On the idea of a digital currency issued by a central bank

The Bank of England has today issued a research report (PDF) that discusses many things, but one of them is a short note on a central bank issuing its own digital currency. This has become topical after a report by Paul Mason that Greece might be issuing its own digital currency to escape its travails. The report stems from a blog post by the (now) Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis from a year ago where he talks about how a parallel digital currency, denominated in euros, could be issued by Greece, backed by future tax revenues (Tim Worstall gives a more sober assessment of the idea).

The Bank of England’s question seems absurd: what’s the point of a digital currency that’s actually run by a central bank? The Bank gives a few answers:

  1. It could be used as a new interbank settlement system (I find this a weak argument: What is so wrong with the existing settlement system? Is it insecure? Does it cost too much to run? Is there a problem of access?)
  2. It could be used as a parallel system to banknotes (which actually are a peer-to-peer payment system, albeit a flawed one).

I quite like the second idea: remitting currency abroad is a very costly affair with the existing players, and indeed some politicians are campaigning to cap transfer fees. And there are plenty of other niches where banknotes don’t work (machine-to-machine payments, for example). And using a ‘real’ currency avoids today’s problem of Bitcoin as money (e.g. the risks of using it as a unit of account, something that people holding mortgages in Swiss Francs have also been discovering).

An obvious point is that a blockchain run by the Bank of England wouldn’t make a decentralised digital currency – it would just be a cloud-hosted database with an open API, which is pretty much what the existing credit card systems provide (although I’d hope something built from scratch would be a lot neater and easier to use). To eliminate a single point of failure the construction of that cloud-hosted database would need to be distributed and hardened against security attacks, and so probably a blockchain being operated by multiple organisations would be a good design anyway.

The differences between this Bank of England blockchain scheme and Bitcoin would then be:

  1. The operators of the blockchain would be licensed by the Bank of England.
  2. The currency would be the £ and money would be ‘parachuted’ into the blockchain by the Bank of England rather than mining.
  3. The operators of the blockchain could not be remunerated with seignorage: they would have to be paid by the Bank of England or take fees.
  4. They would have no incentive to invest in powerful mining rigs. Indeed, one of the Bank’s goals would be to avoid ‘socially inefficient over-investment in transaction verification‘ (although I did some analysis that showed Bitcoin mining energy consumption isn’t as bad as people think).

The nature of the regulation and funding of the operators of the Bank of England’s blockchain is an open issue. If the operators are third parties remunerated by fees then there ought to be a real-time market for the fees to prevent regulatory capture (either by collusion amongst the operators or by the Bank of England). If the operators are remunerated directly by the Bank of England then the issue of subsidies would have to be addressed (particularly with regard to compliance with EU state aid regulations).

If the Bank of England were to create its own successful blockchain payments system then it would inevitably disrupt the existing payments market. The Bank of England is concerned about the effect on the existing inter-bank payments but it would also affect companies like Western Union. At the very least a state actor creating a new system to deliberately undermine an existing market raises political questions.

The Bank of England also notes the usual suspects of regulation (Anti Money Laundering, Know Your Customer, etc.). For the Bank of England blockchain to work the regulators would need to ensure that wiring £2 to a relative in Indonesia did not require the paperwork that ordinary people opening bank accounts today enjoy. If the Bank of England blockchain can be designed from scratch perhaps it could be interfaced with a competent identity system and be designed to not require onerous identity burdens for small sums (NB: the UK Government does not have a good track record in operating a competent identity system). Alternatively, the regulators might stop believing in the myth that Bitcoin is anonymous and relish the idea of a ledger openly documenting transactions that would hitherto have been conducted with pieces of paper (even if sometimes banknotes are tracked by GPS)

In one sense the Bank of England is asking the same QTWTAIN that others have posed in response to Bitcoin: “Can we have a centralised decentralised system that has all the advantages of Bitcoin but none of the disadvantages?” But a better question which the Bank is hinting at is “Can a central bank be inspired by Bitcoin to create an egalitarian payment system that has features that the Internet Age needs?” Answering that question will be fascinating.

If you liked this article then this is the not-Bank-of-England-blockchain address of my tip jar: 166vkDz7EqLV27g3aEqER2Z81vx43sYMp7

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Microcontroller Interconnect Network (MIN) version 1.0

Some time ago I was doing some work on embedded systems firmware for a small control board using an 8-bit microcontroller. It had to control some motors and a laser, and had to send back sensor readings to a PC. I was looking for a simple peer-to-peer serial protocol that was robust against noise and other failures. Basically, I wanted an answer to a commonly-asked Stack Overflow question.

