Bitcoin Versus Skynet: Which technology is more likely to destroy us?

There is a lot of hand-wringing in some technology circles about how our computer code will inevitably destroy us. The reasoning generally follows one of two paths:

  • AI will become so smart that it wants to destroy us (à la Skynet), or
  • AI will become so smart that it incidentally destroys us because we happen to be in the way.

Creating such a general AI will be incredibly difficult and take years (if it ever happens). But what if we already have a doomsday the code that has nothing to do with with AI?

Meet Bitcoin: The code that could destroy the world

Bitcoins are created by intensely clever code that also creates a blockchain, which is a ledger of transactions with copies distributed on many thousands of computers around the world. These copies are brought in consensus by process called “proof-of-work,” in which users of the ledger trust a group of people referred to as “miners” to maintain it. The miners as a group earn that trust by demonstrating that they have put a certain amount of computational work into maintaining the ledger. The “proof” of this work is the amount of electricity they have consumed to perform the computations.

Approximately every ten minutes, one miner who has consumed enough electricity and is lucky is declared by the Bitcoin code to be the official maintainer. The code then awards that miner 25 bitcoins and change for their work (worth about $400,000 at this writing).

How Bitcoin Can Destroy Us

Kevin Kelly once asked, “What does technology want?” and pointed out that all systems have tendencies and urges that need to be filled. All systems “want” something.

Bitcoin wants to consume electricity.

Bitcoin will stop at nothing to consume as much electricity as it can. It doesn’t care about the human or environmental costs of generating this electricity — as long as the electrons keep coming, it is happy.

Bitcoin’s single-minded strategy is brilliant and far more dangerous than any AI. It harnesses human ingenuity with a powerful combination of winner-takes-all gamesmanship, high-stakes rewards, and unpredictability in delivering incentives.

On top of it’s psychological tricks, it also has a diabolical escalation mechanism: the more work miners put into their computations, the harder the computation becomes and the more electricity is required.

If you doubt the effectiveness of this strategy, consider that in 2009 Bitcoin was consuming the amount of electricity you could get out of a few wall sockets in your house. Last month, estimates had Bitcoin devouring more electricity than the country of Ireland. And while the exact amount of electricity can’t be known, there is no debate that Bitcoin’s energy consumption is growing rapidly.

Bitcoin is like that fungus that wants to turn ants into zombies. It gets into people’s brains, causing them to seek out more and cheaper electricity and build faster processors to do the work. The Bitcoin fungus recently spread to Mongolia, home to some of the world’s cheapest and dirtiest electricity.

If you want to see a vision of hell, Google pictures of Ulaanbaatar’s air quality. But Bitcoin doesn’t care about particulate emissions.

Left unchecked, Bitcoin will grab all the electricity that the limits of physics, economics, and irrational behavior will allow it. Possibly leaving the world a more polluted, more economically unstable mess.

Can the Bitcoin Fungus be Stopped?

Bitcoin may be unstoppable because —

  • it exists in too many places and is too robust to be deleted,
  • it exists in too many jurisdictions to be regulated, and
  • it can’t be controlled as changes to the code require the acceptance of more than half the miners and they are heavily invested and have competing economic interests.

All of these attributes were brilliantly designed into the code as important features that make Bitcoin robust and self-perpetuating.

What can you do?

If Bitcoin cannot be stopped, perhaps it can be tamed. It was created to address very real problems that still exist and it may still be able to do some of those things (but I doubt it).

Bitcoin’s electricity-sucking power comes from the profitable economics of being a Bitcoin miner. At today’s price, the code is handing out $400,000 every ten minutes or so but just one year ago the reward was just $25,000. If we can either raise the price of Bitcoin’s food (electricity), or lower the reward of mining Bitcoin, perhaps we can starve it into better behavior.

So here are three suggestions:

  • Get out of Bitcoin. If you are holding or speculating on Bitcoin, stop it — don’t be part of the problem.
  • Talk smack about Bitcoin. We can’t know for sure if we are in a Bitcoin bubble, but if the incredible price gains are a result of speculation, a groundswell of public doubt about it might spook the speculators badly enough to burst a bubble and drop prices.
  • Practice NIMBY. If you live in a place that has inexpensive electricity, Bitcoin will find it. Lobby your electricity provider or public utilities commission to create a rate schedule for Bitcoin mining operations that will price that service high.

Skynet may never be a reality, but Bitcoin is here now. John Connor is counting on us.