Microsoft has received a patent for a cryptocurrency that uses physical activity data to generate new currency units. This could lead to a future in which we receive a real-time reward for every step and every thought – while every body movement is recorded and monitored. Or is it all nonsense because the idea cannot work at all?
Mining cryptocurrencies has been and is the subject of numerous discussions. While most bitcoiners consider mining through a hash-based proof of work to be without alternative the best way to secure a blockchain, others see it as a huge waste of energy. Despite the fact that there is a lot of renewable energy that can be used to mine bitcoin instead of going wasted. Some developers have therefore proposed alternative consensus procedures for blockchains. Some remove the miners from the system entirely, for example by determining the consensus by means of proof-of-stake or election procedures.
The others try to channel the energy invested in sensible ways. Examples of this are Primecoin, in which the miners find large prime numbers, or Gridcoin, in which the miners have to take part in scientific calculations. However, these coins could not prevail, and with Gridcoin it has been shown that the procedure alone is not sufficient to keep a blockchain secure, but is at best a bonus.
Mining cryptocurrencies with the heartbeat
Microsoft is now proposing another alternative. The idea sounds strange at first, and probably it is. According to the patent now granted, “human body activities associated with a specific task should be used as a mining process of a cryptocurrency system.”
In the examples, the patent remains vague. It names things like looking at advertisements, using search engines, writing emails, participating in social media, uploading data and more. While the users – who are now miners – perform such tasks, sensors or scanners measure their body activity. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography (EEG), infrared sensors, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, optical, heat or ultrasound and other sensors. Everything that can be measured on the human body can serve as feed for mining. The data is collected by smartphones or other portable devices, which is why the mining of cryptocurrencies, according to the patent, can also happen unconsciously.
The users get their tasks from a server to which they are connected. The body activity measured by the sensors is considered a potential solution to the mining task, for example a brainwave current that shows whether a user has seen an advertisement or has memorized something. The server can then validate this solution and, if successful, form a block and credit the newly created units of the cryptocurrency to the user. According to the patent, the system can be operated by a central server, but also by a decentralized network of several servers.
The physical activity data can be transmitted in symbolic form, as a character or string, but also as raw data or hash. The server can check whether they are within a certain range, for example with blood pressure, or represent a certain frequency, for example with brain waves.
The concept is as imaginative as it is stupid. You can imagine inspiring and wonderful, but also terrifying scenarios.
Future of work – or future of surveillance?
If physical activities represent a type of added value – blood tests or fitness exercises in the healthcare system, participation in social media at Internet companies or troll factories, watching advertising for publicists – then Microsoft’s concept succeeds in something unique: it binds the generation of new tokens to economic activity. This would create a cryptocurrency whose value develops as many economists demand: namely in sync with economic performance.
At the same time, it is tempting that people are paid directly for their physical activities. In principle, this is already happening, but via a long chain of middlemen who convert the added value through work into money and then pay it out to the workers. Many cryptocurrency projects try something similar, for example by allowing the Brave User to generate revenue from Brave ads. If you link the physical and mental activity directly to the creation of money, you create the most direct way possible, and if this also happens unconsciously, you reduce the friction to an absolute minimum.
The idea is brilliant – but also scary. It creates incentives for people to invite the digital surveillance machinery even further into their lives and to have it jumped onto the body via the digital sphere of news and internet searches. Individual added value could go hand in hand with total surveillance of the human body, which opens up a dystopian future in which people depend on the drip of machines and in which every movement and every thought is transmitted live.
Maybe Microsoft just doesn’t understand how Bitcoin works …
However, this discussion is probably pointless. Because it is extremely doubtful whether the concept works at all. You only need to know a little bit about mining at Bitcoin.
The miners use their mining devices to find a hash that meets certain conditions. Finding such a hash is mathematically difficult. It is rare. Therefore, nobody has to check whether the miners are honest. You can do everything human and machine possible to find this hash. You can build special machines that generate trillions of such hashes per second, you can optimize the software to find as many hashes as possible with as little energy as possible. Any kind of trick is fine and even desirable because you can’t fake a hash for a block.
If you replace the difficult hash with other data, you also replace this rarity with randomness. What prevents someone from flooding the system with data on blood pressure, brain waves or heat? All data collected by sensors is arbitrary. They can be faked. It should be trivial to build an app that doesn’t use sensor data, but simply produces data that looks like sensor data. This problem can only be avoided if you create a central cryptocurrency that can only be mined by registered users with certain software, and if you then continuously fight to close the gaps that inevitably arise.
Even if it works – which is doubtful – it results in such a centralized and isolated system that has nothing to do with the blockchain and cryptocurrency concept. It would be no different from the countless apps that are already measuring the physical activities of users. So one might ask whether Microsoft or the patent institution understood how Bitcoin works.