Category Archives: Europe

TaxScouts wants to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious

TaxScouts, a U.K. startup founded by TransferWise and Marketinvoice alumni, is the latest online service designed to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious. However, rather than focusing on the bookkeeping part of the problem primarily tackled by cloud accounting software — which is often overkill if you are self-employed or simply earn a little additional income outside of your day job — the company combines “automation” with human accountants to help you prepare your tax submission.

“Doing taxes is either tedious when you have to do them yourself, or expensive when you hire an accountant,” says TaxScouts co-founder and CEO Mart Abramov, who was employee number 8 at TransferWise and also previously worked at Intuit, MarketInvoice and Skype. “We’re automating as much of the admin part of tax preparation as possible in our online app. We then connect you with a certified accountant who will take care of the entire tax filing process for you”.

The headline draw is that TaxScouts charges a flat fee of £99 if you pay in advance, and promises a turn-around of just 24 hours. To help with this, the web app walks you through your tax status, income and expenses without assuming too much prior knowledge. This includes asking you to upload or take a photo of any required documents, such as invoices or dividend certificates. The idea is that all of the admin is captured digitally and packaged up ready for your assigned accountant to take a look.

“As more of the menial tasks are handled by our app this allows accountants to focus on what they do best and not get stuck in admin,” explains Abramov. “They can focus on providing advice and expertise to make sure everything is done right. Our customers get both the benefits of getting a personal accountant and having a simple tool to manage it all, without the huge costs”.

Abramov tells me that TaxScouts’ typical customers are anyone who wants to have their self assessment done for them or who just wants help with tax preparation. This spans self-employed people — from construction workers to professional freelancers — entrepreneurs and company directors, and people who are entitled to some kind of tax relief or refund, such as investors on crowdfunding platforms. He also said that gig economy workers are a good fit.

Moving forward, TaxScouts plans to further develop the automation functionality, including plugging into more data sources beyond its existing integration with HMRC. Abramov says this could include a driver’s Uber data for tracking mileage claims, for example, while I can immediately see how the app could integrate with various fintech offerings that capture transactions and receipts.

To that end, the startup has raised £300,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out the product. Backers include Picus Capital, Charlie Delingpole (co-founder of ComplyAdvantage and MarketInvoice), and Charlie Songhurst (former GM corporate strategy at Microsoft).

Watch all the interviews from TechCrunch Sessions: Blockchain

What a day. Yesterday, hundreds of people gathered in Zug, Switzerland for TechCrunch Sessions: Blockchain. In addition to some of the key people of the Ethereum Foundation, the team interviewed the entrepreneurs behind Binance, Coinbase, ConsenSys, CryptoKitties and many other organizations.

The event was packed with interesting content. But if you couldn’t be there in person, don’t worry as you can watch everything that happened in Zug:














Disclosure: I own small amounts of various cryptocurrencies.

Deliveroo opens up POS integration for restaurant partners via an API

Restaurant food delivery startup Deliveroo is opening up Point of Sale (POS) integrations to restaurant partners, via an API and developer portal, after trialling the approach this spring and finding appetite for uptake.

The integration is intended to free up front-of-house staff from having to manually input Deliveroo food orders into the restaurant’s sales system.

A Deliveroo spokesman told us that one major chain had been having to assign a single member of staff at peak times to just “sit there and type in the orders”, thereby reducing the number of staff who could attend to customers in the restaurant at a busy time.

Order inputting also isn’t necessarily popular with staff, given there’s no direct opportunity for tips. Automating the task certainly seems a no brainer.

Deliveroo claims initial tests show the integration cuts order processing time from ~2.5 mins to ~30 sec. It also reckons POS companies and “tech savvy restaurants” can complete the integration in two weeks.

“We weren’t sure how many people were going to adopt it — now we can see it’s clearly taken off and is working supporting restaurants,” said the spokesman.

So far around 500 restaurant sites are using integration, having joined during the trial, along with 25 POS companies that are plugging into its API. And Deliveroo says it expects thousands to be doing so by the end of the year.

A “couple of hundred” restaurants are joining each month, the spokesman added.

He said Deliveroo opted to go for an API approach — and rely on restaurants to integrate its order system into their sales systems — because of how diverse the POS market is.

“At a European level it’s crazy how many different types of POS companies there are. So from our perspective, rather than trying to produce our own system which worked with every single one it was best to design a system where they were able to use an API of ours and integrate from their system,” the spokesman told us.

Deliveroo now operates in 12 markets, with eight in Europe and four further afield. And so far POS integrations have been achieved with restaurants in the UK, France, Belgium and Spain — with the UK, where it has with more than 10,000 restaurant partners, being the most “advanced” so far.

