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Wei_Dai comments on Bitcoins are not digital greenbacks - Less Wrong Discussion

6 Post author: lsparrish 19 April 2013 06:13PM

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Comment author: Wei_Dai 20 April 2013 07:56:08AM *  11 points [-]

Bitcoin seems more relevant than Craigslist, PayPal, or other tech startups because it involved major technical and conceptual/philosophical advances on the existing state of the art, and these advances didn't originate from nor was likely funded/supported by academia, government or industry. Also, its social impact seems larger - if Craigslist or PayPal didn't exist, something essentially identical would have been created very soon anyway, but if Bitcoin didn't exist, another Bitcoin may not have been created for another decade, and/or may have been created with very different characteristics, for example it might have been coded with a monetary policy that emphasized price stability instead of a fixed supply of money.

I would consider Bitcoin to have failed with regard to its monetary policy (because the policy causes high price volatility which imposes a heavy cost on its users, who have to either take undesirable risks or engage in costly hedging in order to use the currency). (This may have been partially my fault because when Satoshi wrote to me asking for comments on his draft paper, I never got back to him. Otherwise perhaps I could have dissuaded him (or them) from the "fixed supply of money" idea.) I don't know if it's too late at this point to change the monetary policy that is built into the Bitcoin protocol or for an alternative cryptocurrency to overtake Bitcoin, but if it is, then Bitcoin is similar to self-improving AI in that it may be critical to get the first one right and it offers evidence on how hard it is for an individual or small group working outside the mainstream to do that.

Since I have a personal connection with Bitcoin I'm probably tempted to read more into it than I should relative to other evidence such as other tech startups. I'm curious what your impression is after reading the above, and whether there is other specific evidence that I should be paying more attention to.

Comment author: CarlShulman 20 April 2013 10:28:58AM *  4 points [-]

I'm curious what your impression is after reading the above, and whether there is other specific evidence that I should be paying more attention to

Sure.

because it involved major technical and conceptual/philosophical advances on the existing state of the art,

I agree Bitcoin is relatively audacious, novel, and technically sophisticated .

and these advances didn't originate from nor was likely funded/supported by academia, government or industry

Couldn't you describe many early-stage self-funded startups that way? Or do you mean you guess that Satoshi was not working in academia, government, or industry before developing Bitcoin?

Also, its social impact seems larger - if Craigslist or PayPal didn't exist, something essentially identical would have been created very soon anyway, but if Bitcoin didn't exist, another Bitcoin may not have been created for another decade, and/or may have been created with very different characteristics

What kind of impact? So far the volume of Bitcoin transactions is still relatively small, and presumably a large portion of the transactions conducted using Bitcoin would otherwise be undertaken using other payment systems. So getting a version of PayPal or Craigslist working somewhat earlier or better could easily affect more transactions and generate more consumer surplus if Bitcoin does not grow to larger scales.

ETA:

PayPal’s net Total Payment Volume for 2012, the total value of transactions, was $145 billion, up 22% year over year.

Cf Bitcoin transaction volumes.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 21 April 2013 08:32:55AM 5 points [-]

Couldn't you describe many early-stage self-funded startups that way?

Self-funded startups that also involve major technical and conceptual advances that weren't first developed in academia, government, or industry (and then spun off) seem rare. Can you give some examples that are similar to Bitcoin in this regard?

Or do you mean you guess that Satoshi was not working in academia, government, or industry before developing Bitcoin?

If Satoshi was working in academia, government, or industry, it seems very likely that he didn't develop the ideas behind Bitcoin as part of his day job, otherwise he probably wouldn't have been allowed to publish the ideas and software under a pseudonym.

So getting a version of PayPal or Craigslist working somewhat earlier or better could easily affect more transactions and generate more consumer surplus if Bitcoin does not grow to larger scales.

