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State of Bitcoin: Recapping Bitcoin Chief Scientist Gavin Andresen's fantastic Reddit AMA

By Michael Carney , written on October 22, 2014

From The News Desk

Gavin Andresen doesn’t want to be the “spokesmodel” for bitcoin, telling an audience of admirers as much during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) yesterday. But as the Chief Scientist of the Bitcoin Foundation and the last known person to communicate with Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s eponymous inventor with whom he worked closely (remotely) during the protocol’s early days, Andresen is unavoidably one of the most influential figures within this growing industry.

Andresen began the AMA session by detailing his early career, his first encounters with bitcoin, and his contributions to the community since that time, including the fact that he’s “added 62,000 and removed 76,000 lines of code from Bitcoin Core” and “written nine BIPS [Bitcoin Improvement Proposals], including multi-signature transaction support and the Payment Protocol.”

Today, Andresen spends less time today writing code that makes it into the bitcoin core, the official software build that powers bitcoin blockchain, than once was the case. Rather, he spends his days thinking big picture about where bitcoin is headed as a technology and what changes and upgrades to the existing protocol to prioritize along the way.

Given his increasing role as chief evangelist, educator, and authority for all things bitcoin, it’s not a stretch to call him bitcoin’s unofficial CEO. Andresen says he’s "starting to get tired of the title [of Chief scientist], maybe it should become 'Head Cheese (Technology).'"

Asked if bitcoin was still an experiment and when, if ever, it would move past that stage, Andresen pointed out that the protocol is still labeled as Version 0.9.3 five years into its existence, effectively a pre-1.0 beta product. As for when that would cease to be the case, he said, “we need regulatory clarity, ease of use, and no-single-point-of-failure security. I think we’re very close on all of those things.” He later added that bitcoin will move beyond beta “[when] it feels like it is stable and won’t need to change (besides minor bug fixes) for two or three years.”

Despite bitcoin’s potential as an alternate, or even default currency, Andresen noted that he’s “most excited about all of the non-currency uses of the blockchain's ledger-ordering ability,” adding, “I have no idea which ones will turn out to be successful, but I'm glad all of that experimenting is happening. I'm most worried about scalability.” Expanding further on the non-financial applications of the bitcoin blockchain, Andresen says:

I think a lot of projects unnecessarily mix up the various services the block chain provides, and try to make it do things it is not good at doing (like storing data). I think the best projects understand that they don't need to invent a new currency. They don't need to use the block chain as their long-term data storage solution. And they don't need to use the peer-to-peer (p2p) network as their communication mechanism. They should use the block chain as the world's most secure distributed ledger.
Speaking to the need for scalability, Andresen supports the idea of a hard fork in bitcoin’s future, saying:
There is still at least a month or two of work before I'd be willing to write a patch to increase the maximum block size, and then probably a month or two more of arguing. So, early next year at the earliest before even starting the hard-fork process (which must roll out to miners – they will control when the fork actually happens).
As for how the pace of development on the Bitcoin protocol will change over time, Andressen says, “My guess is that protocol change will speed up again when some of the startups grow up a bit and have the time and resources to participate in a more formal standards-making, protocol-evolving process. And then a few years later it will slow down again.”

In Andresen’s view, the biggest obstacle facing bitcoin today is the friction in obtaining the currency, saying “[the biggest] obstacle/factor [in bringing bitcoin to the masses is] getting to where people are earning bitcoin directly, instead of having to jump through some hoop to trade the currency that they earn for BTC.” Asked what projects he’s watching closely, he added, “I’m watching the spread of bitcoin ATMs, because getting BTC is still a bottleneck for ordinary people.”

One of the simplest things that people can do to improve bitcoin’s ease of use, in Andresen’s opinion, is to “switch to talking in "bits" (millionths of a bitcoin),” a sum that today is worth just $0.00038393. What he didn’t say, but seemingly implied, is that the notion of owning a fraction of a bitcoin is psychologically less appealing than owning hundreds or thousands of “bits,” a fact that may be hampering mainstream adoption. Then again, hyperinflation in Zimbabwe gives us the example of near valueless 100 billion dollar notes, so the idea of spending “millions of bits” to buy something simple like a pair of shoes presents its own obstacles. Should bitcoin appreciate, however, bits may one day be closer in value to US cents or even dollars, making their usage more appropriate.

Contrary to popular belief within pro-bitcoin circles, bitcoin will not topple governments, Andresen says. “Governments will do what they always do — they will adapt (well, the worst ones will fail, causing misery and suffering; maybe Bitcoin will speed that up a little, and mitigate the misery a little),” he says.

Asked about the technical state of bitcoin and the possibility that the protocol has any major flaws, Andressen says, “I’m pretty confident there are not any really serious, you-might-lose-your-bitcoins bugs in the protocol. There will always be bugs in Bitcoin implementations. The best way to mitigate those bugs is with multisignature transactions secured by two different ‘software stacks.’”

Much of the discussion was focused on the technical state of bitcoin or on growing its adoption. But Andresen did touch on some more casual or personal topics. For example, we’ve all heard horror stories about millions in bitcoin wealth lost due to forgotten wallet keys and misplaced hard drives, not to mention the infamous story of the first-ever bitcoin purchase, two pizzas for 10,000 BTC, which at their peak were worth more than $12 million ($3.85 million, today). But Andresen’s story of fleeting bitcoin riches is far more mundane and voluntary. For example, he’s given away a staggering 10,000 BTC through the Bitcoin Faucet, a free service meant to evangelize the crypto-currency. As for his first ever bitcoin purchase, he’s unsure whether it was alpaca socks from a nearby farmer or Red Sox tickets from a friend.

Gavin Andresen may be the reluctant face of bitcoin, but his thoughts on the state are among the most respected and valuable of anyone in the ecosystem. Andresen points to Andreas Antonopoulos as another top thinker in the bitcoin community, praising his work recently in speaking to Canada’s Senate Committee on Banking and suggesting that Antonopoulos should be the bitcoin spokesmodel who eventually does the TED talk.

Andresen joined notable public figures including President Obama, Bill Gates, Julian Assange, SIr David Attenborough, and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones) in conducting popular Reddit AMAs. As of this moment, Andresen’s session has 986 comments and 1,354 upvotes, a respectable tally for anyone who’s never graced the cover of a mainstream magazine. More importantly, this conversation will serve as a valuable digital record of this still-early moment in bitcoin’s development.

Many people have compared bitcoin to the Internet (or more aptly, HTTP) in the 1990s. In the same way, it’s likely that the technology and the ecosystem of businesses and consumers adopting it will mature significantly in the years to come. When we get to that point, Andresen’s AMA will be like a time capsule to this earlier, more naive point in history. Maybe by then we’ll know who the real Satoshi Nakamoto is.

[Image via Andresen]