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What Is Bitcoin ? How does Bitcoin make money? How Bitcoin Works ?

What Is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a paradigmatic transformation of humanity’s oldest technology: money.

This guide is for those willing to view it through that lens.

The below is a response to professor Fabrizio Carmignani’s interview, titled “Dummy’s Guide To Crypto,” which I found was genuinely written by a dummy, for dummies.

What Is Bitcoin ?
What Is Bitcoin ?

It’s always fascinating when experts of the old comment on the new paradigm that makes their old paradigm obsolete.

The classic meme that comes to mind depicts Paul Krugman, who said that, by 2005, the internet will have no greater impact on the global economy than did the fax machine, and who also told people that bitcoin was a bubble at $1, $10, $100 and ever since.

Trying to make sense of the new using the lens of the old is about as effective as asking a car mechanic to perform heart surgery, or asking a heart surgeon to fix a car. They’re both operators of some kind, but the domains are different.

So, let’s get a Bitcoiners view on Bitcoin. Notice I said “Bitcoin,” not crypto. Why?

Because crypto is far more akin to the legacy financial system, whereas Bitcoin is an entirely new beast.

 

What Is Bitcoin ?

bitcoin
bitcoin

It’s a superior form of money that does not rely on a central authority for issuance or maintenance of the ledger. It’s a money rooted in the second law of thermodynamics, that transforms energy into a fixed, incorruptible unit of account. It’s an immutable network enforced by hundreds of thousands of nodes around the world, simultaneously. It’s a set of rules without rulers that any human can participate in voluntarily, and enforce at the level of the individual. It’s a substance that embodies each of the attributes of money (divisibility, portability, cognizability, fungibility, divisibility and scarcity), and thus perfectly performs the three functions of money:

It’s the perfect store of value because I know exactly how much I have in relationship to the whole, and I know that it cannot be diluted or altered.
It’s the perfect medium of exchange because I can send what I want, to whom I want, whenever I want and there is no power in the universe that can stop me from doing so.
It’s the perfect unit of account because it’s infinitely divisible and I can thus measure all other goods and services in it. As its purchasing power grows, one can continue to sub-divide the units to measure smaller goods and services, forever.

In other words: Money is the technology that a sentient species uses to transmit information relating to energy, time and matter. Bitcoin is a perfect money and monetary network.

Why Are Some People Attracted To It?

While I agree with professor Carmignani that crypto is just about blindly gambling, hoping to make more fiat, legacy money, those who understand Bitcoin’s raison d’être are attracted for far deeper reasons.

Not only is the legacy financial system a disaster, but more importantly, the legacy monetary system is completely broken and thermodynamically fraudulent.

Money fundamentally measures three things: time, energy and natural resources. Three fixed quantities that we cannot create out of thin air. Participants in an economy (a closed system) perform work (which is derived from time and energy) and, depending on the subjective value of the product of their labor in the marketplace, trade it for a thing called money which they can either save for future transactions or use today.

As a result, for money to function properly and to accurately measure the product of our labor, it must represent time, energy and natural resources as closely as possible. This primarily means that it should be a fixed quantity that cannot be changed or adjusted at the whim of some “ruler.” Changing the quantity moves the goalposts and distorts the game right in the middle of play.

Furthermore, because the legacy financial system assumes money equates to wealth, they just keep inflating the total amount of “money” without there being an equivalent increase in productive output or capital. As a result, we have way more money chasing the same output and capital, thus diluting the purchasing power of everyone’s money.

Their policies are impoverishing anyone who is prudent enough to work hard and save, and giving anyone who’s holding any form of hard asset the illusion that they’re getting rich.

Savings being the cornerstone of civilization, when you disincentivize it, you begin to break the foundation upon which individual humans build.

This has disastrous consequences and is the real reason why people who understand it deeply are attracted to Bitcoin (not crypto).
Do You Invest?

One does not ”invest” in a superior form of money.

In the same way that the person who holds the Zimbabwean dollar or bolívar doesn’t “invest” in USD, but flees to it as a superior money that has a better guarantee, people who understand Bitcoin are moving out of traditional government-issued currencies not as an investment but as a migration to superior money.

Traditional fiat currencies are as good as the promise and military might of those who “back” it. The world is changing. I will put my trust in the immutable laws of mathematics and universal physical laws long before I place it in the promise of some bureaucrat.
Mining

Mining is the name given to the validation process nodes on the Bitcoin network that are used to both validate transactions and, more broadly, thermodynamically secure the network.

Anyone can do it. You just need access to electricity, the internet and a computer. Yes, to produce a meaningful amount of bitcoin, you’ll need a more powerful or specialized computer, but that’s perfectly fine. The network is built on “proof of work” and the output is commensurate with the input.

Why Is Bitcoin Valuable?

For all of the reasons I mentioned above. And this is only the beginning.

Thier’s law states that good money pushes out bad money. Any sane human saves the good money while spending the inferior money. As more people understand what money is (this is severely lacking in the world) and they then discover that bitcoin is not just the best money humanity has ever had, but perfect money, they too will want to protect their wealth and measure the product of their labor in bitcoin.

This will continue for decades to come and bitcoin’s purchasing power will continue to rise.

A good way to think about it is the following:

Money is the biggest market. It represents everything.
Bitcoin is perfect money. On a long enough timescale, everyone will use it.

Bitcoin will represent not only everything there is, but everything that there ever will be.

So, technically speaking, the equation for the value of a single bitcoin is “infinity divided by 21 million”. That’s a much bigger number than today’s $30,000.
Should I Invest?

As mentioned earlier, the onus is on you to understand money first, and then Bitcoin.

This is a subject that will take you at least 1,000 hours, and likely the classic 10,000 hours of study across math, physics, economics, human action and praxeology, philosophy, anthropology and human evolution.

And that doesn’t include the technical side.

Once you’ve got a grounding in the philosophy and history of money, and you understand Bitcoin’s raison d’être, you won’t be asking this question. You will have answered it for yourself.
The Downsides

The only real downside that exists is being the one holding the equivalent of “sea shells,” whilst everyone is using gold.

From an evolutionary perspective, Bitcoin will do to fiat money what gold did to all other monies, including shells, rocks, stones and salt. Except that it will compress 5,000 years into a few decades.

There is a lot of talk about “energy consumption bad,” and while I’d love to debunk that here, I don’t have the space. So, I hope the following suffices:

Money is central to the operation of civilization and the capacity for free individuals to perform work and store the product of their labor. As humans, we’ve built huge edifices in order to enable money to function, such that society can operate. The latest incarnation is the fiat system which requires the collective energy use of the military industrial complex, the entire global banking system, payments systems, legal systems, courts, buildings and infrastructure, manned by millions of people just to maintain.