The spokesman said it is also working on rolling out integrations to all other markets “in coming months”.

“There are still some places where this isn’t going to work. And this is where firms tend to use middleware companies. And we still are working with a middleware company for places where the direct integration isn’t going to work,” he added.

“But in terms of a principal, Uber have gone down the principal of they’ve bought a middleware company and they’re going to do the middleware themselves. [But] if you can reduce your reliance on middleware you reduce the chances of errors, problems you face and an extra link in the chain that could go down and prevent orders.”

Amazon is bringing Alexa and Echo to France this month

Amazon just got a step closer to world smart speaker domination. Starting today, users in France can pre-order the Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Spot. The standard Echo and Echo Dot will start shipping to users next week. The display-equipped Echo Spot will arrive at some point next month.

Naturally, the expansion also includes a French version of Alexa. As the company notes, the Alexa Skills Kit rolled out in March to French developers and device makers to prep for the expansion and create skills focused on the new market. After all, tweaking a smart assistant for a new market requires more than just learning a new language.

There are also a dialect and local customs to contend with, in order to offer the best possible experience. The skills that devs have built will also arrive later this month.

France joins a rapidly growing list of countries with Alexa/Echo, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, India, New Zealand, Germany, Japan and Ireland. No word on availability for the rest of the Echo line. Google Home, meanwhile, has been available in France since last summer

Coya raises $30 million to launch its insurance service in Europe

Coya, a Berlin-based insurance startup, has raised $30 million in new cash as investors around the world continue to see opportunities in modernizing the insurance industry.

Founded by two early employees at the European credit and risk assessment unicorn startup Kreditech (which raised EUR110 million from the Naspers subsidiary PayU) and two seasoned executives from the European insurance industry, Coya is coming to market in Germany with a new renter’s insurance service.

For Coya’s co-founder Andrew Shaw, the new company was an opportunity to apply his experience creating credit and risk assessment products to an industry whose cumbersome inability to use technology had affected him personally.

The idea for Coya hit Shaw when he was traveling on the Gili Islands off the coast of Indonesia. It was there, while Shaw was trying to get information on his insurance as he recovered from an illness that he decided to start his technologically enabled insurance business.

“I knew I had one or two [policies] somewhere, but couldn’t find them in email or log into the webpage, I felt left alone and realized how insurers are not concentrating on their product experience,” Shaw wrote to me in an email. “A bad insurance experience, plus the opportunity to create awesome technology in an outdated financial space was a challenge I couldn’t ignore.”

In 2016, Kreditech’s first employee launched the company with co-founders Sebastian Villaroel, a fellow former Kreditech employee; Peter Hagen, the former chief executive of Vienna Insurance Group; and Thomas Muenkel, a longtime executive at Allianz and the former chief operating officer of Uniqa Insurance.

Peter Hagen, Andrew Shaw, Sebastian Villaroel, and Thomas Münkel, co-founders Coya AG Berlin/Courtesy: Christian Manthey Photography

The company has raised a total of $40 million for its service from investors including Valar Ventures (the Peter Thiel-backed investment firm), eVentures, La Famiglia, and a slew of angel investors.

With the money, Coya hopes to establish its footprint in its first market — Germany before expanding to the rest of Europe. Powering that expansion is a German insurance license which the company is close to receiving, according to Shaw. Once that license is acquired, the company can access all 550 million European Union residents under the watchful eye of Germany’s regulators.

Although, Coya is starting with renter’s insurance, Shaw and his co-founders have big plans for the company’s platform with insurance products across property, accident, personal liability and personal finance.

The company has 55 people on staff now, and expects to increase its headcount as a result of the new financing, according to Shaw.

Shaw says that Coya is different from many of the other startups pitching insurance products across Europe thanks to its push to receive regulatory approval and issue its own policies. That’s also created more capital requirements for the business starting out.

There’ve been a slew of insurance startups coming to market with novel twists on the service. Among them, Shaw pointed to Lemonade in the U.S., wefox in the Germany, and the UK-based Sherpa as companies bringing innovation to the old industry.

 

Online travel agency Exoticca bags $4.1M for market expansion

Barcelona-based online travel agency Exoticca — which sells “affordable luxury” holidays to popular destinations such as India, Kenya, Brazil, Thailand and South Africa — has closed a €3.5 million (~$4.1 million) Series A to expand into more markets.

The lead investor is early-stage Madrid-based VC K Fund, with existing investors Sabadell Venture Capital and Grupo Palau also participating, along with new investors Nero Ventures, Palladium Corporate Venture and Smartech Capital.

