There aren’t many true and surprising new things in software technology, in spite of all the gushing about new stuff. At the center of Bitcoin is a tech advance. Not a minor step forward. Not an enhancement fueled by faster chips. An amazing idea that is the engine that has fueled its explosive growth. It’s not something people talk much about, sadly. They should. The core of the idea is the miners that are the heart of the Bitcoin engine.
If you’ve heard anything about Bitcoin, you’ve probably heard that it’s a crypto-currency. You’ve heard it’s totally secure because lots of computing locks the data in an air-tight vault secured by the latest cryptology algorithms. You’ve heard that it’s a ledger of transactions, and that the ledger is distributed, which somehow makes it better. All these things that you’ve heard are correct – and it’s the miners at the heart of every one of those true things.
First, let’s step back a minute and understand the problem that Bitcoin solves. Bitcoin isn’t cool in the abstract – it’s cool because it’s a creative solution to a really hard problem. The problem, in a nutshell, is to create a currency, like US dollars or Euros, that isn’t controlled by any central authority. That’s a HARD problem. How can you have a currency that people accept with no one to issue it? If it’s somehow issued, who’s going to do the work of creating and managing it?
Long ago, currency consisted of fairly scarce, valuable objects, like sea shells. Then, precious metals were used. Since it was hard to judge how valuable a piece of metal was, people in authority created standard sizes, shapes and values – today’s coins. Then paper money was issued by early banks, with the precious metals in the banks backing it up. Central government authorities then replaced the banks, and currency became a per-country thing. Finally, it became detached from the coins, a.k.a. “the gold standard.” That’s where we are today, with huge government authorities issuing and controlling abstract and paper currency at will, manipulating it to meet political goals. The problem at the heart of Bitcoin is, how can you create an abstract currency that people can trust without a central authority of any kind, much less a government? I trust you’ll agree, that’s a truly hard problem.
Before diving into the solution to this problem, it’s worth understanding why it’s a problem. The core issue is the money supply, and how central authorities manipulate it to implement monetary policy in various ways, shifting with the political winds. Central bankers can print more money, take money out of circulation, raise and lower interest rates and do other things on a whim. Other branches of the government closely monitor who does what with their money via extensive, ever-growing, onerous regulations that make everything harder, slower and more expensive. How can we get out of this? How can we escape the armies of faceless bureaucrats who control the money and watch what we do with it?
The solution has to somehow make everything work with no one in charge. Get people to do lots of work and spend lots of normal money to create and maintain a robust system of virtual currency, and somehow get those people to be absolutely incorruptible?! They’ll be in charge, but not tempted even a little to use their power to enrich themselves? How is THAT supposed to happen??
That, my friends, is the genius of Bitcoin. The genius is embodied in the design of the miners.
Miners are volunteers. No one selects them – they just step up, get their hardware and software together, and start mining. All on their own – without permission and without even an invitation! Here’s the key part: when you mine, you make money, in the form of newly-issued Bitcoin. The formula and the rules are built into the software that everyone uses. When you mine, you make money. The more you mine, the more you make. If you’re ever tempted to think about fiddling with the software, cheating and just taking a bunch of money (Bitcoin), you immediately think of the huge investment you’ve made in mining equipment, which isn’t good for much of anything except mining. If people started thinking that miners were self-dealing corruptocrats, the value of Bitcoin would immediately plummet, and the miner’s investment would be worthless. Your thought of cheating, just a little, quickly flies out of your head, and you go back to being a straight-up miner – and, by the way, watching the other miners closely to make sure none of THEM cheat; if they did it would hurt you. Badly.
The miners are un-recruited, unmanaged groups who put up their own money and time to make money, and are thoroughly incented to play it straight, without cheating.
What the miners actually do is solve computationally intensive problems – all using standard software on juiced-up hardware – that does two important things.
- First, the computing assures that each new transaction that someone tries to put in the ledger follows the rules. Simple rules that are essential to virtual currency working. Things like you can only spend money you have. You can only spend it once. Stuff like that, things you don’t even think about when your money is physical and sits in a wallet — but when it’s digital, has to be enforced.
- Second, the computing puts a lock on the new transaction, a special fancy lock that links to all the earlier locks on all the prior transactions. For ease of computing, the transactions are grouped into blocks, and it’s actually the blocks that are locked up tight and chained together with cryptology. Thus the name “blockchain.”
The rules built into the Bitcoin/blockchain software used by all the miners are the key to everything. Since all the miners run the same software, everyone follows the same rules. These rules enforce the fact that, at any given moment, there are a known amount of Bitcoin, with the ledger tracking who owns how much. The number of Bitcoin is fixed – until a miner earns some as a result of the mining work. In that case, brand-new Bitcoin are created – according to an established formula – and deposited in the miner’s own account in the ledger. Once the miner has the earned Bitcoin, he can do anything he likes with it, like any normal owner of Bitcoin.
Finally, it’s true that the Bitcoin miners see each and every transaction. Each transaction is vetted to assure that the rules are followed. But the owner is identified only by a VERY long string of letters, a key, so no one knows who the owner of Bitcoin is in physical life. This is the capstone of Bitcoin’s solution to the problem of government-issued currency. No snooping!
Net-net: There is a publicly known amount of Bitcoin in the world, which slowly grows as it is created to pay the miners who earn it by running the system. There are a large number of volunteer miners keeping transactions flowing, safe and secure, without depending on any of them. Bitcoin buying and selling is easy, inexpensive and private. Because of thousands of volunteer miners crunching away. No one’s in charge. Miners want to work and are incented to be honest. No governments, no bureaucracies, no politics, no one snooping on you. Problem solved!