It's hard to even say whether Bitcoin ultimately has a positive or negative impact at this point. For example one possible impact of Bitcoin might be that due to its deficient monetary policy and associated price volatility it can't grow to very large scales, and by taking over the cryptocurrency niche, it has precluded a future where a cryptocurrency does grow to very large scales. If we take the expectation of the absolute value of its impact, it seems higher to me than the impact of a somewhat earlier or better PayPal or Craigslist.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 21 April 2013 09:18:56PM 2 points [-]

If Satoshi was working in academia, government, or industry, it seems very likely that he didn't develop the ideas behind Bitcoin as part of his day job, otherwise he probably wouldn't have been allowed to publish the ideas and software under a pseudonym.

Well if Satoshi is in academia and has tenure.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2013 09:11:03AM 3 points [-]

due to its deficient monetary policy and associated price volatility it can't grow to very large scales, and by taking over the cryptocurrency niche

I'm also quite worried about this, but on the other hand Bitcoin creates an obvious entry gateway into more advanced cryptographic currencies (i.e. once Bitcoin infrastructure is set up, other currencies can use Bitcoin infrastructure if there's a way to exchange them with Bitcoins, lowering the bar to entry).

I've had all sorts of ideas along these lines, in fact. The main reason I haven't published them is that I'm not sure that more advanced cryptocurrency advances FAI over AGI. In fact, you'd think it would be the reverse - the Great Stagnation may be all that's keeping us alive right now.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 22 April 2013 07:55:47AM 5 points [-]

In fact, you'd think it would be the reverse - the Great Stagnation may be all that's keeping us alive right now.

I don't see why we should obviously expect funding for AGI to benefit from economic growth in a way that funding for FAI doesn't. If Silicon Valley is booming, I'd expect MIRI to receive more donations and Google to put more money in to self-driving cars. If Silicon Valley is contracting, I'd expect MIRI to receive fewer donations and Google to put less money in to self-driving cars. Am I missing something here?

Comment author: Wei_Dai 21 April 2013 08:04:42PM *  5 points [-]

I'm surprised that you are so interested in this area (i.e., monetary policy for cryptocurrency), given that the subject matter and required backgrounds to study it are not closely related to FAI. I don't even have any strong opinions on what is the right policy, except that the one currently built into Bitcoin is pretty suboptimal (ETA: at least in the long run, in the short run it seems close to optimal for getting Bitcoin some initial scale).

The main reason I haven't published them is that I'm not sure that more advanced cryptocurrency advances FAI over AGI.

Yeah, me either, or more generally whether cypherpunk-related technologies help or hinder a positive Singularity, which is part of the reason why I stopped pushing very hard on my cypherpunk ideas.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2013 09:26:23PM 1 point [-]

Econ relates to intelligence explosion dynamics, Scott Sumner appears to be a Correct Contrarian.

I don't have any good ideas for how to do NGDP level targeting inside a cryptocurrency in a way that would automatically distinguish more widespread adoption from increased RGDP from somebody gaming the system.

Comment author: SilasBarta 27 April 2013 06:51:36PM *  4 points [-]

Econ relates to intelligence explosion dynamics, Scott Sumner appears to be a Correct Contrarian.

No, he doesn't. Edit: and I've found that his general reasoning to be poor in general. Some examples (which I can source later if anyone plans to update on this):

"Sumner, if what you're saying is true, shouldn't the Fed let anyone, including the average Joe, borrow from the Fed at 0%?" -- > "Yes."


Sumner: "Income" is a meaningless concept.
Critic: No, it's obviously vital to know how much you can spend before becoming unable to buy anything. And how would you value an enterprise but by discounting its income streams?
Sumner: If you want to know what a venture is worth, look at its stock price, not income.

I don't have any good ideas for how to do NGDP level targeting inside a cryptocurrency in a way that would automatically distinguish more widespread adoption from increased RGDP from somebody gaming the system.

Non-crypto, "real world" currencies have exactly the same problem of gaming the numbers to make NGDP artificially high. They're only worthwhile to pursue when NGDP specifically is targeted, rather than some "close enough" policy.

Comment author: blogospheroid 23 April 2013 10:47:52AM 1 point [-]

Right now, the best velocity measure seems to be coin days destroyed. But it is gameable. It is not being gamed in bitcoin because nothing is dependent on it.