Exoticca was founded in 2013 and currently operates in three European markets: Spain, France and the U.K. The new funding will be put toward expanding that tally — with the German market next in line, and a launch into the U.S. and Canada also on the horizon. Funds will also be funneled into further developing the platform.

“The company spent the first couple of years developing the technological platform and sales have grown very rapidly since then (€4.4 million in 2016, €10.5 million in 2017 and a budget of more than €20 million for 2018),” says CEO Pere Valles, a recent recruit to the business and previously CEO of Scytl.

Valles argues that Exoticca’s progress to date proves both the profitability of its business model — noting that Spain was “the first market which Exoticca launched is already profitable” — and its replicability. “Last year we launched the U.K. and France and the U.K. is already bigger than Spain,” he says, adding: “In July, we are launching in Germany and we have plans to open in the U.S. and Canada in 2019.”

Valles says the market Exoticca is operating in is one of the few travel market segments that has not yet been digitized — with people still purchasing these types of trips in traditional “offline” travel agencies, owing to relative complexity, with the holidays typically having multiple legs and components, perhaps including international and domestic flights, land transportation, hotels in different locations, tour guides and so on.

Exoticca’s platform allows users to buy such trips online in a single visit, thanks to a proprietary booking engine that integrates with all the various providers — enabling real-time pricing for each component (so no need to phone up for an actual price before being able to book, for example).

“There is nobody else who provides real-time pricing for these types of trips through an online platform,” argues Valles. “Our competition uses internet only to generate leads and then close the sale either on the phone or in a store while we allow our customers to do the entire purchase process online in a single visit.”

There are some differences versus traditional bricks-and-mortar travel agents, though. Exoticca customers can’t spec out a very bespoke holiday in discussion with an agent, for example.

Rather it offers an inventory of around 50 trip packages in its permanent portfolio, covering what are described as “the most popular destinations” for its target travel category. (Though Valles points out it does offer a degree of light personalization — such as being able to pick a hotel category and optional excursions, for example.)

If you’re content to choose from the selection, Exoticca claims the trips are 30 percent cheaper on average versus “traditional providers” — as a consequence of the disintermediation process (i.e. it acting as both wholesaler and retailer).

“Each one of these trip packages is our ‘own’ product in the sense that we are the ones who ‘build’ it by engaging directly with the provider of each component,” says Valles, adding: “We also give our own personal touch to the tours in each one of these destinations.”

There’s a pretty striking branding style on show too — which features 1950s-esque graphics illustrating elements of the holiday packages and service…

Presumably the hope is the retro styling will resonate with the older adults who are the demographic most likely to be in the market for long-haul, luxury trips.

“We have customers in all age groups but those between 45 and 65 tend to be ‘overrepresented,’ ” agrees Valles.

He says the company is generally targeting a similar customer profile to that of GV-backed members-only travel club Secret Escapes.

Though they are not like-for-like competitors, with Exoticca’s product certainly having more of a focus on, well, exotic holidays — versus Secret Escapes offering hotel getaways to almost anywhere (so long as the hotel is up to snuff).

Other European online travel agency startups include the likes of Dreamlines, which is focused exclusively on cruise holidays to address a distinct market segment; and Evaneos, a marketplace for tailored travel experiences that connects travelers directly with a community of local travel agents — so is doing the lead generation Exoticca’s approach avoids.

Valles says the packages it sells are with “high-quality providers” (4- and 5-star hotels) but offered at “discounted prices” intended to appeal to a mass market of middle- and upper-class travelers.

The overall aim is to “democratize” this segment of the travel market. (“A great experience at a reasonable cost” is the pitch.) Though if they really succeed in widening the funnel they may end up undermining their luxury promise. But clearly that’s not something they have to worry about yet.

Funding wise, Valles says Exoticca previously raised €1 million in two seed rounds, one with F&F and another with Sabadell Venture Capital. The business is not breaking out any user or usage metrics at this stage, five years in.

Not just another decentralized web whitepaper?

Given all the hype and noise swirling around crypto and decentralized network projects, which runs the full gamut from scams and stupidity, to very clever and inspired ideas, the release of yet another whitepaper does not immediately set off an attention klaxon.

But this whitepaper — which details a new protocol for achieving consensus within a decentralized network — is worth paying more attention to than most.

MaidSafe, the team behind it, are also the literal opposite of fly-by-night crypto opportunists. They’ve been working on decentralized networking since long before the space became the hot, hyped thing it is now.

Their overarching mission is to engineer an entirely decentralized Internet which bakes in privacy, security and freedom of expression by design — the ‘Safe’ in their planned ‘Safe Network’ stands for ‘Secure access for everyone’ — meaning it’s encrypted, autonomous, self-organizing, self-healing. And the new consensus protocol is just another piece towards fulfilling that grand vision.

