Digital Currency- Hype or Future

This is an abstract of the talk that I gave to students of IIM , Indore on 5th October.

The ability of central banks to maintain the value of fiat money came under a cloud in the wake of the financial crisis that hit the developed economies in 2007/08. A libertarian view about privately issued money that always remained in the fringe of mainstream view of money started gaining currency. The computer geeks who hate any centralized authority started toying with the idea of digital currency that could have all the properties of physical cash and could be used as an efficient medium of exchange of values but without the backing of any central authority. A number of attempts to introduce a digital currency backed by cryptography were made before the dominant digital currency of today- Bitcoin- came into existence. Notable amongst them was Digicash invented by David Chaum in 1990. The experiment failed miserably and the eponymous company filed for bankruptcy in 1998.

In October 2008, an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper titled Bitcoin on a cryptography mailing list and released as open-source software in 2009. The most critical issue that Bitcoin protocol successfully addressed is the problem of double-spending.

The technology as well as philosophy underlying the Bitcoin system traces its root to 3 different disciplines.

Firstly, it is meditated through a particular view of money- money being primarily a medium of exchange. From a monetary perspective, this aspect of Bitcoin makes it a trustworthy and relatively cheap decentralized payment system without any centralized settlement mechanism.

Secondly, it intelligently adapts certain well known features of distributed computing and information systems. Any distributed system has to resolve the problem coordination so that all the system can continue to function as  expected even if one or more nodes fail or start behaving arbitrarily. This issue is also looked upon from another perspective which is known as “state replication”.  A related problem germane to any distributed computing and information system is the Byzantine problem. The problem statement is- how to arrive at a consensus about an input value vi started by a node i, when a maximum of   f nodes have crashed. The proof-of-work mechanism has also originated in the distributed computation and information management area. This mechanism has also been made an integral part of Bitcoin protocol for validation and authenticity of transactions in Bitcoin network

The last and the most important building block of Bitcoin are the methods and tools of Cryptography. At the heart of Bitcoin lies one way function, hashing function, modulo arithmetic, public-private key, digital signature and maintenance of a public ledger of all validated transactions.

This talk would introduce all the building blocks of Bitcoin in a largely non-technical way. It would also highlight the potential fault lines of Bitcoin and why such a technology cannot become a currency proper. The presenter would argue that Central Bank Digital Currency based on the underlying technology of Bitcoin is very much possible. This is the most desirable and probably inevitable future of paper currency

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