Bitcoin can do the same job, in a way that is orders of magnitude better, and with the same rules for everyone, for the same energy usage as what we as humans collectively use for washing machines, driers and toasters.

There is nothing more important today for the environment, equality of global economic opportunity, the transformation of the economic system and the clean up of the financial system that impacts us all, than the move into Bitcoin.

Human action is the basis of speech. I’ve said this on many a podcast: “Don’t tell me what you believe, show me your bank account and I’ll tell you what you believe.” In a world where money is controlled, there is no freedom of speech, nor freedom of individual action. That’s not a world we want to leave to our kin.

So, yes, you will become wealthy by being in Bitcoin early, in much the same way as anyone who found gold early on and held onto it saw their purchasing power increase. But more importantly, you will be accomplishing a historical good and a moral duty by moving into a better, fairer, sounder money.

 

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Bitcoin (₿)

is a decentralized digital currency, without a central bank or single administrator, that can be sent from user to user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network without the need for intermediaries.

Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. The cryptocurrency was invented in 2008 by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto.

The currency began use in 2009 when its implementation was released as open-source software.

Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services, but the real-world value of the coins is extremely volatile.

Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimated that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin. Users choose to participate in the digital currency for a number of reasons: ideologies such as commitment to anarchism, decentralization and libertarianism, convenience, using the currency as an investment and pseudonymity of transactions. Increased use has led to a desire among governments for regulation in order to tax, facilitate legal use in trade and for other reasons (such as investigations for money laundering and price manipulation).

Bitcoin has been criticized for its use in illegal transactions, the large amount of electricity (and thus carbon footprint) used by mining, price volatility, and thefts from exchanges. Some economists and commentators have characterized it as a speculative bubble at various times. Bitcoin has also been used as an investment, although several regulatory agencies have issued investor alerts about bitcoin.

The word bitcoin was defined in a white paper published on 31 October 2008. It is a compound of the words bit and coin. No uniform convention for bitcoin capitalization exists; some sources use Bitcoin, capitalized, to refer to the technology and network and bitcoin, lowercase, for the unit of account. The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Oxford English Dictionary advocate the use of lowercase bitcoin in all cases.

 

How Bitcoin Works ?

How exactly to categorize Bitcoin is a matter of controversy. Is it a type of currency, a store of value, a payment network or an asset class?

Fortunately, it’s easier to define what Bitcoin actually is. It’s software. Don’t be fooled by stock images of shiny coins emblazoned with modified Thai baht symbols. Bitcoin is a purely digital phenomenon, a set of protocols and processes.

It also is the most successful of hundreds of attempts to create virtual money through the use of cryptography, the science of making and breaking codes. Bitcoin has inspired hundreds of imitators, but it remains the largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, a distinction it has held throughout its decade-plus history.

(A general note: according to the Bitcoin Foundation, the word “Bitcoin” is capitalized when it refers to the cryptocurrency as an entity, and it is given as “bitcoin” when it refers to a quantity of the currency or the units themselves. Bitcoin is also abbreviated as “BTC.” Throughout this article, we will alternate between these usages.)

Bitcoin is a digital currency, a decentralized system which records transactions in a distributed ledger called a blockchain.

Bitcoin miners run complex computer rigs to solve complicated puzzles in an effort to confirm groups of transactions called blocks; upon success, these blocks are added to the blockchain record and the miners are rewarded with a small number of bitcoins.
Other participants in the Bitcoin market can buy or sell tokens through cryptocurrency exchanges or peer-to-peer.
The Bitcoin ledger is protected against fraud via a trustless system; Bitcoin exchanges also work to defend themselves against potential theft, but high-profile thefts have occurred.

what is Blockchain ?

Bitcoin is a network that runs on a protocol known as the blockchain.

A 2008 paper by a person or people calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto first described both the blockchain and Bitcoin and for a while the two terms were all but synonymous.

The blockchain​ has since evolved into a separate concept, and thousands of blockchains have been created using similar cryptographic techniques. This history can make the nomenclature confusing. Blockchain sometimes refers to the original, Bitcoin blockchain. At other times it refers to blockchain technology in general, or to any other specific blockchain, such as the one that powers Ethereum​.

The basics of blockchain technology are mercifully straightforward. Any given blockchain consists of a single chain of discrete blocks of information, arranged chronologically. In principle this information can be any string of 1s and 0s, meaning it could include emails, contracts, land titles, marriage certificates, or bond trades. In theory, any type of contract between two parties can be established on a blockchain as long as both parties agree on the contract. This takes away any need for a third party to be involved in any contract. This opens a world of possibilities including peer-to-peer financial products, like loans or decentralized savings and checking accounts, where banks or any intermediary is irrelevant.

While Bitcoin’s current goal is a store of value as well as a payment system, there is nothing to say that Bitcoin could not be used in such a way in the future, though consensus would need to be reached to add these systems to Bitcoin. The main goal of the Ethereum project is to have a platform where these “smart contracts” can occur, therefore creating a whole realm of decentralized financial products without any middlemen and the fees and potential data breaches that come along with them.

This versatility has caught the eye of governments and private corporations; indeed, some analysts believe that blockchain technology will ultimately be the most impactful aspect of the cryptocurrency craze.

In Bitcoin’s case, though, the information on the blockchain is mostly transactions.

Bitcoin is really just a list. Person A sent X bitcoin to person B, who sent Y bitcoin to person C, etc. By tallying these transactions up, everyone knows where individual users stand. It’s important to note that these transactions do not necessarily need to be done from human to human.

Anything can access and use the Bitcoin network and your ethnicity, gender, religion, species, or political leaning are completely irrelevant. This creates vast possibilities for the internet of things. In the future, we could see systems where self-driving taxis or uber vehicles have their own blockchain wallets. The car would be sent cryptocurrency from the passenger and would not move until funds are received. The vehicle would be able to assess when it needs fuel and would use its wallet to facilitate a refill.

Another name for a blockchain is a “distributed ledger,” which emphasizes the key difference between this technology and a well-kept Word document. Bitcoin’s blockchain is distributed, meaning that it is public. Anyone can download it in its entirety or go to any number of sites that parse it. This means that the record is publicly available, but it also means that there are complicated measures in place for updating the blockchain ledger. There is no central authority to keep tabs on all bitcoin transactions, so the participants themselves do so by creating and verifying “blocks” of transaction data. See the section on “Mining” below for more information.

You can see, for example, that 15N3yGu3UFHeyUNdzQ5sS3aRFRzu5Ae7EZ sent 0.01718427 bitcoin to 1JHG2qjdk5Khiq7X5xQrr1wfigepJEK3t on August 14, 2017, between 11:10 and 11:20 a.m. The long strings of numbers and letters are addresses, and if you were in law enforcement or just very well-informed, you could probably figure out who controlled them. It is a misconception that Bitcoin’s network is totally anonymous although taking certain precautions can make it very hard to link individuals to transactions.

