How Blockchain Will Save the World

September 2017 ยท 5 minute read

Lifesaver

How can we solve global problems like obesity, hunger, and global warming? I want to propose a solution through the use of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and specifically- consensus algorithms.

UPDATE (16/10/2017): ConcenSys has just recently put together an in-house venture capital fund of $50 million USD to fund projects just like this!

It all started with something I thought of as I landed in Chicago on a recent flight back from DerbyCon:


It was somewhat of a joke, but it got me thinking. What if the economic incentive for people to waste incredible amounts of energy mining bitcoins could be harnessed for a greater purpose? What if we could solve real global problems through something as simple as a consensus algorithm?

What if the economic incentive for people to waste incredible amounts of energy mining bitcoins could be harnessed for a greater purpose?

I recently did a presentation at DerbyCon 2017 on the topic of blockchain security. In that presentation, I mentioned a few “altcoins” (alternative cryptocurrencies, mostly based on the original Bitcoin implementation), one of which was Primecoin. Primecoin presents an interesting use for all the computing power being expended in the proof of work consensus algorithm. Instead of simply computing a hash based on an arbitrary (in the grander sense) target number, the calculating power of the Primecoin network goes towards computing prime number chains for mathematical research. Thus, it is known as an “energy-multiuse” implementation of the proof of work algorithm.

The calculating power of the Primecoin network goes towards computing prime number chains for mathematical research.

The whole idea of using the consensus algorithm in a cryptocurrency for something more than just consensus has profound implications. Allow me to elaborate.

Proof of x

The consensus algorithm in Bitcoin is known as “proof of work”. This basically means that everyone agrees that the node that puts forth the most work on the network can propose the next block on the chain, and will be rewarded (in Bitcoins) for doing so. There are other consensus algorithms being developed (e.g. proof of stake), that are just other ways of agreeing on who gets to propose the next block (thus, who gets rewarded). This is really only needed in untrusted networks, which is actually one of the things that Bitcoin was proposed to solve (known as “Byzantine fault tolerance”); if you trust everyone else in the network, you can bypass the entire consensus method, and simply have a few trusted nodes propose blocks of transactions for the entire network (these are called “permissioned” blockchains).

The proof of work consensus algorithm (as it is implemented in Bitcoin) wastes a lot of electricity. Which is fine, because it achieves the goal of reaching consensus in an untrusted network, allowing Bitcoin to work as well as it does. However, what if we used something else to achieve consensus?

What if we used something else to achieve consensus?

Realistically, a consensus algorithm is simply something we’ve all agreed upon as the way we choose who gets to propose the next block (and get rewarded for it). This method is completely arbitrary. It could be whatever we want!

I had a few follow-up ideas:


Think of all the major problems we face in this world - hunger, poverty, war. What if we all agreed to reward those who are helping solve those problems? What if we used these measures of “good will” as a currency?

Economic incentive

The reason we are wasting all this electricity with Bitcoin is because people have a financial incentive to do so- they get paid to do the work. But what if we applied this financial incentive towards something other than just computing hashes?

It doesn’t even have to be a continued payment from the system itself. Take Bitcoin’s economic model - there is a limit to the total number of coins that will ever be produced (21 million), and the block reward is halved every 4 years. This means that eventually miners will be incentivized solely by the “tips” (transaction fee) that participants include with each transaction. And if people want to continue to trade in Bitcoin, they will need to include larger and larger tips so the miners include their transactions in the blockchain. This has two benefits:

  1. It controls the supply of the cryptocurrency, making it ultimately more value (one side of the supply/demand model).
  2. Participants in the blockchain are individually rewarding those who are doing the work on the blockchain.

That last point is critical to this topic.

People are incentivized to do the work needed to achieve consensus on the blockchain, and everyone else is encouraging them to do so through their “tips”. If we can change up what we use for consensus (e.g. solar power generated, agricultural output, or fitness metrics), it’s just one big, karmic circle.

It’s just one big, karmic circle.

Blockchain for good

The idea of using different “proofs” for our blockchain consensus algorithms is not a new one. But I propose that we take this opportunity, while blockchain is in its nascency, to come together as a group and reward actions that benefit all of humanity.

We can use the power of blockchain for good and truly change this world. Would you agree?