What’s consensus in decentralized networking terms? “Within decentralized networks you must have a way of the network agreeing on a state — such as can somebody access a file or confirming a coin transaction, for example — and the reason you need this is because you don’t have a central server to confirm all this to you,” explains MaidSafe’s COO Nick Lambert, discussing what the protocol is intended to achieve.

“So you need all these decentralized nodes all reaching agreement somehow on a state within the network. Consensus occurs by each of these nodes on the network voting and letting the network as a whole know what it thinks of a transaction.

“It’s almost like consensus could be considered the heart of the networks. It’s required for almost every event in the network.”

We wrote about MaidSafe’s alternative, server-less Internet in 2014. But they actually began work on the project in stealth all the way back in 2006. So they’re over a decade into the R&D at this point.

The network is p2p because it’s being designed so that data is locally encrypted, broken up into pieces and then stored distributed and replicated across the network, relying on the users’ own compute resources to stand in and take the strain. No servers necessary.

The prototype Safe Network is currently in an alpha testing stage (they opened for alpha in 2016). Several more alpha test stages are planned, with a beta release still a distant, undated prospect at this stage. But rearchitecting the entire Internet was clearly never going to be a day’s work.

MaidSafe also ran a multimillion dollar crowdsale in 2014 — for a proxy token of the coin that will eventually be baked into the network — and did so long before ICOs became a crypto-related bandwagon that all sorts of entities were jumping onto. The SafeCoin cryptocurrency is intended to operate as the inventive mechanism for developers to build apps for the Safe Network and users to contribute compute resource and thus bring MaidSafe’s distributed dream alive.

Their timing on the token sale front, coupled with prudent hodling of some of the Bitcoins they’ve raised, means they’re essentially in a position of not having to worry about raising more funds to build the network, according to Lambert.

A rough, back-of-an-envelope calculation on MaidSafe’s original crowdsale suggests, given they raised $2M in Bitcoin in April 2014 when the price for 1BTC was up to around $500, the Bitcoins they obtained then could be worth between ~$30M-$40M by today’s Bitcoin prices — though that would be assuming they held on to most of them. Bitcoin’s price also peaked far higher last year too.

As well as the token sale they also did an equity raise in 2016, via the fintech investment platform bnktothefuture, pulling in around $1.7M from that — in a mixture of cash and “some Bitcoin”.

“It’s gone both ways,” says Lambert, discussing the team’s luck with Bitcoin. “The crowdsale we were on the losing end of Bitcoin price decreasing. We did a raise from bnktothefuture in autumn of 2016… and fortunately we held on to quite a lot of the Bitcoin. So we rode the Bitcoin price up. So I feel like the universe paid us back a little bit for that. So it feels like we’re level now.”

“Fundraising is exceedingly time consuming right through the organization, and it does take a lot of time away from what you wants to be focusing on, and so to be in a position where you’re not desperate for funding is a really nice one to be in,” he adds. “It allows us to focus on the technology and releasing the network.”

The team’s headcount is now up to around 33, with founding members based at the HQ in Ayr, Scotland, and other engineers working remotely or distributed (including in a new dev office they opened in India at the start of this year), even though MaidSafe is still not taking in any revenue.

This April they also made the decision to switch from a dual licensing approach for their software — previously offering both an open source license and a commercial license (which let people close source their code for a fee) — to going only open source, to encourage more developer engagement and contributions to the project, as Lambert tells it.

“We always see the SafeNetwork a bit like a public utility,” he says. “In terms of once we’ve got this thing up and launched we don’t want to control it or own it because if we do nobody will want to use it — it needs to be seen as everyone contributing. So we felt it’s a much more encouraging sign for developers who want to contribute if they see everything is fully open sourced and cannot be closed source.”

MaidSafe’s story so far is reason enough to take note of their whitepaper.

But the consensus issue the paper addresses is also a key challenge for decentralized networks so any proposed solution is potentially a big deal — if indeed it pans out as promised.

 

Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus

MaidSafe reckons they’ve come up with a way of achieving consensus on decentralized networks that’s scalable, robust and efficient. Hence the name of the protocol — ‘Parsec’ — being short for: ‘Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus’.

They will be open sourcing the protocol under a GPL v3 license — with a rough timeframe of “months” for that release, according to Lambert.

He says they’ve been working on Parsec for the last 18 months to two years — but also drawing on earlier research the team carried out into areas such as conflict-free replicated data types, synchronous and asynchronous consensus, and topics such as threshold signatures and common coin.

