Arnav Vohra


Bitcoin : A New Form Of Life?

Ralph Merkle, founder of the Merkle tree & a cryptography legend quoted :

“ Bitcoin is the first example of a new form of life.”

“It lives and breathes on the internet. It lives because it can pay people to keep it alive. It lives because it performs a useful service that people will pay it to perform. It lives because anyone, anywhere, can run a copy of its code. It lives because all the running copies are constantly talking to each other. It lives because if any one copy is corrupted it is discarded, quickly and without any fuss or muss. It lives because it is radically transparent: anyone can see its code and see exactly what it does.”


If we look at life, biologists have had a hard time defining what is living & what is non-living.

How do you define: This is living and This is not, for a human it is super easy but how you do define it in proper rules — it’s a genuine difficulty.

But generally people settle down into a couple of different heuristics :

1) The first kind of heuristic is that life forms are configurations of matter that utilise energy in order to preserve information inside themselves. Even if we look at our own body, each cell has DNA and we are eating food and the major thing our body is doing is it’s digesting that food and converting it into cells thereby preserving our DNA.

Even the simplest bacteria is doing the same, eating food/energy, utilising that energy and preserving the information that is in it’s own DNA — so this is the characteristic of life i.e. life always seeks to preserve some information in the form of DNA.

When we see Bitcoin, if we think of it — it’s a configuration of matter i.e. mining machines that utilise electricity (energy) in order to preserve information i.e. the bitcoin core code base and the bitcoin blockchain — so bitcoin totally matches this.

2) The second characteristic of life is that living organisms have a method of self replication with variation and they undergo natural selection — a bacteria splits into two daughter cells, they are a little different from the parent and then these two cells they will live in the environment and split further and one line succeeds more than the other.

This is Darwin’s idea, we replicate & we reproduce the information into other configurations and then there is natural selection which creates survival of the fittest.

The strange thing is Bitcoin totally follows that.

In bitcoin, the mining machines are consuming energy to preserve information & they split into bitcoin core & bitcoin cash, it’s like a bacteria splitting into two. Bitcoin core & Bitcoin cash have different DNA (block size is a different), core code base is different & once these networks split they undergo natural selection. These 2 would compete with each other, one will win much more than the other, so there is notion of splitting, replication, variation and natural selection, so crypto networks follow Darwin’s Theory Of Evolution : Totally!

3) The third thing is that, forms of life can have an objective function, like in a bacteria, the objective function is to survive and replicate. Ever since we are young our body is optimising that we survive and we replicate by producing children. There is an objective behind us in that sense.

Crypto networks today don’t have objective functions — bitcoin as a network doesn’t have any objective, human that is owning the coin has an objective — he wants to see the price of bitcoin go up but the network as a whole doesn’t have any objective — it’s just ‘existing’!

The ultimate strange thing that is happening is smart contracts allow us to build crypto networks with objective function : Imagine that there is a protocol on ethereum say a decentralised exchange on ethereum and there is this internal smart contract which has an objective function to maximise the number of orders that are being processed by the system and this smart contract is willing to pay the humans (developers) money if they contribute code which improves its functionality i.e. allows it to process more orders. The smart contract measures the total number of orders passing through the system and the developers are committing code to the system and the smart contract calculates that because a certain developer committed certain code, the number of orders increased as the user experienced improved so let’s reward this developer with ether.

We can build an AI like agent at the centre of each of these crypto networks that is going to pay the developers to propagate the system. We don’t have it yet but we could and then this crypto network would be alive — it would have an objective to achieve a certain thing and then replicate.

More we think about it, we find Ralph Merkle is right — in 50 years we will think of the new digital life forms and this is unexpected because as technologists we always thought artificial life would have a physical form just like we have one but mistakenly not even realising it, Satoshi has created the first digital life in the form of bitcoin and not even he thought of doing that.

Note : The above piece is inspired from my interview of the amazing Meher Roy, co-host of the best podcast in the Blockchain space, Epicenter!

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