The closest GDP measure in a cryptocurrency of the structure of bitcoin seems to be sum of transaction fees. It can be gamed by early adopters, but that is true of almost every measure

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2013 05:43:22PM 3 points [-]

(i.e. once Bitcoin infrastructure is set up, other currencies can use Bitcoin infrastructure if there's a way to exchange them with Bitcoins, lowering the bar to entry)

Yes; it's been pointed out that you can, and people have, set up competing currencies using the codebase but without the builtin caps. More interestingly, you apparently can build currencies directly on the existing Bitcoin codebase & main blockchain using colored coins (which wedrifid seems very interested in).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2013 09:33:52PM 3 points [-]

No, what I mean is that if anyone else sets up a cryptocurrency right now, they don't have to worry about making it exchangeable with dollars, they just need a good way to make it exchangeable with Bitcoins, and that could easily be done using pure programming. Bitcoins is a horrible store of value and an even worse medium of account, but some of the underlying ideas have great potential as a medium of exchange, and Bitcoin can sneeze any previous development of real-world interfaces directly into a new, competing cryptocurrency.

Comment author: lsparrish 24 April 2013 02:06:08AM *  0 points [-]

I'm having trouble reconciling the "horrible store of value" part with the rest of your argument. A competing crypto-currency eventually comes into existence, better than dollars, everyone wants to use it instead, and you can't get it without bitcoins... And we're supposed to think bitcoins are not particularly likely to go up in value as a result?

Edit: I guess if you only mean "currently horrible" this makes plenty of sense. Also it could maybe lose value once it has played its part in getting everyone used to the new currency.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2013 02:30:04AM 0 points [-]

A competing crypto-currency eventually comes into existence, better than dollars, everyone wants to use it instead, and you can't get it without bitcoins... And we're supposed to think bitcoins are not particularly likely to go up in value as a result?

If such a crypto-currency comes out, everyone holding Bitcoin will want this Newcoin, everyone who would have held Bitcoin will instead be demanding Newcoin, and the only reason anyone will be holding Bitcoin will be as part of the float generated by people trading dollars for Newcoins via Bitcoin non-instantaneously. The exchange rate supported by the float could be far less, the same, or far higher than the current exchange rate.

(An example: suppose Bitcoin somehow lost popularity so that the sole use of the current n bitcoins was for Silk Road, and no buyer or seller let more than a day elapse between exchanging their $$$ for Bitcoin (buyers) and exchanging their Bitcoin for $$$ (sellers); if there's $1m of total turnover on Silk Road per day, then buyers need to turn $1m into Bitcoins and seller need to turn X Bitcoins into dollars, and this need will be spread out over n bitcoins. IIRC, there's like 5m bitcoins so in this scenario we would each day see 5m bitcoins traded from the sellers to the buyers in exchange for the buyers' $1m, or an 'exchange rate' of $5/btc, which is approximately 1/28th the current exchange rate, and then the buyers move the bitcoins to SR and hand them over to the sellers, who move them back to the exchange to sell to the buyers...)

Comment author: lsparrish 24 April 2013 02:43:42AM 0 points [-]

Are we talking about converting Bitcoins into Newcoin (say by sending them to a fake address as a precondition for minting X many Newcoins) or are we talking about trading them ("you send me X many Bitcoins, I send you Y many Newcoins" transactions)? The former strategy would drive scarcity of Bitcoin up as a direct result of demand for Newcoin.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2013 02:59:10AM 1 point [-]

I thought we were talking about the latter - people would convert dollars into Newcoin via an intermediary Bitcoin stage (perhaps because Newcoins are banned or something).

If we were talking about 'converting', such as by some of the suggested verifiable-destruction strategies... I'm not sure. Presumably each Bitcoin would always sell for at least as many dollars as its equivalent in Newcoin would fetch modulo the transaction fees and effort (since otherwise people who want Newcoins would buy up Bitcoins and convert them immediately), but if Newcoins were so much better why would any Bitcoin holder at all not immediately convert all their Bitcoins to Newcoin? Reminds me of the flows between coin and bullion in metallic regimes.

