Exclusive: Former LedgerX Engineer Bryan Bishop on Cryptocurrencies, Libra and Designer Babies
“I’ve been doing software engineering for a very long time all the way back to the middle school or maybe even earlier, so it’s hard to remember”, says renowned speed typist and Bitcoin Core contributor Bryan Bishop.
Bishop is famous for his work as an engineer at the oldest bitcoin-options exchange LedgerX. He actively takes part in Bitcoin Core code reviews and moderates the bitcoin-dev mailing list, but he didn’t fall in love with Bitcoin at once. It took him almost four years to recognize the value of Satoshi’s invention and dive into it.
He is also a prominent futurist, transhumanist and biotech entrepreneur who seeks to provide commercial services for parents to make genetically-modified embryos and to choose genetic attributes for their future children.
In an exclusive interview with ForkLog Bryan Bishop, who is also advisor at Beam, shares his stance on Facebook’s Libra, its implications for Bitcoin, and exposes huge legal problem with custody for digital assets. Also he explains why rising fees is a good thing and why he projects designer baby revenue to reach billions in the far future.
ForkLog: Sometimes you’re called an AI in the human form. Do you know about this?
Bryan Bishop: Yes, that’s been said about me for a while now. I think that this dates back to 2008, when I met Mac Cowellon the DIYbio mailing list focused on biohacking and basically non-institutional science. The comments comparing me to artificial intelligence originate from some of my unusual habits, like having a rigorously organized set of bookmarks, speed typing full transcripts at conferences or meetings, processing lots of information or reading manuscripts– just generally having a prolific nature I guess.
ForkLog: How did you come to Bitcoin, considering your biotech interests?
Bryan Bishop: I actually found out about Bitcoin pretty early on January, 10th, 2009. I was subscribed to the P2P Foundation mailing list, which is where Satoshi Nakamoto sent one of his emails announcing the Bitcoin project. Then I commented on some IRC channels that Bitcoin is “yet another piece of crap”. The reason why I said that was because at the time when I’d looked at Bitcoin back in January, 2009, it only run on Microsoft’s Windows.
My argument was that you can’t have a financial revolution if it only runs on Windows. That didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t until a few years later in 2013-2014 that I became more involved and eventually started contributing to Bitcoin Core, going to conferences, doing other related things.
ForkLog: Are you a Bitcoin Core developer now?
Bryan Bishop: It’s actually an interesting question. What do you have to do to be qualified as a Bitcoin Core developer? I would actually say that it’s easier to call me a Bitcoin Core contributor. There are many individuals that write a far more code for Bitcoin than I do. Lately I would say that I mostly do things like code reviews. I’m also one of the moderators for the bitcoin-dev mailing list.
One of my previous jobs that I can talk about is LedgerX, which was the first CFTC-regulated bitcoin options exchange. I was hired in 2014 and I left in 2018 – I was there a Bitcoin expert. One of the big projects I did with them was designing their custody solution, which involved something that I call a signing ceremony for accessing the coins. LedgerX stores clients’ physical bitcoins and delivers them upon expiration of contracts.
On one hand, Bitcoin is considered unregulated, but at the time LedgerX was the most regulated company in the industry.
ForkLog: What do you think about the fact that over 40% of Bitcoin nodes haven’t upgraded to the latest Bitcoin Core client and still run the version exposed to the inflation bug?
Bryan Bishop: I believe that it’s OK that the entire network doesn’t update simultaneously, because it could create a huge centralization failure. It’s actually OK that someone wants to run different versions. Regarding this specific bug I haven’t looked into its status on the network, but I believe that one of the mitigations is to have miners deploy the fix on their bitcoin nodes when constructing valid bitcoin blocks. I think it could mitigate some of the harm.
ForkLog: In September, 2018 you expressed some concerns about Bakkt platform in the letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Did SEC respond?
Bryan Bishop: That letter was a combination of multiple people, including Christopher Allen and Caitlin Long and the few others. The reason why I was actually involved in that letter is because of my involvement with Allen’s smart-custody project, where our goal was to try to describe to both consumers and regulators that applying the existing rules for custody of bitcoins with qualified custodians according to 17 CFR 275 isn’t the best idea.
This rule says that you cannot have custody unless assets are stored with a bank, futures commission merchant, broker-dealer or a foreign financial institution. Regarding bitcoin this rule raises questions.