More specifically, the research underpinning Parsec is based on the following five papers: 1. Baird L. The Swirlds Hashgraph Consensus Algorithm: Fair, Fast, Byzantine Fault Tolerance, Swirlds Tech Report SWIRLDS-TR-2016-01 (2016); 2. Mostefaoui A., Hamouna M., Raynal M. Signature-Free Asynchronous Byzantine Consensus with t <n/3 and O(n 2 ) Messages, ACM PODC (2014); 3. Micali S. Byzantine Agreement, Made Trivial, (2018); 4. Miller A., Xia Y., Croman K., Shi E., Song D. The Honey Badger of BFT Protocols, CCS (2016); 5. Team Rocket Snowflake to Avalanche: A Novel Metastable Consensus Protocol Family for Cryptocurrencies, (2018).

One tweet responding to the protocol’s unveiling just over a week ago wonders whether it’s too good to be true. Time will tell — but the potential is certainly enticing.

Bitcoin’s use of a drastically energy-inefficient ‘proof of work’ method to achieve consensus and write each transaction to its blockchain very clearly doesn’t scale. It’s slow, cumbersome and wasteful. And how to get blockchain-based networks to support the billions of transactions per second that might be needed to sustain the various envisaged applications remains an essential work in progress — with projects investigating various ideas and approaches to try to overcome the limitation.

MaidSafe’s network is not blockchain-based. It’s engineered to function with asynchronous voting of nodes, rather than synchronous voting, which should avoid the bottleneck problems associated with blockchain. But it’s still decentralized. So it needs a consensus mechanism to enable operations and transactions to be carried out autonomously and robustly. That’s where Parsec is intended to slot in.

The protocol does not use proof of work. And is able, so the whitepaper claims, to achieve consensus even if a third of the network is comprised of malicious nodes — i.e. nodes which are attempting to disrupt network operations or otherwise attack the network.

Another claimed advantage is that decisions made via the protocol are both mathematically guaranteed and irreversible.

“What Parsec does is it can reach consensus even with malicious nodes. And up to a third of the nodes being malicious is what the maths proofs suggest,” says Lambert. “This ability to provide mathematical guarantees that all parts of the network will come to the same agreement at a point in time, even with some fault in the network or bad actors — that’s what Byzantine Fault Tolerance is.”

In theory a blockchain using proof of work could be hacked if any one entity controlled 51% of the nodes on the network (although in reality it’s likely that such a large amount of energy would be required it’s pretty much impractical).

So on the surface MaidSafe’s decentralized network — which ‘only’ needs 33% of its nodes to be compromised for its consensus decisions to be attacked — sounds rather less robust. But Lambert says it’s more nuanced than the numbers suggest. And in fact the malicious third would also need to be nodes that have the authority to vote. “So it is a third but it’s a third of well reputed nodes,” as he puts it.

So there’s an element of proof of stake involved too, bound up with additional planned characteristics of the Safe Network — related to dynamic membership and sharding (Lambert says MaidSafe has additional whitepapers on both those elements coming soon).

“Those two papers, particularly the one around dynamic membership, will explain why having a third of malicious nodes is actually harder than just having 33% of malicious nodes. Because the nodes that can vote have to have a reputation as well. So it’s not just purely you can flood the Safe Network with lots and lots of malicious nodes and override it only using a third of the nodes. What we’re saying is the nodes that can vote and actually have a say must have a good reputation in the network,” he says.

“The other thing is proof of stake… Everyone is desperate to move away from proof of work because of its environmental impact. So proof of stake — I liken it to the Scottish landowners, where people with a lot of power have more say. In the cryptocurrency field, proof of stake might be if you have, let’s say, 10 coins and I have one coin your vote might be worth 10x as much authority as what my one coin would be. So any of these mechanisms that they come up with it has that weighting to it… So the people with the most vested interests in the network are also given the more votes.”

Sharding refers to closed groups that allow for consensus votes to be reached by a subset of nodes on a decentralized network. By splitting the network into small sections for consensus voting purposes the idea is you avoid the inefficiencies of having to poll all the nodes on the network — yet can still retain robustness, at least so long as subgroups are carefully structured and secured.

“If you do that correctly you can make it more secure and you can make things much more efficient and faster,” says Lambert. “Because rather than polling, let’s say 6,000 nodes, you might be polling eight nodes. So you can get that information back quickly.

“Obviously you need to be careful about how you do that because with much less nodes you can potentially game the network so you need to be careful how you secure those smaller closed groups or shards. So that will be quite a big thing because pretty much every crypto project is looking at sharding to make, certainly, blockchains more efficient. And so the fact that we’ll have something coming out in that, after we have the dynamic membership stuff coming out, is going to be quite exciting to see the reaction to that as well.”

