Quality matters –  Proof of Work to the rescue against fake internet

The Bitcoin SV ecosystem is buzzing, crisis or no crisis: After the Genesis upgrade on February 4, 2020, Bitcoin is fully restored, new projects and ideas are being born almost daily. Last week, Xiaohui Lui proved that Bitcoin Script can also handle tokens with internal status, and that you can check and use external data. This week, Boost surprises us with its approach to sort digital content by relevance using Proof of Work. But what does it all mean anyway?

The concept is straightforward: an author of digital content, such as a text, video or photo, can attach a proof to his work that he has wasted a certain amount of computing power, just like the Bitcoin Miners do when they produce blocks. This principle is called “proof of work”.

With the work done, he signals to potential interested actors or parties how relevant he considers his content to be. The more work is “attached” to a digital work, the stronger the signal to the interested parties.

What’s that all about?

Proof of Work is based on the theory of the “Handicap Principle”, which has become well known in biology: Some animals have certain features that at first sight are superfluous or even obstructive, and this constitutes a handicap for the animal. A popular example is the peacock, whose impressive feather tail looks oversized and makes it difficult for it to evade attackers. The handicap principle states that these features are intended to signal special “fitness” because the animal has survived despite the handicap. With these seemingly superfluous features, the animal “buys” advantages in reproduction, or causes attackers to look for other prey.


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Like a peacock, an author’s proof of work thus signals a special fitness: a confidence that his content is particularly valuable. So valuable that he is willing to expend energy for useless computation to generate a proof of work.

PoW is not a new concept in Computer Science: Adam Back to use PoW as solution to e-mail spam in 2002 in a system called “HashCash”:

“… Anyone who wished to send email to the address must compute a proof-of-work string for that email. Spammers are disincentivised by this system because their profitability depends on being able to send many messages which only a small fraction of people will respond to. Under HashCash, a spammer would have to do work on every individual spam message. Any sender must think more about whether his message is worthwhile. On the other hand, if he does the work, he can be fairly certain that his message will be read because it is in the receiver’s interest to set a difficulty that limits messages to an amount that he can handle. HashCash is thus the perfect spam filter. …”

Daniel Krawisz – Chief Scientist, MatterPool Inc.

Quoted from  A Protocol for Buying and Selling Proof-of-Work Embedded in Bitcoin Script

This illustrates a good use case for using PoW. Nonetheless, HashCash never gained any significant support nor user base. So it’s time for a new attempt.

How does this work?

The algorithm that is used for Boost is the same as for mining of Bitcoins. The computers search for a certain hash value generated with the SHA256 method. The miner who finds it first gets the reward.

When “boosting” content, the miner takes the corresponding content – attaches a randomly generated number and calculates the hash value of the two parts that are joined together.

If the hash value is smaller than the target, he has found a proof of work. If not, he changes the random value and hashes again –  until the hash value is smaller than the target.

The smaller the target, the greater the work done. Obviously the probability of finding the proof of work is lower, so the miner has to try more random values.

OK, but what’s so exciting about that?

Proof of work could be the mechanism that enables the consumer to distinguish good information from bad: For an information provider, it’s costly to attach proof of work to their content. If the quality is judged differently by consumers, he risks the money he has invested. But if the provider correctly assesses the relevance, he can generate attention from the target audience and earn money with his content.

Let’s compare this with the current situation: The relevance of content is assessed by algorithms such as Pagerank (Google), the number of “likes” is important, the reputation of the author or source plays a major role. However, only Google knows the algorithm for ranking. New content providers find it difficult to gain visibility and thus an audience.

With PoW it’s different: Anyone who is willing to use and risk the corresponding computing power gets the associated visibility, regardless of reputation or algorithmic assessments. We have an objective method for evaluating content. In case of controversial issues, different sources, authors, interest groups or organizations can compete against each other in the PoW contest. Instead of digital backyard boxing fights for the truth, we would be dealing with a fair arm wrestling contest.

Pow Market by 21e8. A Marketplace for Magic Numbers https://pow.market

One of the first to combine PoW with content was Mark Wilcox with 21e8. His goal is ambitious: Proof of Work is supposed to organize complete “information supply chains“. Shortly after the release, many people started to try 21e8, and soon after that Dean M. Little (Bitping) released software that allows you to mine 21e8 transactions on your own computer.

Boost is now the first company to offer PoW as a service: The content producer determines what content they want to have PoW mined for and makes an offer how much they would pay for it. The miner, in this case Matterpool, can accept the bid and receives as a compensation the amount in BSV set by the offeror. The masterminds behind Boost are well-known Bitcoiners: Daniel Krawisz (Nakamoto Studies Institute, Bitcoin Stuff), Josh Petty (CEO of Twetch) and Attila Arros (Mattercloud).

In the Bitcoin SV world, PoW is currently a big hype and is being experimented with by many. For example, in the PoW market you can offer transactions yourself or mine transactions on your own computer. The pace of development is rapid: Baemail.me has already integrated PoW into the inbox: you can now send a baemail and signal the importance to the recipient with PoW. And bit.sv, a blog platform on Bitcoin SV (still in beta), is already making it possible to rate articles with PoW. So the BSV ecosystem is extremely quick to agree on and implement new emerging technologies.

The solution to all social media problems – or is it “solving a problem that is being manufactured for no reason”?

Proof of work could therefore lead to consumers being able to filter out information relevant to them more easily from the overload of information. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sort your Twetch-feed according to the importance given to the contributions? Wouldn’t it be nice if you had to fight your way through less spam on social media platforms because spammers don’t find the investment in PoW economically viable?

On the other hand, PoW is not a measure of quality, everyone can still write, film and record whatever they want, it’s just riskier for the author to invest a lot of money in nonsense. Just because someone has a powerful computer at home does not mean that he or she is writing good texts.

Not everybody agrees with this concept: Craig Wright argues that the idea of attaching PoW to content is a “solving a problem that is being manufactured for no reason”, because the act of spending Bitcoin would achieve the same goal as attaching PoW.

Google has been working for decades on balancing the various factors in order to assess which websites are most relevant to users. Maybe proof of work cannot substitute all those factors. But it could complement them – and certainly prevent abuse by SEO hackers and spammers.

It’s open whether this all works the way many in the BSV scene imagine it to, but the approach is promising and has huge potential. So Google should pay attention!

References:

Boost whitepaper: https://media.bitcoinfiles.org/dbe0f0cdeb0e399dde37764cdc84415d51c95a01c42a0037a3c639c7ae4fe0b3

 


Artwork: Daniel Krawisz


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