Well, bitcoin is stored on the blockchain, isn’t it? Is it a private key that has to be stored with a custodian or is it something else? What if you have 2-of-2 multisig as in the case of GreenAddress Wallet when users sign transactions and so does the service. Does this mean that GreenAddress is a custodian under that rule? It’s actually very unclear and my hope with that letter was to encourage regulators to see that there are unique technological possibilities with bitcoin that current law and regulations don’t necessarily allow for.
ForkLog: Did you succeed in convincing SEC?
Bryan Bishop: I don’t think this issue is resolved yet. But I still do want to see regulators better understand Bitcoin technology and the possibilities that are available here beyond multisig. It is possible to construct multisig where owners of the coins have to co-sign with other keys in order to actually move bitcoins.
For now as far as I know all exchanges are doing a full custody of coins. Maybe there are even issues with fractional reserves, but I don’t want to speculate on it.
ForkLog: What do you think about the Libra project from Facebook?
Bryan Bishop: I have been looking at Facebook’s Libra and honestly I’m not impressed. I think Facebook finally has its payments platform which will support its other products, but in terms of whether it’s a blockchain, whether it’s a cryptocurrency, from my perspective, it’s not. I don’t see many use cases for it, but I’m sure Facebook will onboard a lot of people to use it, but it solves a different problem than Bitcoin, so it’s just less interesting to me.
ForkLog: Do you believe it poses a threat to Bitcoin existence?
Bryan Bishop: No, I don’t think so. Moreover, I believe it might be on-ramp for more people to learn about Bitcoin. Once you have the freedom to move around your money, you tend to explore systems which give you even more freedom.
ForkLog: DarkWallet developer Amir Taaki instead thinks all the normies will never use Bitcoin and it will lose to Libra like when “FireFox lost to Chrome”.
Bryan Bishop: The normies as you said already use U.S. dollars as well as Visa and Mastercard. This fact doesn’t affect me. It’s not a threat to Bitcoin, because they solve different problems.
ForkLog: During the recent rally we saw fees skyrocketed to $4 per transaction. Scaling is still a problem for Bitcoin. Will Schnorr and Taproot alone solve it?
Bryan Bishop: First of all, if you are interested in the low fees on the Bitcoin system, you will use the Lightning Network. Secondly, I believe that fees will go very high, they will continue to go up. I’ve said in the past that if I had to mortgage my house to trade bitcoin, to move it, I would do it. That’s how valuable I think bitcoin transactions are. I think fees will be very high in the future.
Rising fees is a good thing, because it means there is a competition for a block space. This use case actually proves Bitcoin has an intrinsic value. The system will fund itself with high fees in the future once mining rewards run out. High fees will provide security at that point.
ForkLog: Is Lightning already stable?
Bryan Bishop: Lightning is really interesting thing, people can use it. Although my key complaint about Lightning and Bitcoin too is that I’m actually not a big fan of using cryptocurrency on my phone. I don’t like that idea. The idea of storing private keys on your phone is really bad one. That’s not a property of Lightning, it’s just a property of mobile wallets.
My preference would be a mobile wallet that gather information about the payments you need to make later and you do an offline signing at home to confirm all of them. I think this is an ideal model of operating a mobile wallet.
Your private keys should only be stored on devices that are not connected to the Internet. In this case keys shouldn’t be stored even on a full node, because it’s always online to synchronize with the blockchain.
ForkLog: Let’s switch to some biotech stuff. Have you heard about Chinese scientist He Jiankui and first gene-edited babies in the world?
Bryan Bishop: He Jinakui announced the births of the first germline modified humans last year. It was a big moment in science, and the whole world took notice. Calling it a “Sputnik moment” is the only way to describe it. This technology is inevitable. The idea is that instead of choosing between the embryos available produced by two partners, you can instead use gene editing technology to modify and insert genes that weren’t already there to begin with. The world reacted with shock, and the academic community behaved in a nasty way accusing his conduct of being unethical. In fact, he had published an ethics article a few days prior in the CRISPR Journal, which was later retracted by the journal due to political pressure to “not give him a platform”. It is ironic to accuse him of unethical behavior while retracting his ethics manuscript. When he made his announcement to the world, I was watching live and even made a transcript which anyone can read now.
ForkLog: He believes that changes to the DNA are acceptable only in case of hard diseases, but it’s wrong to exploit such technologies to make superhumans. Do you agree?
Bryan Bishop: There is no question the issue is complicated. That said, I don’t think that it’s right to tell other people what they can or can’t do. I think many people receive plastic surgeries all the time, they use technology to improve their lives and there is actually nothing wrong with it. I don’t necessarily see the use of genetic engineering technology as creating superhumans, instead it’s just improving normal regular human lives. Technology development is one of the defining aspects of the human species, going back to the discovery of fire and stone tools.
