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To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in. Visitors are allowed 3 free articles per month without a subscription , and private browsing prevents us from counting how many stories you've read. We hope you understand, and consider subscribing for unlimited online access. In March, a bewildered retired man faced journalists yelling questions about virtual currency outside his suburban home in Temple City, California.
Dorian Nakamoto, 64, had been identified by Newsweek as the person who masterminded Bitcoin—a story that, like previous attempts to unmask its pseudonymous inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, was soon discredited. That person is Gavin Andresen, a mild-mannered year-old picked by the real Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he or she is, as his successor in late The CIA and Washington regulators have looked to him to explain the currency.
And it was Andresen who conceived of the nonprofit Bitcoin Foundation —established in —which is the closest thing to a central authority in the world of Bitcoin.
Some Bitcoin enthusiasts offer bombastic predictions that Americans will shake off the shackles of the Federal Reserve and poor nations will rise to prosperity with the low-cost transactions made possible by the stateless virtual currency.
Still, Andresen has had and maintains more influence than anyone else on the code that determines how Bitcoin operates—and ultimately whether it can survive. Although there is no central bank for the currency, its design needs significant changes if it is to become widely used.
How Andresen wields his power over Bitcoin will shape not only its fate but also the prospects for other virtual currencies. Formerly known as Gavin Bell, he has been a software engineer ever since he graduated in computer science from Princeton in and took a job with the Silicon Valley computing company Silicon Graphics. He worked there for seven years, and then at a series of startups building products from 3-D drawing software to online games for blind and sighted people to play together.
Then he encountered Bitcoin in Bitcoins were essentially worthless at the time and extremely finicky to get ahold of and use. Eager to see people start using Bitcoin, Andresen launched a website in called the Bitcoin Faucet that handed out five free bitcoins to every visitor. He also began sending code tweaks and improvements to Nakamoto. Andresen formally stepped forward in a December post on the Bitcoin forum.
He has worked full-time on it ever since. His smooth ascent has led to frequent accusations that Andresen is Nakamoto and shed the pseudonym once the currency gained traction.
He always flatly denies it. Throughout hundreds of forum posts, e-mail messages, and lines of code, his style has been distinct from that of Nakamoto. His kids became convinced last Christmas that their dad had been onto something after he used Bitcoin to pay for a white-water rafting trip in New Zealand.
Some financiers seem fascinated—if perplexed—by Bitcoin, and Andresen is the perfect person to represent it to them.
He makes it sound like a logical, overdue upgrade to the archaic currency in your pocket. When Andresen took over from Satoshi Nakamoto in he laid out the way the project would operate, drawing on his experience managing teams building software products and what he knew of major open source projects such as Linux.
A group of five core developers emerged, with Andresen as the most senior. Only they had the power to change the code behind Bitcoin and merge in proposals from other volunteers. While the price of Bitcoin soared over the years, Andresen and the other core developers toiled to improve the software that made it all possible. They fixed security bugs that had permitted digital heists, made the software less prone to crashes, and spruced up the interface to make it easier to use.
That was no small task because what Nakamoto had left was not the kind of software you would hope to build a product on, let alone an economy, says Mike Hearn, an ex-Google software engineer who has contributed code to the project.
As bugs were fixed, messy code tidied up, and new features added, most of what Nakamoto wrote disappeared. As an example, he points to recent changes that Andresen masterminded to make fees on Bitcoin transactions rise and fall as the volume of transactions changes.
Todd believes the design of those changes would have benefited from more time to research possible downsides. The number of people working on the code remains small, even since Andresen helped establish the Bitcoin Foundation to support the software with donations from individuals and companies.
But the software behind Bitcoin has never been more critical. The risk of security flaws is a constant worry for Andresen. But although most bugs that turn up in the software today are minor, similar problems could still lurk. Andresen sees the recent Heartbleed bug that broke the security of hundreds of thousands of websites as a cautionary tale.
It was caused by a single, unnoticed mistake by a volunteer contributor to a piece of open source software. Even design flaws that fall short of enabling easy thefts could seriously wound Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin network is incapable of processing more than seven transactions a second, a tiny volume for a technology with global ambitions. Only about one Bitcoin transaction is made per second today, but most people who own Bitcoin do so to speculate on its price, not to pay for goods or services. Visa processes almost transactions a second worldwide and can handle up to 47, a second at peak times.
Some opponents argue it would make Bitcoin more centralized. Andresen underlines his own position using the Bitcoin version of scripture. One way or another, whatever Andresen decides on will probably get done. And he points out that because that code is open source, any dissenters can always use it to create a competing version with their preferred design. The value of any currency ultimately rests on a collective belief. After the transaction issue is resolved, the work of looking after its code will increasingly be a job for caretakers, not master builders, he says.
Andresen anticipates spending less and less time worrying about keeping the currency working, and more in his Amherst home office pondering theories about the economics of virtual currencies and reading the growing academic literature on Bitcoin. Catch up with our coverage of the event. After ethical concerns marred its announcement in May, Google showed off its retooled aural AI that helps you connect with people who still answer the phone.
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Why we made this change Visitors are allowed 3 free articles per month without a subscription , and private browsing prevents us from counting how many stories you've read. Someone else has made Bitcoin what it is and has the most power over its destiny. AI's Economic Impact Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Transportation Solving the Manual Labor Shortage Google demos Duplex, its AI that sounds exactly like a very weird, nice human.
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