Bitcoin is undoubtedly exciting, but, as much as it might promise to solve some of the problems associated with global finance, it’s also responsible for creating problems of its own. The most concerning of these is the environmental impact of mining cryptocurrency due to the huge amounts of electricity it requires. This, in turn, results in tens of millions of metric tons worth of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.
That’s a big cause for concern, and it’s something that researchers at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have been working to come up with a solution for. In contrast to the large electricity consumption and carbon footprint of Bitcoin, they are developing a new approach to cryptocurrencies they hope could lead to a near zero-energy alternative.
“We developed an algorithm that enables payment in a secure and efficient manner,” Guerraoui Rachid, a professor in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences, told Digital Trends. “Essentially, unlike Bitcoin and its alternatives, the algorithm we propose does not require reaching global agreement about the ordering of all transactions.”
But how does it do this? The answer involves a fundamental rethink of the traditional Bitcoin model, first described more than a decade ago by mysterious Bitcoin pioneer Satoshi Nakamoto. That approach involves a “consensus” distributed system in which all players must agree on the validity of transactions, which involves the execution of complex and energy-intensive computing tasks.
The alternative approach, called the Byzantine Reliable Broadcast, works by assuming participants in the system are good actors and only ignoring them if they are seen to be abusing it. In doing so, the researchers behind the project think safe cryptocurrency transactions could be achieved with just a few grams of CO2 rather than an estimated 300 kg for a current single Bitcoin transaction. That’s more like sending or receiving an email.
“The problem we are solving is called double payment, and it is the main problem posed by Nakamoto in ‘his’ seminal paper defining Bitcoin,” Rachid explained. “We basically looked carefully at the problem and realized that you do not need a heavy consensus-based solution. If, hypothetically, Alice wants to send money to Bob, it is enough for Bob to ask around if Alice was not trying to cheat and give the same money to somebody else.”
The work was selected as the best paper at the International Conference of Distributed Computing (DISC). There’s still a long way before this work ever gets turned into an actual cryptocurrency approach, however — if, indeed, it ever does.
“I’m not sure whether I’d do that,” Rachid continued. “I would rather open-source it and have people use the algorithm for exchanging goods in a frugal manner.”
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