Comment author: ESRogs 21 April 2013 07:52:57PM 2 points [-]

Is Bitcoin's monetary policy really expected to be a problem? If it were to reach a steady state adoption and usage level, I imagine Bitcoin's price would stabilize around some constant fraction of (the present value of) the market's expectation of future world GDP. Is that not what you would predict?

Or is the problem that you don't think Bitcoin can reach widespread adoption without users reasonably being able to price goods in BTC?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2013 09:30:50PM 5 points [-]

That's a problem because then BTC is a perfect investment which always grows at exactly the same rate as the global economy. So it gives you the exactly average return on investment with zero volatility. So it seems like a near-perfect store of value and people will want to hold it rather than spend it. This decreases velocity which causes deflation and value that increases apparently even faster than the total global economy. This makes Bitcoin apparently an even better investment, until the volatility or expected volatility from the huge stores of unused Bitcoins outweighs its apparent returns on investment, and note that financial markets are apparently unusually bad at expecting future volatility to be greater than present volatility; people try to time bubbles instead. This is bad for Bitcoin because of the inevitable crash followed by hyperinflation. And it's bad for the global economy because your currency is deflating and any given bank would rather hold Bitcoins, on average, than make loans; and then the inevitable crash is also bad. That's a nutshell version of a longer story.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2013 02:18:13AM 5 points [-]

That's a problem because then BTC is a perfect investment which always grows at exactly the same rate as the global economy. So it gives you the exactly average return on investment with zero volatility. So it seems like a near-perfect store of value and people will want to hold it rather than spend it.

Assuming BTC gives exactly the average return on investment with zero volatility we shouldn't expect all people to hold it rather than spend it. Neither an economy of actual humans nor an economy of ideal agents would act that way.

With respect to consumption: Use as a transactional currency for spending would track convenience factors. People buying stuff with one fungible asset is much the same as buying stuff with another asset then transferring between their two accounts. For spherical cow in a vacuum purposes we can ignore this. Investment spending is the issue here.

In the counterfactual BTC currency which perfectly tracks the global economy the incentive is for anyone who believes they know of any investment that they expect to have higher returns than the average of the global economy to spend their bitcoins and invest in that opportunity. Those who don't believe they have any knowledge of anything that will produce better than average returns or who are risk averse will instead purchase bitcoins either directly or indirectly from those that do have that knowledge.

In that idealised scenario the BTC currency is essentially operating as a vehicle to efficiently transfer real-world capital to places those who people with value expect will provide better return in investment than the average growth of the economy. Note that I am emphatically not claiming that this is an ideal system, it would be bizarre if something so arbitrary happened to be optimal. Just that it doesn't seem to quite have the degree of problem that is described. People would certainly want to spend it.

There are plausible reasons why predictable inflation of the above currency could be more desirable than precisely zero inflation. Let's say Satoshi had arbitrarily decided that BTC mining should go on indefinitely, with the bitcoins produced per year exactly equalling 2% of the number of bitcoins already mined. Then the incentives to the the participants change slightly. Rather than people who expect an investment to grow at more than the average for the global economy to be the only ones to so invest, it is any (risk neutral) person who expects an investment to grow at not less than 98% of the rate of the global economy. That has (well known) advantages.

The unfortunate problem with the above monetary policy is that we just effectively dedicated 2% of the of the value stored in the bitcoin currency each year to the computation of irrelevant hashes (in addition to irrelevant computation that is proportional to transaction fees). This problem applies to any cryptocurrency based on cryptographic mining. There may not be a good solution to that problem that potentially prohibitive degree of waste that does not rely on something external to the cryptocurrency as basis. (And the latter is not necessarily a problem. The currency having value in itself isn't the most potentially useful feature of bitcoin.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 April 2013 02:22:25AM 3 points [-]

Let me rephrase: The problem is that Bitcoins will have an advantage over the average productive investment, e.g. stocks (sort of), as a store of value, since Bitcoin has all their average expected growth with none of their added (local) volatility. This is what presents the starting problem in an economy that starts out with a steady velocity of Bitcoins, and then increased holding makes the velocity go down (and the value go up, and the bubble effect hit even harder). This is why we don't get an equilibrium with steady Bitcoin velocities. Even if we did have that equilibrium, people would have a much greater incentive to just "invest" in Bitcoins instead of being forced to try to invest in something productive. You don't want an economy to have a perfect non-inflating store of value which is intrinsically unproductive!

