred blockchain for the DeFi app, from working proof to steak proof. Even Vitalik Buterin, one of the inventors of Ethereum, admits that the evidence for betting is “surprisingly complex.” This means that a lot of mistakes can be made, especially when the F 100bn capital in DeFi apps must be changed. After several delays, coders are expected to take action in 2022.
Yet this system will still lean towards centralization. Big holders can get more rewards by increasing their holding further. It concentrates power among the primary buyers of a cryptocurrency and allows them to take control of the blockchain. New projects are trying to find ways to avoid those that use steak evidence. Headra Hashgraph is run by a consortium, much like Visa, a credit-card network. Avalanche and Tezos want to ensure decentralization of “Balidator”, making it easier for participants to maintain blockchain.
To critics, concentration is inevitable, even without the inefficiency and complexity of energy. The problem of increasing returns on the scale will raise its head for any popular blockchain, predicts David Rosenthal, a beginner practitioner. “You waste all these resources just to end up with a system that is controlled by people who have less reason to trust you than conventional financial institutions,” he said.
To others, there may be a degree of concentration for other benefits of the blockchain. Emin Gunn Serer of Cornell University, who co-founded Ava Labs, which created Avalanche, said the main advantage was that governments would find it harder to influence blockchains than conventional banks. Kevin Warbach of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania says the openness of blockchain makes it easier to develop innovative financial services. Even so, if the search for a better blockchain shows one thing, it is that even in crypto-paradise there is no free lunch. 3
For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in economics, business and markets, sign up for our weekly newsletter Money Talks.
This article was published in the Finance and Economics section of the print edition under the heading “Build Blocks Better”