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The annual conference, sometimes referred to as a “workshop,” has in its short history grown into somewhat of an institute within the Bitcoin space. It aims to be the main stage for Bitcoin’s technical and academic communities, with little room for commercial interests — and perhaps even less for the “scaling drama” that has grown to be the norm online.
“This is the place where we want to focus on engineering, not politics,” said Anton Yemelyanov, this year’s planning committee chair, as he introduced the event on Saturday morning. “We want everyone to have objective discussions from an engineering standpoint.”
Scaling Bitcoin has a short but potent history.
The first two conferences were hastily organized one after the other in the second half of 2015, both in direct response to the new-at-the-time block size limit dispute and a looming hard fork through Bitcoin XT. The Montreal edition, the first of the two conferences, was instrumental in bringing together Bitcoin’s technical community, which had up until that point mostly communicated through chat channels and mailing lists. And the second edition in Hong Kong introduced Bitcoin’s mostly Chinese mining community onto the stage for the first time, quite literally. Faced with a contentious hard fork, the events were instrumental in building community among developers and across continents.
And the conferences proved pivotal in averting the crisis — at least temporarily. Hong Kong saw the introduction of Segregated Witness, presented by Blockstream engineer and major Bitcoin Core contributor Dr. Pieter Wuille. This innovation was included as a centerpiece in Bitcoin’s scaling roadmap, proposed by Blockstream CTO and Bitcoin Core maintainer Gregory Maxwell right after the conference, and was endorsed by large parts of the Bitcoin ecosystem. It finally activated on the Bitcoin network this summer.
Now, two years and three Scaling Bitcoin conferences after the Montreal edition, another controversial hard fork looms. BTC1 — maintained by former Bitcoin Core contributor and Bloq CEO Jeff Garzik — is scheduled to hard fork next week as per the New York Agreement in order to double Bitcoin’s block weight limit — an effort dubbed “SegWit2x.”
Yet, this upcoming hard fork did not demand much attention in Stanford. Apart from subtle remarks buried throughout some of the talks, the topic of SegWit2x was almost completely absent from the Scaling Bitcoin program. Illustratively, Bobby Lee, CEO of BTCC and one of the few outspoken SegWit2x proponents on stage, even refused to take any questions on the hard fork after his invited talk — instead focusing on Bitcoin’s meteoric price rise over the past years.
Scaling Bitcoin instead continued on the path set out last year at the third event, hosted in Milan. With a broader scope than scaling alone, privacy and fungibility were prominent topics, while smart contracts, fees, mining and more were part of the program as well.
Perhaps the biggest innovations presented throughout the weekend, at least within the realm of features that could feasibly be implemented on Bitcoin without rigorous protocol changes, were presented by some of the veterans (by now) in the space.
Tadge Dryja, co-author of the lightning network white paper and currently employed by the MIT Digital Currency Initiative, presented “Discreet Log Contracts.” If the math checks out like he thinks it does, these could effectively realize trustless oracle systems, arguably offering a superior (being simpler) alternative to the bulk of advanced smart contracts. Put bluntly, some think these kinds of solutions could make resource-intensive systems like Ethereum obsolete.
Along similar conceptual lines, Blockstream mathematician Andrew Poelstra presented “scriptless scripts.” Utilizing clever cryptography — specifically, signature aggregation — smart contracts could be anchored into a basic blockchain without needing to embed the entire smart contract code itself. Originally designed for the Mimblewimble protocol, the concept could be leveraged by Bitcoin, too.
And speaking of veterans in the space, Nick Szabo — partnered with (among others) Bloomberg contributor Elaine Ou — presented his proposal to broadcast Bitcoin transactions over radio waves. Not so subtly referencing China’s recent crackdown on Bitcoin, the two detailed how Bitcoin could travel around the globe (and over the great firewall of China) without so much as needing an internet connection.
When the topic of Bitcoin’s block size limit — the “original” scaling issue that spawned the conferences — came up at all, it was mostly in the context of propagation speed. Perhaps no coincidence, the two most relevant presentations on this topic were based on work by some of the people involved with previous hard fork attempts. The Bitcoin Unlimited team presented their test results on the “Gigablock” network, which they believe safely supports blocks that exceed current limits by several orders of magnitude. And UMass Amherst professor Brian Levine presented the “Graphene” block propagation protocol, co-designed by Bitcoin’s former lead developer Gavin Andresen.
To the extent that next week’s hard fork was discussed, Anthony Towns’s presentation probably came closest. Towns detailed how support for future protocol changes could be cleverly determined through market dynamics. Though, while interesting, this type of solution will not be ready in time for the SegWit2x hard fork.
Indeed, in contrast to some of the previous events, a sense of urgency was mostly absent in Stanford.