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2013 02:58:54AM 2 points [-]

Let me rephrase: The problem is that Bitcoins will have an advantage over the average productive investment, e.g. stocks (sort of), as a store of value, since Bitcoin has all their average expected growth with none of their added volatility.

I like the rephrasing. To expand on what seems to be a generalisation of this problem: Any cryptocurrency sibling of bitcoin that relies on cryptographic mining as a basis will either have this problem or will result in (value of currency * inflation rate) additional resources wasted on computation each year.

I believe (tentatively) that the above is an unavoidable result of the cryptographic and micro-economic principles that such currencies rely on.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2013 03:27:53AM *  2 points [-]

I like the rephrasing.

Note, I wrote this in reply to the original version of the grandparent, which is as quoted in the parent. This is confusing since it is a bug/feature of the lesswrong system that Eliezer's edits to his own comments do not get marked with an asterisk like others.

I do not endorse the current version of the grandparent, in as much as it overstates the position and seems to verge on encouraging magical thinking about how a currency can extract value from a system.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 April 2013 03:23:55AM 1 point [-]

To expand on what seems to be a generalisation of this problem: Any cryptocurrency sibling of bitcoin that relies on cryptographic mining as a basis will either have this problem or will result in (value of currency * inflation rate) additional resources wasted on computation each year.

I believe (tentatively) that the above is an unavoidable result of the cryptographic and micro-economic principles that such currencies rely on.

This is not limited to cryptocurrencies, e.g., gold-based currencies cause people to "waste resources" mining.

Comment author: Decius 23 April 2013 08:26:08AM 1 point [-]

That's a problem because then BTC is a perfect investment which always grows at exactly the same rate as the global economy.

That seems to be saying that all of the BTC would always be able to buy exactly all of the things. I can't imagine how that could be the case.

Comment author: ESRogs 28 April 2013 09:22:41PM 0 points [-]

Okay, I think I understand the argument that Bitcoin will likely be permanently volatile, because growth at exactly the rate of the global economy is not a stable equilibrium for the reasons you describe (esp. 'people like to time bubbles').

Thinking about this a bit more though, it seems like the same argument would apply to any asset we might otherwise expect to grow in sync with global wealth. In particular, the apparently-perfect-store-of-wealth-attracting-investment-and-appearing-to-be-an-even-better-store-of-wealth phenomenon seems like a straightforward explanation of what's been happening with the price of gold in the last decade.

But also, it seems like this argument could even apply to the stock market as a whole -- would we expect a global ETF (like Vanguard's VT) to grow at the rate of the world economy? Is that stable?

So I'm curious, do you agree that the no-stable-equilibrium argument applies to the price of these other assets as well, and if so, does the existence of Bitcoin still seem like it would be a problem for the global economy?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 April 2013 10:15:53PM 4 points [-]

It partially explains the price of gold, yes. Gold's situation isn't really the same for three reasons: First, gold can be mined if the price goes too high, and higher prices would imply larger amounts of recoverable gold. Second, a lot of the gold on the market is paper gold, theoretical gold that two parties are trading rather than sending large gold bars around, which also adds to the supply. But most of all, unlike the supposed use-case of Bitcoin, gold is not being used as a medium of account or medium of exchange any more, just one store of value among many, so its real competition is not paper gold or mined gold but other stores of value such as platinum, silver, real estate, and many other things being added to the competition for 'stores of value' as the economy grows. If the same fraction of the population tried to store the same fraction of their net assets in gold today as in the 1600s then the price of gold would be vastly higher - or so I would think, I haven't run the numbers. But this in turn means that the share of the economy represented by gold can easily drop further, making it less than a perfect store of value etcetera, although gold has still tended to be a better store of value than fiat currency.

