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Four Visions for Scaling Bitcoin: A State of Digital Money Panel

At the recent State of Digital Money event in Los Angeles, Bitcoin scaling was the topic of conversation for a panel consisting of Airbitz CEO Paul Puey, derivatives trader Tone Vays, Yours CEO Ryan X. Charles and Bitcoin Core contributor Eric Lombrozo. During the panel discussion, each participant was able to share his vision for how Bitcoin should be scaled to handle a much larger userbase.

Ciphrex CEO and Bitcoin Core Contributor Eric Lombrozo

For Lombrozo, scaling Bitcoin is about getting the greatest gains in terms of throughput increases while also limiting the amount of risk and security vulnerabilities involved in those improvements.

“Obviously, if you have just a few entities that are validating the transactions for everyone, then that creates a point of attack or a single point of failure,” said Lombrozo. “Part of the whole philosophy of Bitcoin is you should be able to validate your own transactions.”

Lombrozo added that scaling Bitcoin means users are able to validate their own transactions without necessarily being forced to validate everyone else’s transactions as well.

“That’s the trick,” said Lombrozo.

An example of this method of scaling Bitcoin is the Lightning Network, in addition to other Layer 2 protocols.

From Lombrozo’s perspective, using a blockchain for every transaction is like going to court every time a deal is made with a counterparty. The Lightning Network allows users to interact directly rather than dealing with the blockchain as a third party of sorts to process the transaction.

In the past, Joseph Poon, who is a co-author of the original Lightning Network white paper, has shared similar comments related to the use of Bitcoin’s underlying blockchain as a court for smart contracts.

“Instead of viewing [the blockchain] as simply a payment system, if you view it as a smart contracting system, which enables the blockchain to act as a dispute mediation system, viewing the blockchain as a judge is a lot more understandable and a lot more powerful,” said Poon at the 2016 MIT Bitcoin Expo.

Lombrozo added that second-layer protocols like the Lightning Network act as a sort of paper IOU to bitcoin’s gold — except in the case of the Lightning Network, the user knows they will always be able to redeem the paper for gold.

In addition to Layer 2 protocols, Lombrozo would also like to see different signature schemes implemented in Bitcoin to lower the resource requirements of operating a full node. Schnorr signatures are an example of such an improvement that has been in development for Bitcoin.

Another key point made by Lombrozo during the panel discussion was that different players in the Bitcoin ecosystem desire different features in the protocol; for example, long-term holders may not care as much about $10 on-chain transaction fees as those who have built businesses around the use of the blockchain for coffee purchases or other low-value transactions.

In summary, Lombrozo referred to a user’s ability to only need to validate their own transactions (while still remaining secure) as the “low-hanging fruit” of scaling Bitcoin.

Yours CEO Ryan X. Charles

While Charles claimed he was happy to see progress made on the eventual activation of Segregated Witness (SegWit) via the activation of BIP 91, he also added, “SegWit doesn’t go far enough.”

From Charles’s perspective, SegWit will not sufficiently lower on-chain transaction fees, which he sees as the key issue for users at this time. In his view, much lower on-chain transaction fees are needed for mainstream adoption of Bitcoin to occur.

According to Charles, the main disagreement between various parties when it comes to the best way to scale Bitcoin has to do with how much transactional activity should happen on the blockchain, as opposed to secondary layers of the network.

“I am very much in favor of radical increases to the block size,” said Charles.

Charles added that it would take 30 years to send every person in the world a bitcoin transaction with the current 1MB block size limit.

“That just doesn’t work from the point of view of mainstream adoption of bitcoin,” said Charles.

Charles also noted that the Lightning Network white paper stated that a 130MB block size limit would be necessary for mainstream adoption to be possible, even with various Layer 2 scaling options.

According to Charles, the key question to answer is: How does Bitcoin get from 1MB to 10GB blocks?

“Computers get faster and cheaper,” said Charles. “It doesn’t just have to be technical software and cryptographic optimizations.”

Derivatives Trader Tone Vays

When Vays spoke about his vision for scaling Bitcoin, he first noted that the digital cash system may not be able to do all of the things that were promised in the early days. He specifically mentioned privacy, security, instant transactions and cheap payments as examples of features that were promised by Bitcoin enthusiasts back in 2013.

“In reality, having all of those things at once is almost impossible,” said Vays. “There’s a chance Bitcoin can’t do all that.”

Vays reiterated Lombrozo’s point about different users wanting different features in Bitcoin. In his view, the censorship-resistant properties of the system should be viewed with the highest level of priority.

“The reality is a censorship-resistant payment method is way more important,” said Vays. “You have so many other ways to pay for your cup of coffee, but you don’t have a lot of ways to donate to Wikileaks. You don’t have a lot of ways to buy “other” things...”

Last year, Vays published a post on his blog where he examined some of these use cases involving censorship resistance.

Vays added that he trusts the current group of contributors to Bitcoin Core, the reference implementation of the Bitcoin protocol, to focus on this priority of censorship-resistant digital cash.

For Vays, the next area of focus for developers after the activation of SegWit should be privacy-focused improvements, such as MimbleWimble and Confidential Transactions.

Airbitz CEO Paul Puey

Before talking about anything else, Puey stated that he is very much for the activation of SegWit. However, he then shared his belief that much more on-chain capacity is needed on the Bitcoin network, as Charles had previously stated.

“We’re not going to be able to live with a 1MB block, and it was an arbitrary number,” said Puey.

Puey added that computers are now four to five times more powerful than when the block size limit was originally added to Bitcoin by the system’s creator. He also indicated that the correct “magical number” to define the block size limit is hard to figure out, which is why he believes the free market should decide.

“I don’t think the developers should make that decision,” said Puey.

Puey did not elaborate on how the free market would be able to make this decision. It’s unclear if he was talking about Bitcoin Unlimited’s concept of emergent consensus or simply users choosing between different blockchains with different block size limits.

The Airbitz CEO then prefaced the rest of his comments with the fact that he still has a tremendous amount of respect for the people who have been contributing to Bitcoin Core over the years as they’re trying to solve an incredibly hard problem.

Puey noted that he, as a developer, knows his limitations when it comes to developing a proper user experience for software applications.

“How many of you people want the developers designing the user experience of your protocol, your application [or] your website?” Puey asked the audience.

In Puey’s view, the idea that every Bitcoin user is going to run their own full node, even at a 1MB block size limit, creates a flawed user experience and will prevent the technology from being adopted by the masses.

“Every party in this debate wants decentralization, but they all define it differently,” Puey added.

While Puey suggested that more users running their own full nodes is helpful, he also shared his belief that having greater adoption of bitcoin as a currency would also help the system become more resilient to attackers.

“The more people that are using it, the more that the economy is dependent on it, the harder it is to stomp out a technology,” said Puey.

Puey concluded his response to the scaling question by stating that he was happy to see BIP 91 help end the stagnation in the adoption of protocol improvements.

The full panel discussion was streamed on Periscope by Civic Business Development Manager Vivek Kasarabada and can be viewed in its entirety here.

Kyle Torpey

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