I didn’t want anything too complex and it all had to work in a tiny 8-bit ATmega AVR microcontroller (so there was no space for large packet buffers). I couldn’t find anything suitable so taking inspiration from CAN and LIN, I decided to roll something myself. I’ve called it MIN and uploaded a reference implementation to GitHub. MIN is pretty small and robust (about 200 lines of code) and in this post I want to help people quickly get a “hello world” program using MIN up and running.

I’ve built the test program using an Arduino Mega 2560 board (it runs a 16MHz ATmega2560 AVR 8-bit CPU) and wired it up to a bit of breadboard with a pushbutton, a serial-to-USB breakout board, and an LED. I’ve also used JTAG as the debugger connector to a Windows PC running Atmel Studio 6. Also running on the PC is a little Python-based test program that talks to the Arduino board.

Here’s the kit on my bench:

2015-02-18 15.02.16

The Arduino board is the blue one. It’s plugged into USB for power (it’s not connected for anything else). TX0 and RX0 on the Arduino are wired to a serial-to-USB breakout board on the white breadboard. The serial board is a really neat little board that takes 5V (or 3.3V) level serial pins and converts to USB using the serial protocol (which means that the embedded board turns up on the PC as a COM port, COM4 in my case).

The Arduino board doesn’t have a JTAG connector so I wired the CPU’s pins with fly leads directly to the JTAG connector on the Dragon board. I’ve included a photo here so that anyone wanting to replicate this setup can do so easily:

2015-02-18 15.02.52

The breadboard also contains a pushbutton that floats open until pushed, connecting PA6 on the Arduino to GND. The firmware sets this up with a pull-up resistor so that it reads ‘1’ until the button is pressed. The test program calls this a ‘deadbeef switch’ and sends a MIN message with payload 0xDEADBEEF to the other end when pressed. Every two seconds the test program also sends an ‘environment report’ message (containing hardwired values for temperature and humidity).

I also ran an output pin to my oscilloscope, toggled in the firmware every 8ms, that’s the first level of debugging to test if code is running. You can see the nice square wave here:

2015-02-18 15.03.31

The test program on the PC end is written in Python (I used version 3.4) and has an interactive mode. Pressing ‘p’ sends a MIN frame that’s treated as a ‘ping’ request by the firmware – the application just sends the frame back. When ‘m’ is pressed a ‘motor request message’ is sent, which is interpreted by the firmware as an instruction to light an LED on the breadboard for 1 second (about as close to printing “hello world” as embedded software gets).

The test program also decodes and prints out MIN frames it receives from the Arduino (the deadbeef switch message, the environment report and the ping message):

mincap

I’ve used this for real where MIN is sending continuous sensor data and taking complex commands in a real embedded system that runs in a noisy environment. It’s worked well and I hope other people find it useful too.

Beyond Bitcoin as just money: how even machines will be on the blockchain

The basic Bitcoin system as it’s used today is in essence pretty simple: it’s a distributed contracts ledger storing all the transactions (with a bit of pruning). Yet it has lead to a wild ride where stunning amounts of hard cash are exchanged for numbers in this abstract ledger. In May 2010 a pizza was bought for 10,000 BTC. By January 2013 bitcoins were trading at $10 each. In December 2013 they exceeded the price of gold. With all these crazy numbers it’s easy to focus on just the bitcoin (i.e. the currency) price speculation and ignore the bigger picture. Bitcoin blockchain transactions are far from being limited to simple A-to-B transfers. They can contain much more information, such as multiple payers, multiple payees, and rules on the signatures required for a payee to collect. There are even time locks that dictate how long a transaction can be valid. This allows quite sophisticated systems to be constructed, such as escrow agents for customer/merchant dispute resolution, co-signatories to accounts, time-limited deposits and even the equivalent of post-dated cheques. All of this sophistication is part of the Bitcoin system itself and requires no central authority.

All this is by itself is enough for a revolution in the finance industry, eliminating a whole class of payment intermediaries. But an even more radical change can be seen if we step back and look at the Bitcoin system itself in a different way. We can separate the bitcoin currency from the underlying system by realizing that the currency is the just the first ‘app’ to run on the Bitcoin system, and there can be more. Just as with the launch of the iPhone, the built-in apps are soon eclipsed by those that come from innovation the system unleashes. The key reason for this is that Bitcoin allows ‘permissionless innovation’ – where the only thing holding someone’s idea back is their own imagination (OK, so Apple’s app store rules hold people back too, which is why there aren’t any bitcoin wallets on iPhones, but I digress). The internet itself is the best example of permissionless innovation. In the mid-90s it was far from clear the internet was going to be so important (Krugman said that the internet would have no more impact than the fax machine), and most people were using a network called CompuServe (derided at the time as Compu$erve for being so focused on money). But to add something fundamental to a proprietary system requires agreement from the owner. And anyone who has tried to get large corporations to do something new will tell you just how easy that isn’t. This is why I think Bitcoin, warts and all, is the future for financial systems: because it’s here today, it works, and anyone can join in and do stuff with it without getting permission from some central authority. And I think that colored coins is one of the most exciting things that will be done with the Bitcoin system.