Post-Trust

Despite being absolutely public, or rather because of that fact, Bitcoin is extremely difficult to tamper with. A bitcoin has no physical presence, so you can’t protect it by locking it in a safe or burying it in the woods.

In theory, all a thief would need to do to take it from you would be to add a line to the ledger that translates to “you paid me everything you have.”

A related worry is double-spending. If a bad actor could spend some bitcoin, then spend it again, confidence in the currency’s value would quickly evaporate. To achieve a double-spend the bad actor would need to make up 51% of the mining power of Bitcoin. The larger the Bitcoin network grows the less realistic this becomes as the computing power needed would be astronomical and extremely expensive.

To further prevent either from happening, you need trust. In this case, the accustomed solution with traditional currency would be to transact through a central, neutral arbiter such as a bank. Bitcoin has made that unnecessary, however. (It is probably not a coincidence Satoshi’s original description was published in October 2008, when trust in banks was at a multigenerational low. This is a recurring theme in today’s coronavirus climate and growing government debt.) Rather than having a reliable authority keep the ledger and preside over the network, the bitcoin network is decentralized. Everyone keeps an eye on everyone else.

No one needs to know or trust anyone in particular in order for the system to operate correctly. Assuming everything is working as intended, the cryptographic protocols ensure that each block of transactions is bolted onto the last in a long, transparent, and immutable chain.

what is Mining ?

The process that maintains this trustless public ledger is known as mining. Undergirding the network of Bitcoin users who trade the cryptocurrency among themselves is a network of miners, who record these transactions on the blockchain.

Recording a string of transactions is trivial for a modern computer, but mining is difficult because Bitcoin’s software makes the process artificially time-consuming. Without the added difficulty, people could spoof transactions to enrich themselves or bankrupt other people. They could log a fraudulent transaction in the blockchain and pile so many trivial transactions on top of it that untangling the fraud would become impossible.

By the same token, it would be easy to insert fraudulent transactions into past blocks. The network would become a sprawling, spammy mess of competing ledgers, and bitcoin would be worthless.

Combining “proof of work” with other cryptographic techniques was Satoshi’s breakthrough. Bitcoin’s software adjusts the difficulty miners face in order to limit the network to one new 1-megabyte block of transactions every 10 minutes. That way the volume of transactions is digestible. The network has time to vet the new block and the ledger that precedes it, and everyone can reach a consensus about the status quo. Miners do not work to verify transactions by adding blocks to the distributed ledger purely out of a desire to see the Bitcoin network run smoothly; they are compensated for their work as well. We’ll take a closer look at mining compensation below.

what is Halving ?

As previously mentioned, miners are rewarded with Bitcoin for verifying blocks of transactions. This reward is cut in half every 210,000 blocks mined, or, about every four years. This event is called the halving or the “halvening.” The system is built-in as a deflationary one, where the rate at which new Bitcoin is released into circulation.

This process is designed so that rewards for Bitcoin mining will continue until about 2140. Once all Bitcoin is mined from the code and all halvings are finished, the miners will remain incentivized by fees that they will charge network users. The hope is that healthy competition will keep fees low.

This system drives up Bitcoin’s stock-to-flow ratio and lowers its inflation until it is eventually zero. After the third halving that took place on May 11th, 2020, the reward for each block mined is now 6.25 Bitcoins.

Hashes

Here is a slightly more technical description of how mining works. The network of miners, who are scattered across the globe and not bound to each other by personal or professional ties, receives the latest batch of transaction data. They run the data through a cryptographic algorithm that generates a “hash,” a string of numbers and letters that verifies the information’s validity but does not reveal the information itself. (In reality, this ideal vision of decentralized mining is no longer accurate, with industrial-scale mining farms and powerful mining pools forming an oligopoly. More on that below.)

Given the hash

000000000000000000c2c4d562265f272bd55d64f1a7c22ffeb66e15e826ca30, you cannot know what transactions the relevant block (#480504) contains. You can, however, take a bunch of data purporting to be block #480504 and make sure that it has not been tampered with. If one number were out of place, no matter how insignificant, the data would generate a totally different hash. As an example, if you were to run the Declaration of Independence through a hash calculator, you might get 839f561caa4b466c84e2b4809afe116c76a465ce5da68c3370f5c36bd3f67350. Delete the period after the words “submitted to a candid world,” though, and you get 800790e4fd445ca4c5e3092f9884cdcd4cf536f735ca958b93f60f82f23f97c4. This is a completely different hash, although you’ve only changed one character in the original text.

The hash technology allows the Bitcoin network to instantly check the validity of a block. It would be incredibly time-consuming to comb through the entire ledger to make sure that the person mining the most recent batch of transactions hasn’t tried anything funny. Instead, the previous block’s hash appears within the new block. If the most minute detail had been altered in the previous block, that hash would change. Even if the alteration was 20,000 blocks back in the chain, that block’s hash would set off a cascade of new hashes and tip off the network.

Generating a hash is not really work, though. The process is so quick and easy that bad actors could still spam the network and perhaps, given enough computing power, pass off fraudulent transactions a few blocks back in the chain. So the Bitcoin protocol requires proof of work.

It does so by throwing miners a curveball: Their hash must be below a certain target. That’s why block #480504’s hash starts with a long string of zeroes. It’s tiny. Since every string of data will generate one and only one hash, the quest for a sufficiently small one involves adding nonces (“numbers used once”) to the end of the data. So a miner will run [thedata]. If the hash is too big, she will try again. [thedata]1. Still too big. [thedata]2. Finally, [thedata]93452 yields her a hash beginning with the requisite number of zeroes.

Bitcoin Transactions

For most individuals participating in the Bitcoin network, the ins and outs of the blockchain, hash rates and mining are not particularly relevant. Outside of the mining community, Bitcoin owners usually purchase their cryptocurrency supply through a Bitcoin exchange. These are online platforms that facilitate transactions of Bitcoin and, often, other digital currencies.

Bitcoin exchanges such as Coinbase bring together market participants from around the world to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. These exchanges have been both increasingly popular (as Bitcoin’s popularity itself has grown in recent years) and fraught with regulatory, legal and security challenges. With governments around the world viewing cryptocurrencies in various ways – as currency, as an asset class, or any number of other classifications – the regulations governing the buying and selling of bitcoins are complex and constantly shifting.

Perhaps even more important for Bitcoin exchange participants than the threat of changing regulatory oversight, however, is that of theft and other criminal activity. While the Bitcoin network itself has largely been secure throughout its history, individual exchanges are not necessarily the same. Many thefts have targeted high-profile cryptocurrency exchanges, oftentimes resulting in the loss of millions of dollars worth of tokens. The most famous exchange theft is likely Mt. Gox, which dominated the Bitcoin transaction space up through 2014. Early in that year, the platform announced the probable theft of roughly 850,000 BTC worth close to $450 million at the time. Mt. Gox filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its doors; to this day, the majority of that stolen bounty (which would now be worth a total of about $8 billion) has not been recovered.