Of course fiat currency is really supposed to be a medium of exchange and account, not a long-term store of value, though dumb people like me tend to use it as a store of value too because it's convenient and we haven't gotten around to setting up anything different and we don't have that much value to store. And then using your medium of exchange and account as a store of value causes recessions and depressions due to the paradox of thrift; when people want to consume in the future instead of the present they try to hold paper money instead of demanding equity in projects with long-term payoffs. On the plus side, central banks can, in principle, easily rectify some part of this problem by printing more money to meet demand for currency when fear rises, and thus make up for velocity slowdowns, keeping NGDP on a level growth path. On the minus side, central banks are stuck in 30-year-old economic thinking and don't keep NGDP on a level growth path. Bitcoin has the potential to make things much, much worse though.

New stocks on the other hand are constantly being created as the economy grows - no particular stock, or set of stocks starting at a fixed time, are guaranteed to grow at the same rate as the global economy.

Comment author: ESRogs 29 April 2013 02:31:10AM 1 point [-]

To paraphrase, you're pointing out that stocks and precious metals come with built-in demand shock absorbers, whereas Bitcoin has none. I'm not totally sure that I accept this point, because I could see alternative cryptocurrencies playing the role of marginal new stocks or newly mined gold. However, even if Bitcoin were unique in having no demand shock absorbers, I'm not sure this matters, because it seems empirically to be the case that these shock absorbers are not always up to the task, and that both stocks and precious metals do experience a great deal of price volatility, even over the medium to long term.

In other words, even if Bitcoin is especially sensitive to changes in demand, it is neither novel nor unique in being susceptible to bubbles.

This would seem to me to imply that Bitcoin's existence and use as a store of value is no threat to the economy. (And its use as medium of exchange seems harmless as well.)

It would seem that problems would only arise for those who try to use Bitcoin as a unit of account. This is in line with Wei's comment where he suggests that with a currency in fixed supply, fluctuating velocity of money implies that either prices or GDP must be unstable.

So my conclusion is that using Bitcoin as a medium of exchange or store of value is not detrimental to the economy, but one should continue to price goods or services in some other fiat, ideally NGDP-targeted, currency. Does that sound about right?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2013 01:24:06PM 2 points [-]

Using it as a store of value is detrimental. Anyone bidding on a Bitcoin is not bidding on a productive project.

Comment author: SilasBarta 27 April 2013 06:55:04PM 0 points [-]

"No one wants bitcoins anymore, they're too valuable."

Comment author: Wei_Dai 22 April 2013 05:34:54AM *  1 point [-]

If it were to reach a steady state adoption and usage level, I imagine Bitcoin's price would stabilize around some constant fraction of (the present value of) the market's expectation of future world GDP.

According to Wikipedia, "velocity of money" is not a constant but tends to fluctuate. The article lacks citations, but I think this is the current mainstream view among monetary theorists. My understanding of the implication of this is that if you have a fixed supply of money then either prices or GDP would have to be unstable. In other words either you end up with an economy with very flexible prices that change constantly, or you end up with an economy that goes through constant boom and bust cycles (or some combination of each), and both of these outcomes are costly.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 22 April 2013 06:44:14PM *  1 point [-]

I feel like this isn't nearly the issue it is made out to be when you separate real growth from nominal growth. Say you have real growth but prices fluctuate a lot, why should you care? Frictional costs should decrease over time as people figure out how to hedge properly in this environment.

Comment author: ESRogs 29 April 2013 02:38:02AM 0 points [-]

So is the solution just to use Bitcoin as a medium of exchange and a store of value, but not as a unit of account? Then prices are free to fluctuate in BTC terms, while they can remain relatively stable in fiat terms, and GDP will be unaffected.

Comment author: VAuroch 15 June 2017 05:53:42AM 0 points [-]

That would make it a terrible at being a medium of exchange or a store of value, though, wouldn't it? No one knows how much it's worth, and you have to acquire some, pass it off, and then (on their side) turn it into currency every time you use it.

Comment author: ESRogs 16 June 2017 12:43:23AM 0 points [-]

That depends on how volatile it is. On the timescale of a single transaction, a certain level of volatility might not matter very much even if the same level of volatility would prevent you from wanting to set prices in BTC.

