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Proof-of-What?

Behind most things lies nuance. Blockchain is no different. The recent controversy behind NFTs (?) has polarised debate about the ‘value’ of decentralised currencies, tokens, and the applications they allow.

There’s some important technical differences between how the decentralised networks behind various cryptocurrencies and tokens come to consensus. The point of this post is to explain these to the best of my current ability and knowledge. It’s based on my attempts to ensure that I’m not trying to save the world on the one hand while destroying it through my actions elsewhere.

In the course of buying and selling crypto, I’ve learned about an important difference between currencies such as Bitcoin which use ‘Proof-of-Work’ (PoW) consensus models, and others which use ‘Proof-of-Stake’ (PoS).

Both of these models are called ‘consensus mechanisms‘, and they are a current requirement to confirm transactions that take place on a blockchain, without the need for a third party.

BitDegree

The TL;DR, as far as my understanding goes is that, broadly speaking, PoW is energy intensive and killing the planet, whereas PoS is… less problematic.

Let’s be clear: cryptocurrencies and tokens aren’t going away. And I see plenty of upside in terms of trading value independently of governments. The following definitions are taken from the glossary part of CoinMarketCap’s very helpful guide to crypto called Alexandria.


Proof-of-Work (PoW)

A blockchain consensus mechanism involving solving of computationally intensive puzzles to validate transactions and create new blocks.

Example: Bitcoin, Ethereum*, Zcash

*moving to PoS at some point in the future

Proof-of-Stake (PoS)

A blockchain consensus mechanism involving choosing the creator of the next block via various combinations of random selection and wealth or age of staked coins or tokens.

Example: Cardano, Flow, Polkadot


Other approaches

  • Proof-of-Authority (PoA) — “A blockchain consensus mechanism that delivers comparatively fast transactions using identity as a stake.”
  • Proof-of-Burn (PoB) — “A blockchain consensus mechanism aiming to bootstrap one blockchain to another with increased energy efficiency, by verifying that a cost was incurred in “burning” a coin by sending it to an unspendable address.”
  • Proof-of-Developer (PoD) — “Any verification that provides evidence of a real, living software developer who created a cryptocurrency, in order to prevent an anonymous developer from making away with any raised funds without delivering a working model.”
  • Proof-of-Replication (PoRep) — “Proof-of-replication (PoRep) is the way that a storage miner proves to the network that they are storing an entirely unique copy of a piece of data.”
  • Proof-of-Spacetime (PoSt) — “In simplest terms, PoSt means that someone can now guarantee that they are spending a certain amount of space for storage.”

The legality of cryptocurrencies varies by territory, with India currently considering a ban. I predict that the difference in consensus models will be a determining factor, with a likelihood that Proof-of-Work models are banned in some jurisdictions because of their energy usage and associated impact on the environment.

Chart showing energy usage of Bitcoin compared to data centres and countries

Ultimately, for better or worse, once it’s got enough traction you can’t ban innovation from happening. Governments are going to want to issue their own stablecoin, meaning that they can’t completely ban cryptocurrencies and tokens.

That’s why I predict that Proof-of-Stake will be seen as a viable model without completely destoying the environment. I may, of course, be wrong on all counts. Caveat emptor ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


This post is Day 93 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com. Image via BBC News.

Trust no-one: why ‘proof of work’ is killing the planet as well as us

Note: subtlety ahead. This post uses cryptocurrency as a metaphor.

Painting of women working in a field. One has been cut out of the painting and is sitting in the corner of the frame, smoking.

As you may have read in the news recently, the energy requirements of Bitcoin are greater than that of some countries. This is because of the ‘proof of work‘ required to run a cryptocurrency without a centralised authority. It’s a ‘trustless’ system.

While other cryptocurrencies and blockchain-based systems use other, less demanding, cryptographic proofs (e.g. proof of stake) Bitcoin’s approach requires increasing amounts of computational power as the cryptographic proofs get harder.

As the cryptographic proofs serve no function other than ensuring the trustless system continues operating, it’s tempting to see ‘proof of work’ as inherently wasteful. Right now, it’s almost impossible to purchase a graphics card, as the GPUs in them are being bought up and deployed en masse to ‘mine’ cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Building a system to be trustless comes with huge externalities; the true cost comes elsewhere in the overall system.

🏭 🏭 🏭

Let’s imagine for a moment that, instead of machines, we decided to deploy humans to do the cryptographic proofs. We’d probably question the whole endeavour and the waste of human life.