Keys and Wallets

For these reasons, it’s understandable that Bitcoin traders and owners will want to take any possible security measures to protect their holdings. To do so, they utilize keys and wallets.

Bitcoin ownership essentially boils down to two numbers, a public key and a private key. A rough analogy is a username (public key) and a password (private key). A hash of the public key called an address is the one displayed on the blockchain. Using the hash provides an extra layer of security.

To receive bitcoin, it’s enough for the sender to know your address. The public key is derived from the private key, which you need to send bitcoin to another address. The system makes it easy to receive money but requires verification of identity to send it.

To access bitcoin, you use a wallet, which is a set of keys. These can take different forms, from third-party web applications offering insurance and debit cards, to QR codes printed on pieces of paper. The most important distinction is between “hot” wallets, which are connected to the internet and therefore vulnerable to hacking, and “cold” wallets, which are not connected to the internet. In the Mt. Gox case above, it is believed that most of the BTC stolen were taken from a hot wallet. Still, many users entrust their private keys to cryptocurrency exchanges, which essentially is a bet that those exchanges will have stronger defense against the possibility of theft than one’s own computer.

Due to the size of Bitcoin’s network and how fast it is growing, the cost to pull off such a feat would probably be insurmountable. Not only would this be extremely expensive, but it would also likely be fruitless. Doing such a thing would not go unnoticed, as network members would see such drastic alterations to the blockchain. The network members would then fork off to a new version of the chain that has not been affected.

This would cause the attacked version of Bitcoin to plummet in value, making the attack ultimately pointless as the bad actor has control of a worthless asset. The same would occur if the bad actor were to attack the new fork of Bitcoin. It is built this way so that taking part in the network is far more economically incentivized than attacking it.

Bitcoin vs. Blockchain

The goal of blockchain is to allow digital information to be recorded and distributed, but not edited. Blockchain technology was first outlined in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, two researchers who wanted to implement a system where document timestamps could not be tampered with. But it wasn’t until almost two decades later, with the launch of Bitcoin in January 2009, that blockchain had its first real-world application.

The Bitcoin protocol is built on a blockchain. In a research paper introducing the digital currency, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, referred to it as “a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party.”

The key thing to understand here is that Bitcoin merely uses blockchain as a means to transparently record a ledger of payments, but blockchain can, in theory, be used to immutably record any number of data points. As discussed above, this could be in the form of transactions, votes in an election, product inventories, state identifications, deeds to homes, and much more.

Currently, there is a vast variety of blockchain-based projects looking to implement blockchain in ways to help society other than just recording transactions. One good example is that of blockchain being used as a way to vote in democratic elections. The nature of blockchain’s immutability means that fraudulent voting would become far more difficult to occur.

For example, a voting system could work such that each citizen of a country would be issued a single cryptocurrency or token. Each candidate would then be given a specific wallet address, and the voters would send their token or crypto to whichever candidate’s address they wish to vote for. The transparent and traceable nature of blockchain would eliminate the need for human vote counting as well as the ability of bad actors to tamper with physical ballots.
Blockchain vs. Banks

Banks and decentralized blockchains are vastly different. To see how a bank differs from blockchain, let’s compare the banking system to Bitcoin’s implementation of blockchain.

 

How is Blockchain Used?

As we now know, blocks on Bitcoin’s blockchain store data about monetary transactions. But it turns out that blockchain is actually a reliable way of storing data about other types of transactions, as well.

Some companies that have already incorporated blockchain include Walmart, Pfizer, AIG, Siemens, Unilever, and a host of others. For example, IBM has created its Food Trust blockchain1 to trace the journey that food products take to get to its locations.

Why do this? The food industry has seen countless outbreaks of e Coli, salmonella, listeria, as well as hazardous materials being accidentally introduced to foods. In the past, it has taken weeks to find the source of these outbreaks or the cause of sickness from what people are eating.

Using blockchain gives brands the ability to track a food product’s route from its origin, through each stop it makes, and finally its delivery. If a food is found to be contaminated then it can be traced all the way back through each stop to its origin. Not only that, but these companies can also now see everything else it may have come in contact with, allowing the identification of the problem to occur far sooner, potentially saving lives. This is one example of blockchains in practice, but there are many other forms of blockchain implementation.

Banking and Fin

ance

Perhaps no industry stands to benefit from integrating blockchain into its business operations more than banking. Financial institutions only operate during business hours, five days a week. That means if you try to deposit a check on Friday at 6 p.m., you will likely have to wait until Monday morning to see that money hit your account. Even if you do make your deposit during business hours, the transaction can still take one to three days to verify due to the sheer volume of transactions that banks need to settle. Blockchain, on the other hand, never sleeps.

By integrating blockchain into banks, consumers can see their transactions processed in as little as 10 minutes,2 basically the time it takes to add a block to the blockchain, regardless of holidays or the time of day or week. With blockchain, banks also have the opportunity to exchange funds between institutions more quickly and securely. In the stock trading business, for example, the settlement and clearing process can take up to three days (or longer, if trading internationally), meaning that the money and shares are frozen for that period of time.

Given the size of the sums involved, even the few days that the money is in transit can carry significant costs and risks for banks. European bank Santander and its research partners put the potential savings at $15 billion to $20 billion a year.3 Capgemini, a French consultancy, estimates that consumers could save up to $16 billion in banking and insurance fees each year4 through blockchain-based applications.

Currency

Blockchain forms the bedrock for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The U.S. dollar is controlled by the Federal Reserve. Under this central authority system, a user’s data and currency are technically at the whim of their bank or government. If a user’s bank is hacked, the client’s private information is at risk. If the client’s bank collapses or they live in a country with an unstable government, the value of their currency may be at risk. In 2008, some of the banks that ran out of money were bailed out partially using taxpayer money. These are the worries out of which Bitcoin was first conceived and developed.

By spreading its operations across a network of computers, blockchain allows Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to operate without the need for a central authority. This not only reduces risk but also eliminates many of the processing and transaction fees. It can also give those in countries with unstable currencies or financial infrastructures a more stable currency with more applications and a wider network of individuals and institutions they can do business with, both domestically and internationally.

Using cryptocurrency wallets for savings accounts or as a means of payment is especially profound for those who have no state identification. Some countries may be war-torn or have governments that lack any real infrastructure to provide identification. Citizens of such countries may not have access to savings or brokerage accounts and therefore, no way to safely store wealth.