Comment author: lsparrish 21 April 2013 06:02:29PM *  0 points [-]

I wonder to what degree FAI/CEV engineering considerations overlap with cryptocurrency/efficient-market engineering considerations. If they are a close match, encouraging the development of the latter would have benefits for the former, and could even be essential to overcoming scaling problems (since FAI is harder to sell investors on than cryptocurrency).

This isn't just a random idea; markets are how humans in the absence of superintelligence actually do try (with some, not-unlimited success) to implement their values. Prediction markets are a possible extension of this concept, but even your run-of-the-mill securities markets are reliant on various kinds of predictive logic that responds somewhat to human desires and needs.

Not trying to trivialize the AGI field since it is outside my specialization, but is there some not-terribly-unlikely way in which a really good cryptocurrency could basically be/evolve into the same thing as an FAI? If so, are there any particular properties that would be likely to nudge it in that direction / away from uFAI?

I'm kind of concerned because I see bitcoin (and/or anything sufficiently similar) funding competition to purchase obscenely large amounts of hardware -- which could possibly even extend to the point of satellite arrays that harvest solar energy, and space based fabrication of new ones. If it gets to that point, we might end up with a Dyson sphere that basically does nothing but compute bitcoin hashes. Extraordinarily wasteful, but not necessarily catastrophic for existing humans if the network continues to recognize them as owners/controllers of the resources in question.

Comment author: jsteinhardt 21 April 2013 07:36:54PM 4 points [-]

If it gets to that point, we might end up with a Dyson sphere that basically does nothing but compute bitcoin hashes.

This seems unlikely. If you're going to invest that much capital, why waste it on bitcoin hashes when you could instead provide a product and sell it? This would be analogous to worrying that everyone will go into the financial sector because it pays so well, and we'll have no one left producing actual goods.

Comment author: lsparrish 21 April 2013 09:28:06PM 2 points [-]

Hmm. I think you're probably right, now that I think about it. The maximum size of the bitcoin reward falls towards transaction fees, which are themselves a small fraction of any given transaction. So there should tend to be significant money out there to reward manufacture of other kinds of space based goods more highly than bithashes.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2013 09:32:11PM 2 points [-]

I wonder to what degree FAI/CEV engineering considerations overlap with cryptocurrency/efficient-market engineering considerations

Basically zero on a technical level. Philosophy of caution overlaps with cryptography. Some econ knowledge overlaps with hard takeoff theory.

Comment author: Kevin 20 April 2013 08:40:13PM 0 points [-]

See this (somewhat unreasonable) speculation from Paul Graham that bitcoin was created by a government. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5547423

Comment author: sinclaire 21 April 2013 12:11:47AM *  1 point [-]

It could have been created by the UN or by multiple governments. Does it even matter just so long as the code is released, it works, and it solves problems? It wouldn't surprise me at all if Intel agencies utilize Bitcoin nor would it surprise me if operatives helped to develop it. It does not change the utility of Bitcoin for me just because of it's origins.

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2013 12:32:57AM *  11 points [-]

Does it even matter just so long as the code is released, it works, and it solves problems?

Yes. It tells us information about currently unknown or uncertain variables. Having the source code and seeing that it works by no means screens off any inferences from its origin, any more than reading carefully a paper on smoking should make you not care that it was sponsored by the tobacco industry.

In the spirit of 'name three examples', here are 4 off the top of my head:

  1. future (ab)uses of the <1m bitcoins Satoshi is believed to have mined based on the minimal initial uptake by other miners and leaked nonce information; the orderbook on MtG implies that if all 1m were dumped, that could take Bitcoin down well into the <$1 range and could destroy Bitcoin as a currency and possibly destroy the prospects of any future currencies
  2. backdoors