Voting authority on the Safe Network might be based on a node’s longevity, quality and historical activity — so a sort of ‘reputation’ score (or ledger) that can yield voting rights over time.

“If you’re like that then you will have a vote in these closed groups. And so a third of those votes — and that then becomes quite hard to game because somebody who’s then trying to be malicious would need to have their nodes act as good corporate citizens for a time period. And then all of a sudden become malicious, by which time they’ve probably got a vested stake in the network. So it wouldn’t be possible for someone to just come and flood the network with new nodes and then be malicious because it would not impact upon the network,” Lambert suggests.

The computing power that would be required to attack the Safe Network once it’s public and at scale would also be “really, really significant”, he adds. “Once it gets to scale it would be really hard to co-ordinate anything against it because you’re always having to be several hundred percent bigger than the network and then have a co-ordinated attack on it itself. And all of that work might get you to impact the decision within one closed group. So it’s not even network wide… And that decision could be on who accesses one piece of encrypted shard of data for example… Even the thing you might be able to steal is only an encrypted shard of something — it’s not even the whole thing.”

Other distributed ledger projects are similarly working on Asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerant (AFBT) consensus models, including those using directed acrylic graphs (DAGs) — another nascent decentralization technology that’s been suggested as an alternative to blockchain.

And indeed AFBT techniques predate Bitcoin, though MaidSafe says these kind of models have only more recently become viable thanks to research and the relative maturing of decentralized computing and data types, itself as a consequence of increased interest and investment in the space.

However in the case of Hashgraph — the DAG project which has probably attracted the most attention so far — it’s closed source, not open. So that’s one major difference with MaidSafe’s approach. 

Another difference that Lambert points to is that Parsec has been built to work in a dynamic, permissionless network environment (essential for the intended use-case, as the Safe Network is intended as a public network). Whereas he claims Hashgraph has only demonstrated its algorithms working on a permissioned (and therefore private) network “where all the nodes are known”.

He also suggests there’s a question mark over whether Hashgraph’s algorithm can achieve consensus when there are malicious nodes operating on the network. Which — if true — would limit what it can be used for.

“The Hashgraph algorithm is only proven to reach agreement if there’s no adversaries within the network,” Lambert claims. “So if everything’s running well then happy days, but if there’s any maliciousness or any failure within that network then — certainly on the basis of what’s been published — it would suggest that that algorithm was not going to hold up to that.”

“I think being able to do all of these things asynchronously with all of the mathematical guarantees is very difficult,” he continues, returning to the core consensus challenge. “So at the moment we see that we have come out with something that is unique, that covers a lot of these bases, and is a very good use for our use-case. And I think will be useful for others — so I think we like to think that we’ve made a paradigm shift or a vast improvement over the state of the art.”

 

Paradigm shift vs marginal innovation

Despite the team’s conviction that, with Parsec, they’ve come up with something very notable, early feedback includes some very vocal Twitter doubters.

For example there’s a lengthy back-and-forth between several MaidSafe engineers and Ethereum researcher Vlad Zamfir — who dubs the Parsec protocol “overhyped” and a “marginal innovation if that”… so, er, ouch.

Lambert is, if not entirely sanguine, then solidly phlegmatic in the face of a bit of initial Twitter blowback — saying he reckons it will take more time for more detailed responses to come, i.e. allowing for people to properly digest the whitepaper.

“In the world of async BFT algorithms, any advance is huge,” MaidSafe CEO David Irvine also tells us when we ask for a response to Zamfir’s critique. “How huge is subjective, but any advance has to be great for the world. We hope others will advance Parsec like we have built on others (as we clearly state and thank them for their work).  So even if it was a marginal development (which it certainly is not) then I would take that.”

“All in all, though, nothing was said that took away from the fact Parsec moves the industry forward,” he adds. “I felt the comments were a bit juvenile at times and a bit defensive (probably due to us not agreeing with POS in our Medium post) but in terms of the only part commented on (the coin flip) we as a team feel that part could be much more concrete in terms of defining exactly how small such random (finite) delays could be. We know they do not stop the network and a delaying node would be killed, but for completeness, it would be nice to be that detailed.”

A developer source of our own in the crypto/blockchain space — who’s not connected to the MaidSafe or Ethereum projects — also points out that Parsec “getting objective review will take some time given that so many potential reviewers have vested interest in their own project/coin”.

It’s certainly fair to say the space excels at public spats and disagreements. Researchers pouring effort into one project can be less than kind to rivals’ efforts. (And, well, given all the crypto Lambos at stake it’s not hard to see why there can be no love lost — and, ironically, zero trust — between competing champions of trustless tech.)