Healthcare

Health care providers can leverage blockchain to securely store their patients’ medical records. When a medical record is generated and signed, it can be written into the blockchain, which provides patients with the proof and confidence that the record cannot be changed. These personal health records could be encoded and stored on the blockchain with a private key, so that they are only accessible by certain individuals, thereby ensuring privacy.

Records of Property

If you have ever spent time in your local Recorder’s Office, you will know that the process of recording property rights is both burdensome and inefficient. Today, a physical deed must be delivered to a government employee at the local recording office, where it is manually entered into the county’s central database and public index. In the case of a property dispute, claims to the property must be reconciled with the public index.

This process is not just costly and time-consuming—it is also riddled with human error, where each inaccuracy makes tracking property ownership less efficient. Blockchain has the potential to eliminate the need for scanning documents and tracking down physical files in a local recording office. If property ownership is stored and verified on the blockchain, owners can trust that their deed is accurate and permanently recorded.

In war-torn countries or areas that have little to no government or financial infrastructure, and certainly no “Recorder’s Office,” it can be nearly impossible to prove ownership of a property. If a group of people living in such an area is able to leverage blockchain, transparent and clear timelines of property ownership could be established.

Smart Contracts

A smart contract is a computer code that can be built into the blockchain to facilitate, verify, or negotiate a contract agreement. Smart contracts operate under a set of conditions that users agree to. When those conditions are met, the terms of the agreement are automatically carried out.

Say, for example, a potential tenant would like to lease an apartment using a smart contract. The landlord agrees to give the tenant the door code to the apartment as soon as the tenant pays the security deposit. Both the tenant and the landlord would send their respective portions of the deal to the smart contract, which would hold onto and automatically exchange the door code for the security deposit on the date the lease begins. If the landlord doesn’t supply the door code by the lease date, the smart contract refunds the security deposit. This would eliminate the fees and processes typically associated with the use of a notary, third-party mediator, or attornies.

Supply Chains

As in the IBM Food Trust example, suppliers can use blockchain to record the origins of materials that they have purchased. This would allow companies to verify the authenticity of their products, along with such common labels as “Organic,” “Local,” and “Fair Trade.”

As reported by Forbes, the food industry is increasingly adopting the use of blockchain to track the path and safety of food throughout the farm-to-user journey.

Voting

As mentioned, blockchain could be used to facilitate a modern voting system. Voting with blockchain carries the potential to eliminate election fraud and boost voter turnout, as was tested in the November 2018 midterm elections in West Virginia.Using blockchain in this way would make votes nearly impossible to tamper with. The blockchain protocol would also maintain transparency in the electoral process, reducing the personnel needed to conduct an election and providing officials with nearly instant results. This would eliminate the need for recounts or any real concern that fraud might threaten the election.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Blockchain

For all of its complexity, blockchain’s potential as a decentralized form of record-keeping is almost without limit. From greater user privacy and heightened security to lower processing fees and fewer errors, blockchain technology may very well see applications beyond those outlined above. But there are also some disadvantages.

Advantages of Blockchain

Accuracy of the Chain

Transactions on the blockchain network are approved by a network of thousands of computers. This removes almost all human involvement in the verification process, resulting in less human error and an accurate record of information. Even if a computer on the network were to make a computational mistake, the error would only be made to one copy of the blockchain. In order for that error to spread to the rest of the blockchain, it would need to be made by at least 51% of the network’s computers—a near impossibility for a large and growing network the size of Bitcoin’s.

Cost Reductions

Typically, consumers pay a bank to verify a transaction, a notary to sign a document, or a minister to perform a marriage. Blockchain eliminates the need for third-party verification and, with it, their associated costs. Business owners incur a small fee whenever they accept payments using credit cards, for example, because banks and payment processing companies have to process those transactions. Bitcoin, on the other hand, does not have a central authority and has limited transaction fees.

Decentralization

Blockchain does not store any of its information in a central location. Instead, the blockchain is copied and spread across a network of computers. Whenever a new block is added to the blockchain, every computer on the network updates its blockchain to reflect the change. By spreading that information across a network, rather than storing it in one central database, blockchain becomes more difficult to tamper with. If a copy of the blockchain fell into the hands of a hacker, only a single copy of the information, rather than the entire network, would be compromised.

Efficient Transactions

Transactions placed through a central authority can take up to a few days to settle. If you attempt to deposit a check on Friday evening, for example, you may not actually see funds in your account until Monday morning. Whereas financial institutions operate during business hours, five days a week, blockchain is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Transactions can be completed in as little as ten minutes and can be considered secure after just a few hours. This is particularly useful for cross-border trades, which usually take much longer because of time-zone issues and the fact that all parties must confirm payment processing.

Private Transactions

Many blockchain networks operate as public databases, meaning that anyone with an internet connection can view a list of the network’s transaction history. Although users can access details about transactions, they cannot access identifying information about the users making those transactions. It is a common misperception that blockchain networks like bitcoin are anonymous, when in fact they are only confidential.

That is, when a user makes public transactions, their unique code called a public key, is recorded on the blockchain, rather than their personal information. If a person has made a Bitcoin purchase on an exchange that requires identification then the person’s identity is still linked to their blockchain address, but a transaction, even when tied to a person’s name, does not reveal any personal information.

Secure Transactions

Once a transaction is recorded, its authenticity must be verified by the blockchain network. Thousands of computers on the blockchain rush to confirm that the details of the purchase are correct. After a computer has validated the transaction, it is added to the blockchain block. Each block on the blockchain contains its own unique hash, along with the unique hash of the block before it. When the information on a block is edited in any way, that block’s hashcode changes—however, the hash code on the block after it would not. This discrepancy makes it extremely difficult for information on the blockchain to be changed without notice.
Transparency

Most blockchains are entirely open-source software. This means that anyone and everyone can view its code. This gives auditors the ability to review cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin for security. This also means that there is no real authority on who controls Bitcoin’s code or how it is edited. Because of this, anyone can suggest changes or upgrades to the system. If a majority of the network users agree that the new version of the code with the upgrade is sound and worthwhile then Bitcoin can be updated.

Banking the Unbanked

Perhaps the most profound facet of blockchain and Bitcoin is the ability for anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or cultural background, to use it. According to the world bank there are nearly 2 billion adults that do not have bank accounts or any means of storing their money or wealth.5 Nearly all of these individuals live in developing countries where the economy is in its infancy and entirely dependent on cash.

These people often earn little money that is paid in physical cash. They then need to store this physical cash in hidden locations in their homes or places of living leaving them subject to robbery or unnecessary violence. Keys to a bitcoin wallet can be stored on a piece of paper, a cheap cell phone, or even memorized if necessary. For most people, it is likely that these options are more easily hidden than a small pile of cash under a mattress.