    • in the source code itself (the Underhanded C Contest, and the history of cryptography, demonstrating that backdoors or weaknesses can persist for a long time, despite review by very talented people - in Bitcoin's case, Kaminsky and others - and note that the coding style of Bitcoin has been described as very weird and Bitcoin is also an implementation-defined standard, 'whatever the Satoshi client does or accepts')
    • in the primitives it uses (canonical example: NSA & DES)
  3. likelihood of future government crackdown or crackdowns based on blockchain movements
  4. future government uses of Bitcoin (mandatory public transactions, eg. using the colored coins mechanism, leading to a complete loss of all financial privacy?)
Comment author: sinclaire 21 April 2013 02:49:56AM *  0 points [-]

a) Future abuses via Satoshi having too many Bitcoin or from a Bitcoin elite can be countered right here and right now by supporting alt-cryptocurrencies. If one government backed Bitcoin then back the alts so that that one government competes with all those other government backed alt currencies. My attitude and behavior remains unchanged regardless of who backed Bitcoin initially or who Satoshi is.

b) Backdoors should be assumed to be in Bitcoin already. If you run it on Windows and you didn't compile it yourself then assume the NSA and FBi backdoor is already there in the code you either didn't compile yourself or you ran on a closed source operation system which once again you didn't compile yourself. If your behavior would be the same whether the backdoor exists or not then you're okay, and in my case my behavior would be exactly the same whether a backdoor exists or not so I don't fear the possibility.

c) The government crackdown possibility is real but the best way to defend against it is to actually support many cryptocurrencies knowing that some governments are possibly going to benefit from them. When enough governments stand to benefit from the technology in general, then sort of like the Internet it's here to stay and for the same reasons.

d) Even if the government designed Bitcoin it does not control it, and it's highly unlikely that any single government could maintain control of cryptocurrencies as a technology let alone control Bitcoin. So in a way Bitcoin is decentralized enough that no single government can dominate it but I'm sure many governments are involved at the clandestine level.

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2013 03:05:55AM 8 points [-]

No. You're not getting it. This is about information, not your vague issues of 'I feel this is a large enough danger to worry about or I can come up with some vague ways to limit the fallout'. The question was: does learning the government did Bitcoin change our beliefs about anything else at all? The answer remains, for all you've said: yes, it does.

a) Future abuses via Satoshi having too many Bitcoin or from a Bitcoin elite can be countered right here and right now by supporting alt-cryptocurrencies.

These tactics are not guaranteed to work, therefore on learning the government did Bitcoin you will be more worried about abuse then before; Satoshi as technoidealist is far less likely to abuse or use the mined coins than Satoshi as calculated government project and public manipulation.

b) Backdoors should be assumed to be in Bitcoin already.

No, they shouldn't. Only some software is ever backdoored, which means you should make no 'assumptions'. If we learn Bitcoin was done by the government, do any of our beliefs change at all? Yes, the odds of backdooring go up since the US government has, as a matter of historical record, advocated backdoors and sought to build in backdoors (eg. the Clipper chip), and the possibility of NSA involvement that much higher.

c) The government crackdown possibility is real but the best way to defend...

Is completely irrelevant, because you're not getting the point, and actually getting it backwards: if we learned the government did Bitcoin, would this affect our predictions about future crackdowns at all? Yes, it would: we would worry less about a crackdown, because that would render developing & releasing Bitcoin a complete waste of effort and accomplish no apparent goal which was not already accomplished by actions like crushing e-gold. The obvious continuing example of this is Tor, developed by the US government and still supported and not cracked down upon, because cracking down would defeat the point of making it, which was to enable its servants to browse anonymously and also help out its enemies' critics & foes.

d) Even if the government designed Bitcoin it does not control it,

Something which you cannot know, and which flies in the face of points #1 and #2.

but I'm sure many governments are involved at the clandestine level.

No doubt you are as sure of this as anyone can be sure of something in the complete absence of any evidence.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 April 2013 06:39:45AM 3 points [-]

The obvious continuing example of this is Tor, developed by the US government and still supported and not cracked down upon, because cracking down would defeat the point of making it, which was to enable its servants to browse anonymously and also help out its enemies' critics & foes.

The US government made Tor? Awesome. I wonder which part of the government did it. The intelligence agencies could be expect to oppose it because they effectively lose power.

Comment author: pengvado 21 April 2013 11:45:48AM *  6 points [-]

The US government made Tor? Awesome. I wonder which part of the government did it.

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Comment author: khafra 22 April 2013 11:39:28AM 1 point [-]

Only 90s kids will remember Triangle Boy.