Coindesk's 'Bitcoin at 10[years old]': From Fearing Bitcoin To Fixing Its Worst Problem: Tadge Dryja

“I thought I would go to jail.”

That’s why Tadge Dryja, one of two principal researchers who would go on to envision lightning – what has become arguably the most important innovation in the quest to bring bitcoin to the masses – kept his passion for the technology to himself when he first heard about it in 2011.

Yes, you heard that right. While Dryja “got hooked” on bitcoin’s vision immediately, even going on to mine a little bitcoin at his home in Japan, he tells CoinDesk he was scared at first to actually put his coding skills to work on bitcoin.

“I thought that I should not tell anyone about it because it would be illegal and I would get in trouble,” he said. And there was reason behind the concern.

Dryja’s brings up another private digital money that tried to compete with the U.S. dollar – Liberty Reserve – which ended with the founders, accused of laundering $6 billion, behind bars for their attempts.

On top of that, there was the U.S. government’s whole attempt to limit encryption, now considered a necessary part of keeping sensitive data (such as credit card information) private.

Yet, Dryja saw something unique in bitcoin.

While Liberty Reserve was “centralized,” in this case meaning managed and operated by one company, bitcoin promised to be decentralized – ie not the product of one institution, but a group effort between developers, miners, users and various other stakeholders.

And in that way, Dryja thought, bitcoin was seemingly “impossible to kill.”

Dryja recalls:

“I was like, ‘Wait this is a huge deal. This is like the biggest thing ever. How come no one cares?’ It was a little difficult to deal with that.”

But with a job producing e-learning content for medical students at Mie University in Japan, Dryja was hesitant to take his interests any further.

C-SPAN strikes

Still, he kept getting sucked in.

Dryja would read about bitcoin on his kindle from time to time on a hammock on his vegetable farm in Japan.

So, even though his boss at the university offered him another two-year contract along with a hefty raise, his heart was set on bitcoin.

“I was like ‘No I’m going back to America to do a Ph.D. I want to learn more about cryptography. I want to work on bitcoin,'” he said.

That didn’t exactly go as planned – he tried for a Ph.D. for a year in Virginia but quit the program because his professors didn’t take his interest in bitcoin seriously. But it was soon after in 2013 that Dryja got the confidence boost he needed.

That’s when the U.S. Senate held its first hearings on bitcoin, which were live-streamed on C-SPAN. Dryja happened to catch the video, which included members of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (Fincen), the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service – talking openly (and largely positively) about the technology.

Not only was no one present in handcuffs, the officials compared bitcoin to other technologies, like the internet and credit cards, that were mainstream and looked at as beneficial.

“All these government people … what was striking to me is there were sort of all okay with it. I was like, ‘Oh, everything’s okay, I guess it’s okay to work on this,’” he said.

So, Dryja went all in, working on the technology full time. In 2013, he moved to San Francisco to be in the mix of all the entrepreneurs and builders, working for a time on the much-hyped startup Mirror.

“It completely changed the direction of what I worked on. I did computers and stuff before, but I wasn’t as interested in cryptography and didn’t know as much about it,” he said, adding:

“It sort of took over my life.”

And although, he admits that he probably would have made more money sticking with regular computer programming jobs (Dryja didn’t buy bitcoin when it was only a couple dollars a coin), he doesn’t regret jumping into bitcoin at all.

“It’s sort of weird because it’s, you know, bitcoin is money, but in a lot of ways it’s not really about the money,” he said.

‘Lightning’ is Born

Dryja was the most interested in bitcoin’s limitations, namely the scaling hurdles that keep the protocol from supporting thousands of transactions per second, to compete with today’s traditional payments providers.

“Even a few days after reading about bitcoin, I realized its limitations, and was struck by the huge gap between what it could do, and what people thought it could do. This can’t do micropayments at all!,” he said, adding:

“But maybe there are other ways…”

Other bitcoin developers had long been aware of what issues this could bring about in the future and were brainstorming ways to solve the problem.

For instance, blockchain consultant and former Bitcoin Core contributor Peter Todd described a vague solution back in 2013 on the forum Bitcoin Talk: “How about you wait until we come up with an overlay network on top of bitcoin with instant transactions? It’ll happen eventually.”

And sure enough, Dryja and fellow bitcoin researcher Joseph Poon, took the initiative, turning that vague idea into a concrete proposal after meeting up at a bitcoin meetup in San Francisco.