Blockchains of the future are also looking for solutions to not only be a unit of account for wealth storage, but also to store medical records, property rights, and a variety of other legal contracts.
Disadvantages of Blockchain

While there are significant upsides to the blockchain, there are also significant challenges to its adoption. The roadblocks to the application of blockchain technology today are not just technical. The real challenges are political and regulatory, for the most part, to say nothing of the thousands of hours (read: money) of custom software design and back-end programming required to integrate blockchain to current business networks. Here are some of the challenges standing in the way of widespread blockchain adoption.
Technology Cost

Although blockchain can save users money on transaction fees, the technology is far from free. The “proof of work” system that bitcoin uses to validate transactions, for example, consumes vast amounts of computational power. In the real world, the power from the millions of computers on the bitcoin network is close to what Denmark consumes annually. Assuming electricity costs of $0.03~$0.05 per kilowatt-hour, mining costs exclusive of hardware expenses are about $5,000~$7,000 per coin.10

Despite the costs of mining bitcoin, users continue to drive up their electricity bills in order to validate transactions on the blockchain. That’s because when miners add a block to the bitcoin blockchain, they are rewarded with enough bitcoin to make their time and energy worthwhile. When it comes to blockchains that do not use cryptocurrency, however, miners will need to be paid or otherwise incentivized to validate transactions.

Some solutions to these issues are beginning to arise. For example, bitcoin mining farms have been set up to use solar power, excess natural gas from fracking sites, or power from wind farms.
Speed Inefficiency

Bitcoin is a perfect case study for the possible inefficiencies of blockchain. Bitcoin’s “proof of work” system takes about ten minutes to add a new block to the blockchain. At that rate, it’s estimated that the blockchain network can only manage about seven transactions per second (TPS). Although other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum perform better than bitcoin, they are still limited by blockchain. Legacy brand Visa, for context, can process 24,000 TPS.

Solutions to this issue have been in development for years. There are currently blockchains that are boasting over 30,000 transactions per second.

Illegal Activity

While confidentiality on the blockchain network protects users from hacks and preserves privacy, it also allows for illegal trading and activity on the blockchain network. The most cited example of blockchain being used for illicit transactions is probably the Silk Road, an online “dark web” drug marketplace operating from February 2011 until October 2013 when it was shut down by the FBI.6

The website allowed users to browse the website without being tracked using the Tor browser and make illegal purchases in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Current U.S. regulations require financial service providers to obtain information about their customers when they open an account, verify the identity of each customer, and confirm that customers do not appear on any list of known or suspected terrorist organizations. This system can be seen as both a pro and a con. It gives anyone access to financial accounts but also allows criminals to more easily transact. Many have argued that the good uses of crypto, like banking the unbanked world, outweigh the bad uses of cryptocurrency, especially when most illegal activity is still accomplished through untraceable cash.

Regulation

Many in the crypto space have expressed concerns about government regulation over cryptocurrencies. While it is getting increasingly difficult and near impossible to end something like Bitcoin as its decentralized network grows, governments could theoretically make it illegal to own cryptocurrencies or participate in their networks.

Over time this concern has grown smaller as large companies like PayPal begin to allow the ownership and use of cryptocurrencies on its platform.

What’s Next for Blockchain?

First proposed as a research project in 1991,7 blockchain is comfortably settling into its late twenties. Like most millennials its age, blockchain has seen its fair share of public scrutiny over the last two decades, with businesses around the world speculating about what the technology is capable of and where it’s headed in the years to come.

With many practical applications for the technology already being implemented and explored, blockchain is finally making a name for itself at age twenty-seven, in no small part because of bitcoin and cryptocurrency. As a buzzword on the tongue of every investor in the nation, blockchain stands to make business and government operations more accurate, efficient, secure, and cheap with fewer middlemen.

 

What is Blockchain?

Blockchain, sometimes referred to as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), makes the history of any digital asset unalterable and transparent through the use of decentralization and cryptographic hashing.

blockchain
blockchain

A simple analogy for understanding blockchain technology is a Google Doc. When we create a document and share it with a group of people, the document is distributed instead of copied or transferred. This creates a decentralized distribution chain that gives everyone access to the document at the same time. No one is locked out awaiting changes from another party, while all modifications to the doc are being recorded in real-time, making changes completely transparent.

Of course, blockchain is more complicated than a Google Doc, but the analogy is apt because it illustrates three critical ideas of the technology:

Blockchain Explained: A Quick Overview

A blockchain is a database that stores encrypted blocks of data then chains them together to form a chronological single-source-of-truth for the data
Digital assets are distributed instead of copied or transferred, creating an immutable record of an asset
The asset is decentralized, allowing full real-time access and transparency to the public
A transparent ledger of changes preserves integrity of the document, which creates trust in the asset.
Blockchain’s inherent security measures and public ledger make it a prime technology for almost every single sector

Blockchain is an especially promising and revolutionary technology because it helps reduce risk, stamps out fraud and brings transparency in a scaleable way for myriad uses.

How Does Blockchain Work?

The whole point of using a blockchain is to let people — in particular, people who don’t trust one another — share valuable data in a secure, tamperproof way.

Blockchain consists of three important concepts: blocks, nodes and miners.

Blocks

Every chain consists of multiple blocks and each block has three basic elements:

The data in the block.
A 32-bit whole number called a nonce. The nonce is randomly generated when a block is created, which then generates a block header hash.
The hash is a 256-bit number wedded to the nonce. It must start with a huge number of zeroes (i.e., be extremely small).

When the first block of a chain is created, a nonce generates the cryptographic hash. The data in the block is considered signed and forever tied to the nonce and hash unless it is mined.

Miners

Miners create new blocks on the chain through a process called mining.

In a blockchain every block has its own unique nonce and hash, but also references the hash of the previous block in the chain, so mining a block isn’t easy, especially on large chains.

Miners use special software to solve the incredibly complex math problem of finding a nonce that generates an accepted hash. Because the nonce is only 32 bits and the hash is 256, there are roughly four billion possible nonce-hash combinations that must be mined before the right one is found. When that happens miners are said to have found the “golden nonce” and their block is added to the chain.

Making a change to any block earlier in the chain requires re-mining not just the block with the change, but all of the blocks that come after. This is why it’s extremely difficult to manipulate blockchain technology. Think of it is as “safety in math” since finding golden nonces requires an enormous amount of time and computing power.

When a block is successfully mined, the change is accepted by all of the nodes on the network and the miner is rewarded financially.

Nodes

One of the most important concepts in blockchain technology is decentralization. No one computer or organization can own the chain. Instead, it is a distributed ledger via the nodes connected to the chain. Nodes can be any kind of electronic device that maintains copies of the blockchain and keeps the network functioning.