The late Dave Graeber railed against the pointless work inherent in what he called ‘bullshit jobs‘. He listed five different types of such jobs, which comprise more than half of work carried out by people currently in employment:

  1. Flunkies — make their superiors feel more important (e.g door attendants, receptionists)
  2. Goons — oppose other goons hired by other people/organisations (e.g. corporate lawyers, lobbyists)
  3. Duct Tapers — temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently (e.g. programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff reassuring passengers)
  4. Box Tickers — create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not (e.g. in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers)
  5. Taskmasters — manage, or create extra work for, those who do not need it (e.g. middle management, leadership professionals)

What cuts across all of these is the ‘proof of work’ required to keep the status quo in operation. This is mostly obvious through ‘Box Tickers’, but it is equally true of middle management ensuring work is seen to be done (and that hierarchical systems prevail).

✅ ✅ ✅

There is much work that is pointless, and it could be argued that an important reason for this is because we have a trustless society. For example, when some of the most marginalised people in our communities ask for help between jobs, we require them to prove that they are spending 35 hours per week looking for one. It’s almost as if someone in government has taken the pithy phrase “looking for a job is a full time job” and run with it.

Western societies have been entirely captured by the classic economic argument that everything will turn out well if we all act in our own self-interest. I’m not sure if you’ve looked around you recently, but it seems to me that this model isn’t exactly… working?

It’s my belief, therefore, that we need to engender greater trust in society. Ideally, this trust should be inter-generational and multicultural, seeking to build bridges between different groups, rather than building solidarity in one group at the expense of others.

This is not a call to naivety: I’m well aware that trust comes in different shapes and sizes. What I think we’re losing, however, is an ability to trust people with small things. As a result, we’re out of practice when it comes to bigger things.

👁️ 👁️ 👁️

The Russian phrase Доверяй, но проверяй means, I believe, “trust, but verify”. It’s a useful approach to life, and an approach I use with everyone from members of my family to colleagues on various projects I’m working on.

The important thing here is the ‘trust’ part, with the occasional ‘verify’ to ensure that people don’t, well, take the piss. What we’re seeing instead is ‘verify and verify’, and increasing verificationism where we spend our lives proving who we are as well as our eligibility. This disproportionately affect already-marginalised people. It is a burden and tax on living a flourishing human existence.

🧑‍🤝‍🧑 🧑‍🤝‍🧑 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

Back in 2013, I wrote a series of blog posts reflecting on a talk by Laura Thomson entitled Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. In one of these entitled Scale, Chaordic Systems, and Trust I wrote:

You can build trust “by making many small deposits in the trust bank” which is a horse-training analogy. It’s important to have lots of good interactions with people so that one day when things are going really badly you can draw on that. People who have had lots of positive interactions are likely to work more effectively to solve big problems rather than all pointing fingers.

To finish, then, I want to reiterate two things that Laura Thomson recommended that anyone can do to build trust:

  1. Begin by trusting others
  2. Be trustworthy

Solidarity begins at home.


This post is Day 87 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com. Image by Banksy.

Open Badges, BlockCerts, and high-stakes credentialing

I was in a conversation this morning with some people seemingly from the four corners of the earth, who were exploring Open Badges, blockchain technologies, and other developments with a view to building a new platform. My introduction to the group came through Vinay Gupta, who’s not only a extremely clear thinker, but a great connector, too.

Now that badges are what Clay Shirky would call technologically “boring enough to be socially interesting”, people naturally want to think about them in relation to the next big thing. For many people, that ‘next big thing’ is blockchain.

There’s a whole series of rabbitholes to go down if you interested in blockchain-related technologies. In fact, doing so is as fascinating from a learning-about-neolibertarianism angle as it is about new technologies. However, for the purposes of this (education-related) post, it’s enough to say that blockchain is a ‘supply-side’ technology, that allows vendors, platforms, and intermediaries a way of verifying ownership or that ‘something’ happened at a particular time. You should, of course, read the outcome of Audrey Watters’ research project.

MIT have recently launched BlockCerts, which I discussed on this blog recently as being friends of Open Badges. That’s the great thing about open specifications: they play nicely with one another. However, just to clarify my position on this (and it is just an opinion), the thing that blockchain-based credentials are good for is in high stakes situations. I’d be happy for my doctoral certificate, for example, to be on the blockchain. That seems like a good use case.

Where I don’t think that blockchain-based credentials are a good idea are for the more holistic (‘weird and wonderful’) credentials that I might want to earn. These show different facets of who I am, rather than putting everything in the academic, high-stakes bucket. In fact, this is the reason I became interested in badges in the first place.