Another fundamental truth of these projects is they’re all busily experimenting right now, with lots of ideas in play to try and fix core issues like scalability, efficiency and robustness — often having different ideas over implementation even if rival projects are circling and/or converging on similar approaches and techniques.

“Certainly other projects are looking at sharding,” says Lambert. “So I know that Ethereum are looking at sharding. And I think Bitcoin are looking at that as well, but I think everyone probably has quite different ideas about how to implement it. And of course we’re not using a blockchain which makes that another different use-case where Ethereum and Bitcoin obviously are. But everyone has — as with anything — these different approaches and different ideas.”

“Every network will have its own different ways of doing [consensus],” he adds when asked whether he believes Parsec could be adopted by other projects wrestling with the consensus challenge. “So it’s not like some could lift [Parsec] out and just put it in. Ethereum is blockchain-based — I think they’re looking at something around proof of stake, but maybe they could take some ideas or concepts from the work that we’re open sourcing for their specific case.

“If you get other blockchain-less networks like IOTA, Byteball, I think POA is another one as well. These other projects it might be easier for them to implement something like Parsec with them because they’re not using blockchain. So maybe less of that adaption required.”

Whether other projects will deem Parsec worthy of their attention remains to be seen at this point with so much still to play for. Some may prefer to expend effort trying to rubbish a rival approach, whose open source tech could, if it stands up to scrutiny and operational performance, reduce the commercial value of proprietary and patented mechanisms also intended to grease the wheels of decentralized networks — for a fee.

And of course MaidSafe’s developed-in-stealth consensus protocol may also turn out to be a relatively minor development. But finding a non-vested expert to give an impartial assessment of complex network routing algorithms conjoined to such a self-interested and, frankly, anarchical industry is another characteristic challenge of the space.

Irvine’s view is that DAG based projects which are using a centralized component will have to move on or adopt what he dubs “state of art” asynchronous consensus algorithms — as MaidSafe believes Parsec is — aka, algorithms which are “more widely accepted and proven”.

“So these projects should contribute to the research, but more importantly, they will have to adopt better algorithms than they use,” he suggests. “So they can play an important part, upgrades! How to upgrade a running DAG based network? How to had fork a graph? etc. We know how to hard fork blockchains, but upgrading DAG based networks may not be so simple when they are used as ledgers.

“Projects like Hashgraph, Algorand etc will probably use an ABFT algorithm like this as their whole network with a little work for a currency; IOTA, NANO, Bytball etc should. That is entirely possible with advances like Parsec. However adding dynamic membership, sharding, a data layer then a currency is a much larger proposition, which is why Parsec has been in stealth mode while it is being developed.

“We hope that by being open about the algorithm, and making the code open source when complete, we will help all the other projects working on similar problems.”

Of course MaidSafe’s team might be misguided in terms of the breakthrough they think they’ve made with Parsec. But it’s pretty hard to stand up the idea they’re being intentionally misleading.

Because, well, what would be the point of that? While the exact depth of MaidSafe’s funding reserves isn’t clear, Lambert doesn’t sound like a startup guy with money worries. And the team’s staying power cannot be in doubt — over a decade into the R&D needed to underpin their alt network.

It’s true that being around for so long does have some downsides, though. Especially, perhaps, given how hyped the decentralized space has now become. “Because we’ve been working on it for so long, and it’s been such a big project, you can see some negative feedback about that,” as Lambert admits.

And with such intense attention now on the space, injecting energy which in turn accelerates ideas and activity, there’s perhaps extra pressure on a veteran player like MaidSafe to be seen making a meaningful contribution — ergo, it might be tempting for the team to believe the consensus protocol they’ve engineered really is a big deal.

To stand up and be counted amid all the noise, as it were. And to draw attention to their own project — which needs lots of external developers to buy into the vision if it’s to succeed, yet, here in 2018, it’s just one decentralization project among so many. 

 

The Safe Network roadmap

Consensus aside, MaidSafe’s biggest challenge is still turning the sizable amount of funding and resources the team’s ideas have attracted to date into a bona fide alternative network that anyone really can use. And there’s a very long road to travel still on that front, clearly.

The Safe Network is in alpha 2 testing incarnation (which has been up and running since September last year) — consisting of around a hundred nodes that MaidSafe is maintaining itself.

The core decentralization proposition of anyone being able to supply storage resource to the network via lending their own spare capacity is not yet live — and won’t come fully until alpha 4.