Every node has its own copy of the blockchain and the network must algorithmically approve any newly mined block for the chain to be updated, trusted and verified. Since blockchains are transparent, every action in the ledger can be easily checked and viewed. Each participant is given a unique alphanumeric identification number that shows their transactions.

Combining public information with a system of checks-and-balances helps the blockchain maintain integrity and creates trust among users. Essentially, blockchains can be thought of as the scaleability of trust via technology.

Cryptocurrencies: The Beginning of Blockchain’s Technological Rise

Blockchain’s most well-known use (and maybe most controversial) is in cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies (or tokens), like Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin, that can be used to buy goods and services. Just like a digital form of cash, crypto can be used to buy everything from your lunch to your next home. Unlike cash, crypto uses blockchain to act as both a public ledger and an enhanced cryptographic security system, so online transactions are always recorded and secured.

How Does Cryptocurrency Work?

Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that use blockchain technology to record and secure every transaction. A cryptocurrency (for example, Bitcoin) can be used as a digital form of cash to pay for everything from everyday items to larger purchases like cars and homes. It can be bought using one of several digital wallets or trading platforms, then digitally transferred upon purchase of an item, with the blockchain recording the transaction and the new owner. The appeal of cryptocurrencies is that everything is recorded in a public ledger and secured using cryptography, making an irrefutable, timestamped and secure record of every payment.

To date, there are roughly 6,700 cryptocurrencies in the world that have a total market cap around $1.6 trillion, with Bitcoin holding a majority of the value. These tokens have become incredibly popular over the last few years, with one Bitcoin equaling $60,000. Here are some of the main reasons why everyone is suddenly taking notice of cryptocurrencies:

Blockchain’s security makes theft much harder since each cryptocurrency has its own irrefutable identifiable number that is attached to one owner.
Crypto reduces the need for individualized currencies and central banks- With blockchain, crypto can be sent to anywhere and anyone in the world without the need for currency exchanging or without interference from central banks.
Cryptocurrencies can make some people rich- Speculators have been driving up the price of crypto, especially Bitcoin, helping some early adopters to become billionaires. Whether this is actually a positive has yet to be seen, as some retractors believe that speculators do not have the long-term benefits of crypto in mind.

More and more large corporations are coming around to the idea of a blockchain-based digital currency for payments. In February 2021, Tesla famously announced that it would invest $1.5 billion into Bitcoin and accept it as payment for their cars.

Of course, there are many legitimate arguments against blockchain-based digital currencies. First, crypto isn’t a very regulated market. Many governments were quick to jump into crypto, but few have a staunch set of codified laws regarding it. Additionally, crypto is incredibly volatile due to those aforementioned speculators. In 2016, Bitcoin was priced around $450 per token. It then jumped to about $16,000 a token in 2018, dipped to around $3,100, then has since increased to more than $60,000. Lack of stability has caused some people to get very rich, while a majority have still lost thousands.

Whether or not digital currencies are the future remains to be seen. For now, it seems as if blockchain’s meteoric rise is more starting to take root in reality than pure hype. Though it’s still making headway in this entirely-new, highly-exploratory field, blockchain is also showing promise beyond Bitcoin.

Beyond Bitcoin: Ethereum Blockchain

Originally created as the ultra-transparent ledger system for Bitcoin to operate on, blockchain has long been associated with cryptocurrency, but the technology’s transparency and security has seen growing adoption in a number of areas, much of which can be traced back to the development of the Ethereum blockchain.

In late 2013, Russian-Canadian developer Vitalik Buterin published a white paper that proposed a platform combining traditional blockchain functionality with one key difference: the execution of computer code. Thus, the Ethereum Project was born.

Ethereum blockchain lets developers create sophisticated programs that can communicate with one another on the blockchain.

Tokens

Ethereum programmers can create tokens to represent any kind of digital asset, track its ownership and execute its functionality according to a set of programming instructions.

Tokens can be music files, contracts, concert tickets or even a patient’s medical records. Most recently, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have become all the rage. NFTs are unique blockchain-based tokens that store digital media (like a video, music or art). Each NFT has the ability to verify authenticity, past history and sole ownership of the piece of digital media. NFTs have become wildly popular because they offer a new wave of digital creators the ability to buy and sell their creation, while getting proper credit and a fair share of profits.

Newfound uses for blockchain have broadened the potential of the ledger technology to permeate other sectors like media, government and identity security. Thousands of companies are currently researching and developing products and ecosystems that run entirely on the burgeoning technology.

Blockchain is challenging the current status quo of innovation by letting companies experiment with groundbreaking technology like peer-to-peer energy distribution or decentralized forms for news media. Much like the definition of blockchain, the uses for the ledger system will only evolve as technology evolves.

Blockchain Applications

Blockchain has a nearly endless amount of applications across almost every industry. The ledger technology can be applied to track fraud in finance, securely share patient medical records between healthcare professionals and even acts as a better way to track intellectual property in business and music rights for artists.

 

How Bitcoin Mining Works ?

Where do bitcoins come from? With paper money, a government decides when to print and distribute money. Bitcoin doesn’t have a central government.

With Bitcoin, miners use special software to solve math problems and are issued a certain number of bitcoins in exchange. This provides a smart way to issue the currency and also creates an incentive for more people to mine.

Bitcoin is Secure ?

Bitcoin miners help keep the Bitcoin network secure by approving transactions. Mining is an important and integral part of Bitcoin that ensures fairness while keeping the Bitcoin network stable, safe and secure.

What is Bitcoin Mining?

Bitcoin mining is intentionally designed to be resource-intensive and difficult so that the number of blocks found each day by miners remains steady. Individual blocks must contain a proof of work to be considered valid. This proof of work is verified by other Bitcoin nodes each time they receive a block. Bitcoin uses the hashcash proof-of-work function.

The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce Bitcoins into the system: Miners are paid any transaction fees as well as a “subsidy” of newly created coins.

This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system.

Bitcoin mining is so called because it resembles the mining of other commodities: it requires exertion and it slowly makes new currency available at a rate that resembles the rate at which commodities like gold are mined from the ground.

What is Proof of Work?

A proof of work is a piece of data which was difficult (costly, time-consuming) to produce so as to satisfy certain requirements. It must be trivial to check whether data satisfies said requirements.

Producing a proof of work can be a random process with low probability, so that a lot of trial and error is required on average before a valid proof of work is generated. Bitcoin uses the Hashcash proof of work.

What is Bitcoin Mining Difficulty?

The Computationally-Difficult Problem

Bitcoin mining a block is difficult because the SHA-256 hash of a block’s header must be lower than or equal to the target in order for the block to be accepted by the network.

This problem can be simplified for explanation purposes: The hash of a block must start with a certain number of zeros. The probability of calculating a hash that starts with many zeros is very low, therefore many attempts must be made. In order to generate a new hash each round, a nonce is incremented. See Proof of work for more information.