Good guys can use technology and so can the bad guys too. I don’t think it’s a reason to forgo technology development just because someone might misuse a technology. As an example, airplanes have an enormous utility and changed our world so much for the better, and yet people have also used them to deliver bombs and wage war. Statistically speaking, airplanes are still the safest way to travel.
ForkLog: Prominent scientist Jennifer Doudna believes it’s too late to impose ban on editing embryos genes. Is she right?
Bryan Bishop: No, I don’t think so. Many countries will try to ban the use of this technology. They can do it anytime they want. The question is whether it will be effective, because in my opinion nothing can stop this technology from developing. I also think it’s vitally important to our future, and it would be a mistake to miss out on overseeing its safe deployment.
ForkLog: Let’s pretend some guy from Catholic Church comes to you and asks about ethical sides of this technology. How would you answer?
Bryan Bishop: I think that improving lives is ethical. I think that we do it all the time. We should also allow people to make choices for themselves and their own families. Human reproduction is something that is sacred to us and if governments step in and say who and how can or can’t reproduce, it is called eugenics which is widely considered to be wrong.
ForkLog: Is it true that you plan to earn billions on designed babies?
Bryan Bishop: When you’re making a startup, the future is very unclear. You job as an entrepreneur is to make future more clear. I actually believe that in the far future there will be millions of children that are born genetically-modified. My question to you is what is the value of giving someone 20% more years to live. What is the value of someone living an additional 15 years? Is that $1 million, or is it $2 million?
ForkLog: It’s invaluable as for me.
Bryan Bishop: Well, many people will be ready to pay any amount of money to double their lives. There are so many technologies that will develop in the next 50 years. I do believe that these technologies will be widely used in the far future.
ForkLog: So, it’s not a Pandora’s box?
Bryan Bishop: Humanity is a Pandora’s box itself. We naturally develop technologies and I don’t think there is a way to contain it. I think we should not focus on containing, but on building a healthy infrastructure to support everyone and to guide these technologies.
ForkLog: Let’s imagine bad guys take control of such technologies. How would they use it?
Bryan Bishop: I believe that this technology can be misused by governments which could force genetic manipulations on population— which I do not support. Governments in the past committed related atrocities, so it’s feasible. But that’s true almost with any technology.
ForkLog: Could be true for Bitcoin as well?
Bryan Bishop: Could be true for Bitcoin, could be true for money. I like how everyone complains that bitcoin can be used to finance terrorism, but they don’t understand that terrorists actually use fiat dollars all the time.
ForkLog: Maybe it’s Libra which partly uses Bitcoin technology. How do you think?
Bryan Bishop: I’m not really sure that Libra competes with Bitcoin itself. The existence of Bitcoin does not preclude the existence of alternative networks. Sometimes I surprise people by saying that even if Bitcoin is used every day by everyone, I believe there is still room for debit cards like Visa or Mastercard. I think they solve different issues. The ability to pay a merchant immediately for a cup of coffee is very different from what Bitcoin is, which is non-government controlled form of money.
ForkLog: What do you think about Bitcoin being the native currency of the Internet?
Bryan Bishop: It’s hard to declare this straight off for now, but historically if you look at it, Bitcoin was the first and has the biggest network effect. It’s not hard to see that Bitcoin is the currency of the Internet.
ForkLog: Should Bitcoin be money itself or just a base layer for money?
Bryan Bishop: I do believe that Bitcoin is store of value. I also think that layer two technologies will enable faster and more payment volumes. I also think that Bitcoin should be more private in the future and many developers are interested in implementing more privacy.
ForkLog: How to convince those addicted to centralized solutions such as debit cards, Apple Pay and fiat money that they actually need the freedom that Bitcoin provides? Masses forgot about 2008 crisis, huge bailouts for bankers and how many times central banks betrayed them.
Bryan Bishop: I’m not actually an educator, but I believe that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. In general I recommend that everyone should figure out what bitcoin is and how to use it. Everyone should have bitcoin.
At the same time though I recognize that bitcoin is hard to use and people don’t understand how it works. It’s a very technical sophisticated system that is very complicated. The way it works may be somewhat mysterious to people who are more accustomed to consumer products like Mastercard.
ForkLog: Bitcoin is not ready for mass adoption. It’s not ready to on board many people. Do you agree?
Bryan Bishop: Whether Bitcoin is ready or not a lot of people will come to use it, even despite UX and understandability issues.
Bryan Bishop was interviewed by Nick Schteringard
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