At a time when major employers are saying that they’re more interested in what people can do rather than their high-stakes credentials, it seems strange that we’re doubling down on the digital equivalent of degree certificates.

Would I use and recommend BlockCerts in my work with clients? Absolutely! But only if what was required involved either zero trust between the parties involved in the ecosystem, or high-stakes credentials. For everything else, the verifiable, evidence-based claims of the Open Badges metadata standard work just fine.

Blockcerts are friends of Open Badges

This morning I read the latest news from MIT about their blockchain and badges project. It’s exciting news for those interested in high-stakes credentials such as university degrees. They’ve given this new standard a name: Blockcerts.

Many will think that this puts Blockcerts in competition with Open Badges, but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab — and author of the post announcing Blockcerts — was one of the originators of Open Badges when he was at P2PU.

Schmidt writes:

Blockcerts provides a decentralized credentialing system. The Bitcoin blockchain acts as the provider of trust, and credentials are tamper-resistant and verifiable. Blockcerts can be used in the context of academic, professional, and workforce credentialing.

[…]

Certificates are open badges compliant, which is important, because there is an entire community of open badges issuers that we want to support, and because open badges is becoming an IMS standard.

He’s perhaps let the cat out of the bag with the last sentence. I’ve had conversations over the last few weeks which point to an upcoming Mozilla announcement in this regard.

Any way you look at it, this is a great move for those in the ecosystem. Blockcerts is Open Badges-compliant, and provides a solution for organisations dealing in high-stakes credentialing. I know the BadgeChain group will be pleased!

The thing that attracted me to Open Badges, and which remains my goal, is to explore alternative credentialing. While there’s definitely a need to move high-stakes credentialing into the digital realm, I’m interested in ways in which we can provide a much more holistic view of the learner.


Want to find out more about Open Badges? Check out the OB101 course that Bryan Mathers and I put together!

The Possibilities of Badges and Blockchain [DML Central]

My latest post for DML Central has just been published. Entitled The Possibilities of Badges and Blockchain it’s a follow-up to a post I wrote for them last year, which stated that this kind of thing was ‘deep in the future’. Perhaps not!

Read the post

This kind of stuff fascinates me, which is why I’m delighted that a few ex-Mozilla colleagues and interested parties have come together to form Badge Chain. You can sign up on the site for (low-traffic) email updates, and/or subscribe to our Medium publication.

A Decentralized System for Education and Assessment

A few months ago I wrote a post for DMLcentral entitled Peering Deep into Future of Educational Credentialing. In it, I was looking at the possibilities of the blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin.

More recently, I’ve been looking at Ethereum, ‘crypto-fuel’ that can create new, autonomous systems and so I asked on Twitter:

I looked further into the website Gordon suggested: A Decentralized System for Education and Assessment. It’s an interesting, if slightly technocratic and techno-solutionist, read. Here’s a flavour:

The long term goal is the foundation of a fair, just, and meritocratic society, in which individuals, regardless of personal factors, have the freedom to learn and grow with each other, judged solely on individual achievements. The society would function on a ruleset unalterable by any malicious centralized power, categorizing the skillsets of each individual and giving others the information necessary to place those individuals within society. This provides the basis for a society based on action and fact, with each individual serving their best role in the larger whole.

I emailed Jared, the guy behind the site asking how I could help (I’d already submitted a pull request to make a minor update to the site). He replied that the work “is still very preliminary” with the two big decisions currently being:

  1. What kind of channel to set up for primary communication
  2. Which platform to build on (Ethereum, Eris Stack, Forking bitcoin or tendermint?, etc)

He’s open to other ideas, too, with the best place to discuss all this on this subreddit. I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to jump into the conversation there.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Bryan Mathers

Peering Deep into Future of Educational Credentialing [DMLcentral]

http://dmlcentral.net/blog/doug-belshaw/peering-deep-future-educational-credentialing

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Peering Deep into Future of Educational Credentialing it’s a look at how the blockchain technology that underpins crytocurrencies like Bitcoin could be used with the Open Badges Infrastructure [OBI].

A sample:

If we used the blockchain for Open Badges, then we could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person receiving badge Y is the same person who created evidence X. This would use a “proof of work” system. At the moment, the situation is still better than paper-based certificates but, such an approach would allow Open Badges to be used in extremely high-stakes situations. The blockchain would prove a connection between the evidence and the badge. More details could be unlocked if the earner chooses to share his or her key.

Click here to read the post in full

I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to add yours on the original post. Please do consider doing this as it raises awareness in the wider community.

You may also be interested to know that the xAPI (Tin Can) is now compatible with the OBI. This is less geeky and more interesting than it sounds!

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