This could be in part because most of Bitcoin’s technical community has by now roughly settled on a path forward — and SegWit2x is no part of it. Similarly, the question is not so much whether Bitcoin will scale predominantly through second layers; for them, at least, it will. Rather, topics of research now focus on how these second-layer technologies can be optimized for performance, privacy and more.
Additionally, as a somewhat loosely organized volunteer effort, the team overseeing the conferences consists of slightly varying people from one event to the next. And resulting from a difference in vision for the 2017 edition, some of the earlier organizers as well as a segment of Bitcoin’s technical community were absent for this round.
Perhaps as a result, the sense of community building typical for some of the previous events was not as prominent in Stanford. And the question of how to deal with a looming contentious hard fork was a more central topic at the similar but more informal Breaking Bitcoin conference in Paris several weeks ago. In little over two years, Scaling Bitcoin instead transformed from what is best described as an emergency summit to something perhaps more akin to a regular academic conference — even though an emergency summit would not have seemed entirely inappropriate at this point in time.
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BTC Inc., parent group of BTC Studios, BTC Labs and BTC Media, and Genesis Mining, a cloud mining service provider, recently announced a partnership to launch Genesis Engineering, a Hong Kong–based joint venture focused on promoting and developing the cryptocurrency mining industry worldwide, with a special focus on emerging and underserved markets.
“We see opportunities in terms of excess capacity worldwide in such regions as the Americas and Eurasia, said David Bailey, CEO of BTC Media. “Centers of mining are often places with excess capacity and relatively cheap electricity rates. As a result, mining operations bring benefits to those areas in terms of both employment and resource allocation.”
“The excess energy supply in certain regions is a big opportunity for mining worldwide,” added Genesis Mining CEO and Co-Founder Marco Streng. “We see the positives of mining ranging from individuals to large organizations. Whether it is a hobby, someone’s way to accumulate a certain cryptocurrency or a business with a profit motive, mining has been a positive endeavor for people all over the world. We look forward to growing the base of miners worldwide through promotion, education and new initiatives.”
“The formation of a partnership between BTC Inc. and Genesis Mining to create Genesis Engineering is important because it combines the leaders in the cryptocurrency information space and the cloud mining space to grow the industry in underserved markets at a time when crypto is in a position to be embraced by and benefit new markets,” John Riggins, Head of Development for Eurasia at Genesis Engineering, told Bitcoin Magazine.
“Genesis Engineering will be positioned as a mining information leader, promoting the industry through workshops and consulting in developing regions. We see an energy landscape that includes excess and unused electricity in markets that could benefit from the introduction of a crypto mining industry in their economy as China has benefited over the last few years.
“The crypto industry is in a growth stage and mining is a cornerstone of the industry that must grow in lock-step,” added Riggins. “Markets with excess energy capacity are in a good position to benefit as the mining industry develops, benefiting local economies through job creation and energy utilization.”
Riggins noted that the market of the post–Soviet Union is especially ripe for this sort of growth; therefore, Genesis Engineering will have a special focus in these countries. According to the company, these countries have the hallmarks of key regions for the development of cryptocurrency mining, including huge excess energy capacity, developed infrastructure and favorable climate conditions. For instance, oil producers in the region face an ecological tax on excess gases produced in oil excavation that is not put to use and is burned; this is gas that can be used to power mining facilities, create local jobs and make these countries regional leaders in the crypto industry.
“On the information and promotion side, we will be opening the first of multiple showrooms and co-working spaces in November,” Riggins said. “This facility will house a mining museum and will be used as a venue to promote the industry through workshops and a speaker series. On the consulting and mining business side, we are in negotiations with the largest electro energy production companies in the region, consulting on the positives of mining and the opportunity to use their spare capacity in these territories.”
Genesis Engineering will support the crypto mining industry broadly, including not only bitcoin but additional coins. It considers mining to be an important feature of the cryptocurrency sector, ensuring security and decentralization through incentives. The target market of Genesis Engineering ranges from hobbyists and small businesses reached by the company’s showrooms, co-working spaces and speaker series, to multinational energy companies and large-scale miners reached by the company’s consultancy and mining projects.
Besides promotion of cryptocurrency mining and related consulting work, Genesis Engineering will offer cloud mining services through Genesis Mining, with an initial focus on markets that have been underserved in Eurasia. The pricing structure will be similar to Genesis Mining’s current offering, but with a focus on making the service and mining equipment attractive in emerging markets, as well as to organizations that are interested in large-scale mining but have not yet entered the industry and will need to be led through that process.
Persuaded that cryptocurrency mining can be a boon to energy suppliers and populations in these regions, “Genesis Engineering will consider partnerships with energy providers and analyze how crypto mining could add value to different markets,” concluded Riggins.
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