The concept of colored coins uses the Bitcoin system to store and manage the ownership of assets outside the Bitcoin system itself. These might be anything from shares to cars. The idea is that a particular bitcoin is ‘colored’ to signify the ownership of a particular asset. Because the block chain is public it is possible to then track that bitcoin ownership through all the transactions involving it and to derive the current ownership. The number of bitcoins included in the transaction is purely a token amount so a tiny value can be used, a little like writing an IOU for a car on a dollar bill and then storing it in a wallet designed to hold dollar bills.

Each particular coloring scheme has its own rules on how it interacts with Bitcoin, such as who is allowed to issue the colored coins, how they are redeemed, what type of transactions are permitted, etc. This is a flexible approach that even allows organizations to cooperate on a shared scheme (for example, a group of airlines jointly issuing flying points that can be redeemed, with the airlines outsourcing to Bitcoin the trading of those points). This is a big change in the way such schemes are run: the network is decentralised and can be used so that no single entity has control and so there is no opportunity to block competition and extract monopoly rents.

One really interesting use for coloured coins is for smart devices to connect up to the Bitcoin system. Today a box that streams movies from the internet must connect to a central server (e.g. the iTunes servers) to implement Digital Rights Management (DRM) to check what movies a user has bought before playing them. This means the producers of a movie can only sell to the user through that central service. If the operator of that service shut down for whatever reason then the user is left without access to the movies they bought. This has already happened for music: in 2008 Microsoft announced it would shut down its MSN Music service (using its ironically named PlaysForSure DRM system) and that its customers would no longer be able to transfer their music to any new computers they bought (soon after, Yahoo torched its DRM servers too). The Ultraviolet system, a joint venture by several Hollywood studios, is an attempt to do a better DRM system where the control of the central DRM server is wrested from the grasp of a single entity like Microsoft and put under the control of a group of companies. But Bitcoin could be better still: colored coins for movies would step around any need for a proprietary central DRM system: the blockchain would hold the entitlements. A customer’s video player could look at the blockchain directly (by embedding a Bitcoin client into the firmware of the player) to see what movies its owner had bought and then could prove to any server storing the movie that they were entitled to play it. The full features of Bitcoin transactions could be then used, enabling a movie to be rented, sold, re-sold, loaned, and so on. The issuer of the coloured coin for a movie would be the movie studio and they would control the terms of the market for their own movies (perhaps demanding a ‘droit de suite’ fee when it was transferred). Because the rules of the scheme would be open and transparent and the ownership rules (such as requiring the issuing studio to countersign transfers) embedded directly into the blockchain it would then be possible to define just what ‘ownership’ of a movie means. This would allow a proper market to develop and over time a proper balance between the rightsholders and consumers would be struck (and instead of the courts ruling on what Bruce Willis can do with his music it would be the transactions in the Bitcoin blockchain that made it clear).

The use of colored coins on top of the Bitcoin network is a bit of a kludge and obviously it would be better engineering to design something to support colored coins in a more direct way using a new Bitcoin-like network. But generally speaking things that work right now are preferred to grand things that will work in the future. While Al Gore was talking about the Information Superhighway we had the wheezing dialup modem internet much mocked in Doonesbury cartoons. But it was the internet that actually became that superhighway. Similarly, the Bitcoin network exists today with its thousands of specialist transaction processing computers worth a fortune and so there is nothing to stop companies using it to introducing new products and services right now.

Colored coins will likely follow the trend that started with the internet to weaken the power of intermediaries in markets. So much of the finance industry today is predicated on trusted central services for trading, for asset registers and for clearing. With a public blockchain and decentralized trading, the Bitcoin network has the potential to shake things up. Imagine a company issuing its own shares as colored coins: the ownership and trading of those coins is taken care of by the Bitcoin system, so what will existing organizations do? Will registrars offer ancillary services (e.g. for collecting dividend payments on behalf of an shareholder)? Will nominee services disappear? Will new ‘low cost’ venues emerge for trading small business shares by cutting out a large part of the cost of IT infrastructure? Predicting how this will shake out is a fun game, and this ‘wargaming’ is something that venture capitalists are going to be playing a lot in the near future.

My thoughts on Bitcoin, colored coins and DRM were previously published in the 13th December 2013 issue of MoneyWeek magazineIf you liked this post here’s the address of my tip jar:

166vkDz7EqLV27g3aEqER2Z81vx43sYMp7