The Bitcoin Network Difficulty Metric

The Bitcoin mining network difficulty is the measure of how difficult it is to find a new block compared to the easiest it can ever be. It is recalculated every 2016 blocks to a value such that the previous 2016 blocks would have been generated in exactly two weeks had everyone been mining at this difficulty. This will yield, on average, one block every ten minutes.

As more miners join, the rate of block creation will go up. As the rate of block generation goes up, the difficulty rises to compensate which will push the rate of block creation back down. Any blocks released by malicious miners that do not meet the required difficulty target will simply be rejected by everyone on the network and thus will be worthless.

The Block Reward

When a block is discovered, the discoverer may award themselves a certain number of bitcoins, which is agreed-upon by everyone in the network. Currently this bounty is 25 bitcoins; this value will halve every 210,000 blocks. See Controlled Currency Supply.

Additionally, the miner is awarded the fees paid by users sending transactions. The fee is an incentive for the miner to include the transaction in their block. In the future, as the number of new bitcoins miners are allowed to create in each block dwindles, the fees will make up a much more important percentage of mining income.

 

What Is Cryptocurrency? Here’s What You Should Know

A cryptocurrency (or “crypto”) is a digital currency that can be used to buy goods and services, but uses an online ledger with strong cryptography to secure online transactions. Much of the interest in these unregulated currencies is to trade for profit, with speculators at times driving prices skyward.

The most popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, has had volatile price moves this year, reaching nearly $65,000 in April before losing nearly half its value in May. (You can check the current price to buy Bitcoin here.)

Here are seven things to ask about cryptocurrency, and what to watch out for.

1. What is cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency is a form of payment that can be exchanged online for goods and services. Many companies have issued their own currencies, often called tokens, and these can be traded specifically for the good or service that the company provides. Think of them as you would arcade tokens or casino chips. You’ll need to exchange real currency for the cryptocurrency to access the good or service.

Cryptocurrencies work using a technology called blockchain. Blockchain is a decentralized technology spread across many computers that manages and records transactions. Part of the appeal of this technology is its security.

2. How many cryptocurrencies are there? What are they worth?

More than 10,000 different cryptocurrencies are traded publicly, according to CoinMarketCap.com, a market research website. And cryptocurrencies continue to proliferate, raising money through initial coin offerings, or ICOs. The total value of all cryptocurrencies on July 23, 2021, was more than $1.3 trillion — down from April high of $2.2 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap. The total value of all bitcoins, the most popular digital currency, was pegged at about $608.6 billion — down from April high of $1.2 trillion.

Best cryptocurrencies by market capitalization

These are the 10 largest trading cryptocurrencies by market capitalization as tracked by CoinMarketCap, a cryptocurrency data and analytics provider.

3. Why are cryptocurrencies so popular?

Cryptocurrencies appeal to their supporters for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most popular:

Supporters see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future and are racing to buy them now, presumably before they become more valuable

Some supporters like the fact that cryptocurrency removes central banks from managing the money supply, since over time these banks tend to reduce the value of money via inflation

Other supporters like the technology behind cryptocurrencies, the blockchain, because it’s a decentralized processing and recording system and can be more secure than traditional payment systems

Some speculators like cryptocurrencies because they’re going up in value and have no interest in the currencies’ long-term acceptance as a way to move money

4. Are cryptocurrencies a good investment?

Cryptocurrencies may go up in value, but many investors see them as mere speculations, not real investments. The reason? Just like real currencies, cryptocurrencies generate no cash flow, so for you to profit, someone has to pay more for the currency than you did.

That’s what’s called “the greater fool” theory of investment. Contrast that to a well-managed business, which increases its value over time by growing the profitability and cash flow of the operation.

“For those who see cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin as the currency of the future, it should be noted that a currency needs stability.”

Some notable voices in the investment community have advised would-be investors to steer clear of them. Of particular note, legendary investor Warren Buffett compared Bitcoin to paper checks: “It’s a very effective way of transmitting money and you can do it anonymously and all that. A check is a way of transmitting money too. Are checks worth a whole lot of money?

Just because they can transmit money?”

For those who see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future, it should be noted that a currency needs stability so that merchants and consumers can determine what a fair price is for goods. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been anything but stable through much of their history. For example, while Bitcoin traded at close to $20,000 in December 2017, its value then dropped to as low as about $3,200 a year later. By December 2020, it was trading at record levels again.

This price volatility creates a conundrum. If bitcoins might be worth a lot more in the future, people are less likely to spend and circulate them today, making them less viable as a currency. Why spend a bitcoin when it could be worth three times the value next year?

5. How do I buy cryptocurrency?

While some cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, are available for purchase with U.S. dollars, others require that you pay with bitcoins or another cryptocurrency.

To buy cryptocurrencies, you’ll need a “wallet,” an online app that can hold your currency. Generally, you create an account on an exchange, and then you can transfer real money to buy cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. Here’s more on how to invest in Bitcoin.

Coinbase is one popular cryptocurrency trading exchange where you can create both a wallet and buy and sell Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Also, a growing number of online brokers offer cryptocurrencies, such as eToro, Tradestation and Sofi Active Investing. Robinhood offers free cryptocurrency trades (Robinhood Crypto is available in most, but not all, U.S. states).

6. Are cryptocurrencies legal?

There’s no question that they’re legal in the United States, though China has essentially banned their use, and ultimately whether they’re legal depends on each individual country. Also be sure to consider how to protect yourself from fraudsters who see cryptocurrencies as an opportunity to bilk investors. As always, buyer beware.

7. How do I protect myself?

If you’re looking to buy a cryptocurrency in an ICO, read the fine print in the company’s prospectus for this information:

Who owns the company? An identifiable and well-known owner is a positive sign.

Are there other major investors who are investing in it? It’s a good sign if other well-known investors want a piece of the currency.

Will you own a stake in the company or just currency or tokens? This distinction is important. Owning a stake means you get to participate in its earnings (you’re an owner), while buying tokens simply means you’re entitled to use them, like chips in a casino.

Is the currency already developed, or is the company looking to raise money to develop it? The further along the product, the less risky it is.

It can take a lot of work to comb through a prospectus; the more detail it has, the better your chances it’s legitimate. But even legitimacy doesn’t mean the currency will succeed. That’s an entirely separate question, and that requires a lot of market savvy.

But beyond those concerns, just having cryptocurrency exposes you to the risk of theft, as hackers try to penetrate the computer networks that maintain your assets. One high-profile exchange declared bankruptcy in 2014 after hackers stole hundreds of millions of dollars in bitcoins. Those aren’t typical risks for investing in stocks and funds on major U.S. exchanges.

Should you buy cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency is an incredibly speculative and volatile buy. Stock trading of established companies is generally less risky than investing in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.