“Joseph’s idea of using hash preimages instead of signatures seemed like an ‘aha!’ discovery,” Dryja said.

The duo worked together for six months to a year, Dryja said, thinking about how a second layer, made up of connected payment channels, could be added to bitcoin. They gathered in “cheap Chinese restaurants” and cafes around San Francisco. They whiteboarded. They took notes. They wrote.

And this back and forth resulted in the lightning network white paper released in February 2015, describing for the first time the technology now widely seen as the future of bitcoin transactions. According to the paper, by adding this kind of second layer to bitcoin, the protocol would be able to support millions of transactions per second.

Perhaps understating the importance of Poon and his work, Dryja said, “So, that was fun.”

Like Gavin Andresen?

Now, more than three years after the release of the lightning white paper, the technology is live and being utilized by enthusiasts (albeit the technology is still a bit clunky and unsafe).

More than $2 million worth of bitcoin is currently sitting in the lightning network.

And developers have been gathering at hackdays around the world to share prototypes of projects using the payment system, everything from the fun-loving like a lightning accepting candy dispenser to the more serious like a lightning powered gambling app.

Watching lightning rapidly evolve outside of academia, Dryja finds exciting, and sure enough, he’s still researching lightning in his position at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative (he also teaches a class on cryptocurrency at MIT).

Though, Dryja likened himself to Gavin Andresen, who formerly led bitcoin development but was all but pushed out of the community after taking the side of the “big blockers” during the scaling debate and concluding that controversial Australian computer scientist Craig Wright was bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator.

Dryja isn’t in control of the way lightning is being envisioned and developed anymore, with a new group of savvy developers taking the reins.

“I think it can be very difficult to, you know, be sort of in charge of a project which then you can’t be in charge of anymore,” he told CoinDesk, adding:

“I’ve sort of felt the same way with lightning. There are all these things going on, and sometimes I’m like “Wait, no, don’t do it that way!'”

As such, even though he’s still keeping an eye on lightning, he’s also working on a stealthy project called Utreexo, which has a similar goal as lightning.

Developers have long wanted to make bitcoin full nodes – which currently comprise of 200 gigabytes of data – easier to run so all users can take advantage of the security benefits of doing so.

While there are a variety of solutions being tested, Utreexo uses cryptographic proofs to bring the storage required to run a full node down to just a few kilobytes, roughly the size of an image file. There are certain drawbacks to this approach, but if Utreexo works, it could be a massive innovation for the bitcoin community – along the same lines as lightning has become.

Three possible scenarios

Even though Dryja has dedicated his life to bitcoin, he’s not quick to say it will revolutionize the world.

“The biggest tricky part for me is I don’t know what, like, normal people know about it,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to get perspective on how much impact is this really having on the world and how much do people actually know about it.”

And as such, he wonders, will it ever really impact everyday people? Sure, he thinks bitcoin will still be around in another decade and even beyond that, but he thinks there’s three scenarios that could be its legacy.

The “worst case scenario” is that bitcoin goes the route of PGP, the encryption technology used to scramble up and hide the contents of emails so that no one but the sender and receiver can read the contents.

While PGP “technically works” and is used by privacy enthusiasts and sometimes journalists talking to at-risk sources, “almost nobody uses it,” Dryja said.

The second scenario is that bitcoin goes the way of BitTorrent, a technology used by millions of people to share and download all sorts of files on the internet. It’s perhaps best-known for fueling illegal downloads of free music and movies.

While not everyone uses or even knows what BitTorrent is, the technology still has an impact (not least of which according to Dryja is it provides needed competition to streaming services).

“BitTorrent’s big enough that it affects the rest of the world,” he told CoinDesk. “We might not have Netflix if it weren’t for BitTorrent or we might not have all these kinds of streaming services because they’re competing in some sense with BitTorrent enabling people to download the movies for free. So, it’s still sort of neat.”

Bitcoin could have a similar positive impact, whereby it acts as an alternative that can be used by people in dire situations and makes it so more mainstream providers have to innovate.

The third scenario – what most bitcoin enthusiasts probably pray for – is that bitcoin becomes truly ubiquitous. It replaces traditional payment systems and takes power away from third-party incumbents who have extracted fees from users for years.

Of the scenarios, though, Dryja puts the most stake in the BitTorrent model.

And even though that’s not the most ambitious of end goals, Dryja is OK with that, saying:

“It’s still pretty cool if it reaches millions of people, but not billions of people.”