Bitcoin and Currently More than 12,000 Cryptocurrencies: A Hope or a Threat?
How it all started
In 2008, a novel paper was introduced to the world, titled “Bitcoin: A Peerto-Peer Electronic Cash System”, written by Satoshi Nakamoto. In this paper, a new idea was explained about a system for electronic transactions that do not rely on trust. In other words, no “trusted third party” is needed for the system to work. The physical person behind the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” has never been found and the real identity of Nakamoto still remains a mystery.
Money and the need for a “trusted third party”
In the long past, there were no monetary mediums. People in primitive societies would simply exchange goods using a barter arrangement. Bartering is the exchange of goods and services between two parties without the use of money, based on equivalent estimates of prices and goods. One of its main limitations is that one cannot store wealth in the long term.
Then came money, in the form of a shell, a metal coin, or a piece of paper that people could use as a medium of exchange, a unit of measurement of value and a storehouse for wealth. The invention of money played a significant role in the evolution and development of human societies as it allowed people to trade goods and services indirectly, providing also an effective way to store wealth. Historians believe that metal objects were first used as money as early as 5,000 BC.
The 21st century gave rise to a new form of currency, digital money, allowing digital, mobile payments. Mobile payments are money rendered for a product or service through a portable electronic device, such as a cell phone, smartphone, tablet device or a computer. Money nowadays sits in bank accounts and needs not have a physical form. Mobile payments offer the advantage that the two parties do not need to be in the same physical location for the transaction to take place. Unlike hand-to-hand physical payments by cash, digital payments can be made remotely, through a bank. The bank acts as an intermediary or a trusted third party. When Helen pays John the amount of $100.00 remotely, she makes the relevant request at a bank online. The bank needs to verify and process the transaction. It first checks if Helen has $100.00 at her disposal. If yes, it proceeds with the payment to John. It will debit Helen’s account with the amount of $100.00 and credit John’s account with the same amount. In such double entry bookkeeping, debits and credits are entries made in account ledgers to record changes in value.
These online payments need a trusted third party to act as an intermediary. Unlike cash transactions that are truly peer-to-peer, traditional online payments need to go through a bank. This can cause problems and difficulties as banks may delay or censor transactions, while in some cases transaction fees may be too high. This is the case with international payments between two banks in distant countries and especially when a third world country is involved. In addition, one needs to open a bank account to send or receive payments. There are certain requirements for opening an account and rules on who can pay and who can get paid. Privacy is another concern as a lot of personal information is revealed in every transaction and the bank or a bank employee has access to this sensitive information.
The “beauty” of cash, digital cash and the “doublespending problem”
Cash payments do not have these problems. The beauty of cash lies in the fact that there are no intermediaries. But cash has another problem: For example, when Helen gives John a bank note of $100.00, the two parties need to be in the same place at the same time. In addition, cash is bulky and therefore it cannot be easily used for big transactions. The question arises: Could we have online payments that are just like cash, i.e. peer-topeer, with no need for intermediaries, no banks, no delays, no censorship and no privacy issues? Is there a way to have digital money that behaves exactly like cash?
Many researchers had tried to deal with this issue, but they faced the so-called “double-spending problem”. Double spending is the risk that a digital currency can be spent twice. Physical currencies do not have this problem because they cannot be easily replicated, and the involved parties in a transaction can easily verify the authenticity and past ownership of the physical currency. In other words, with digital currency there is a risk that the holder of the digital currency might make a copy of the digital token and send it as payment, while retaining the original.
The solution to the doublespending problem
Bitcoin was the first successful implementation managing to solve the double spending problem. It was described as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system. The code of Bitcoin was released in 2009, after the publication in 2008. In Bitcoin, there is no bank, no central system, no single institution in the middle playing a special role. That’s why it is called a “decentralized network”. All players in this network are equal and there is no central or special player. The technology that enabled Bitcoin to make this breakthrough, is called Blockchain. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, all based on blockchain technology, offer peerto-peer transactions with privacy for any amount of money, just like cash!
In a blockchain, timestamps for a transaction are added to the end of previous timestamps based on proofof-work, creating a historical record. Because the record of transactions is distributed across many nodes in the system, it is practically impossible for a bad actor to gain enough control of the system to rewrite the ledger to their own advantage. The blockchain records are kept secure because the amount of computational power required to reverse them is enormous. This technology allows Bitcoin to transfer value across the globe without resorting to traditional intermediaries, such as banks.
For many, Bitcoin is the ultimate democratic tool and the currency of the future. Its advantages include the following:
- Payment freedom. Bitcoin allows us to send and receive money anywhere in the world, peer to peer, at any time.
- Availability. It is theoretically available to populations of users without access to traditional banking systems, credit cards, and other methods of payment.
- Total control over our money. There is no form of central authority in the Bitcoin network.
- Security. The protocol cannot be manipulated by any organization, government or bad actor, because Bitcoin is cryptographically safe. The network remains secure even if not all of its users can be trusted.
- Transparency. The information is fully transparent. With the blockchain, all completed transactions are visible to everyone, but personal information remains hidden.
- Low fees. Although there are transaction fees to be paid, they are very low.
On the other hand, some economists have characterized Bitcoin as a speculative bubble or even an advanced Ponzi scheme. Bitcoin has been criticized for:
- Use in illegal transactions. Bitcoin offers a dark medium to engage in illegal activities including money laundering, financing terrorism, collecting ransoms in hacks or cyberattacks, and buying or selling banned substances.
- Large carbon footprint. Bitcoin is power-hungry as it is “mined” (created) using high-powered computers around the globe. Cambridge researchers claim that mining Bitcoin currently consumes around 110 Terawatt Hours per year. That’s roughly 0.55 percent of global electricity production, and more energy than the annual consumption of countries such as Argentina, Malaysia, and Sweden.
- Price volatility. Since it was first introduced, Bitcoin has had a choppy and volatile trading history. Its price has undergone multiple bubbles in a short history. It reached an all-time high price of $64,863 on April 14, 2021.
- Scalability problem and low speed. The scalability problem refers to the limited capability of the Bitcoin network to handle large amounts of transaction data on its platform in a short span of time. Bitcoin processes 4.6 transactions per second on average, compared to Visa’s 1,700-plus per second. For many, this is a major barrier to its wider adoption.
Conclusion and discussion
Bitcoin is a new and experimental currency in continuous development. It has many advantages that physical money does not provide to its users, however, it also has disadvantages. Various other cryptocurrencies use a consensus mechanism called proofof-stake (PoS), which is much less energy-intensive than the Proof-ofWork technology on which Bitcoin is based. The No. 2 cryptocurrency, Ethereum, is moving to PoS soon. This can solve one of the major problems of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which is the large carbon footprint of traditional mining.
With more than 12,000 different cryptocurrencies now listed by CoinMarketCap, competition between bitcoin and other major cryptocurrencies is reaching a fever pitch. Cryptocurrency is a nascent phenomenon and numerous unresolved issues still remain before it becomes close to reshaping the major shortcomings of today’s financial systems.
Dr. Vagelis Plevris
About the Author
Dr. Vagelis Plevris is an Associate Professor at the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering of Qatar University in Doha, Qatar. Currently, Dr. Plevris serves as the Chief Editor for “Computational Methods in Structural Engineering”, a section of the journal Frontiers in Built Environment, by Frontiers in Switzerland.