“People are starting to create different apps against that network. So we’ve seen Jams — a decentralized music player… There are a couple of storage style apps… There is encrypted email running as well, and also that is running on Android,” says Lambert. “And we have a forked version of the Beaker browser — that’s the browser that we use right now. So if you can create websites on the Safe Network, which has its own protocol, and if you want to go and view those sites you need a Safe browser to do that, so we’ve also been working on our own browser from scratch that we’ll be releasing later this year… So there’s a number of apps that are running against that alpha 2 network.

“What alpha 3 will bring is it will run in parallel with alpha 2 but it will effectively be a decentralized routing network. What that means is it will be one for more technical people to run, and it will enable data to be passed around a network where anyone can contribute their resources to it but it will not facilitate data storage. So it’ll be a command line app, which is probably why it’ll suit technical people more because there’ll be no user interface for it, and they will contribute their resources to enable messages to be passed around the network. So secure messaging would be a use-case for that.

“And then alpha 4 is effectively bringing together alpha 2 and alpha 3. So it adds a storage layer on top of the alpha 3 network — and at that point it gives you the fully decentralized network where users are contributing their resources from home and they will be able to store data, send messages and things of that nature. Potentially during alpha 4, or a later alpha, we’ll introduce test SafeCoin. Which is the final piece of the initial puzzle to provide incentives for users to provide resources and for developers to make apps. So that’s probably what the immediate roadmap looks like.”

On the timeline front Lambert won’t be coaxed into fixing any deadlines to all these planned alphas. They’ve long ago learnt not to try and predict the pace of progress, he says with a laugh. Though he does not question that progress is being made.

“These big infrastructure projects are typically only government funded because the payback is too slow for venture capitalists,” he adds. “So in the past you had things like Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet — that was obviously a US government funded project — and so we’ve taken on a project which has, not grown arms and legs, but certainly there’s more to it than what was initially thought about.

“So we are almost privately funding this infrastructure. Which is quite a big scope, and I will say why it’s taking a bit of time. But we definitely do seem to be making lots of progress.”

Not just another decentralized web whitepaper?

Given all the hype and noise swirling around crypto and decentralized network projects, which runs the full gamut from scams and stupidity, to very clever and inspired ideas, the release of yet another whitepaper does not immediately set off an attention klaxon.

But this whitepaper — which details a new protocol for achieving consensus within a decentralized network — is worth paying more attention to than most.

MaidSafe, the team behind it, are also the literal opposite of fly-by-night crypto opportunists. They’ve been working on decentralized networking since long before the space became the hot, hyped thing it is now.

Their overarching mission is to engineer an entirely decentralized Internet which bakes in privacy, security and freedom of expression by design — the ‘Safe’ in their planned ‘Safe Network’ stands for ‘Secure access for everyone’ — meaning it’s encrypted, autonomous, self-organizing, self-healing. And the new consensus protocol is just another piece towards fulfilling that grand vision.

What’s consensus in decentralized networking terms? “Within decentralized networks you must have a way of the network agreeing on a state — such as can somebody access a file or confirming a coin transaction, for example — and the reason you need this is because you don’t have a central server to confirm all this to you,” explains MaidSafe’s COO Nick Lambert, discussing what the protocol is intended to achieve.

“So you need all these decentralized nodes all reaching agreement somehow on a state within the network. Consensus occurs by each of these nodes on the network voting and letting the network as a whole know what it thinks of a transaction.

“It’s almost like consensus could be considered the heart of the networks. It’s required for almost every event in the network.”

We wrote about MaidSafe’s alternative, server-less Internet in 2014. But they actually began work on the project in stealth all the way back in 2006. So they’re over a decade into the R&D at this point.

The network is p2p because it’s being designed so that data is locally encrypted, broken up into pieces and then stored distributed and replicated across the network, relying on the users’ own compute resources to stand in and take the strain. No servers necessary.

The prototype Safe Network is currently in an alpha testing stage (they opened for alpha in 2016). Several more alpha test stages are planned, with a beta release still a distant, undated prospect at this stage. But rearchitecting the entire Internet was clearly never going to be a day’s work.

MaidSafe also ran a multimillion dollar crowdsale in 2014 — for a proxy token of the coin that will eventually be baked into the network — and did so long before ICOs became a crypto-related bandwagon that all sorts of entities were jumping onto. The SafeCoin cryptocurrency is intended to operate as the inventive mechanism for developers to build apps for the Safe Network and users to contribute compute resource and thus bring MaidSafe’s distributed dream alive.

Their timing on the token sale front, coupled with prudent hodling of some of the Bitcoins they’ve raised, means they’re essentially in a position of not having to worry about raising more funds to build the network, according to Lambert.

A rough, back-of-an-envelope calculation on MaidSafe’s original crowdsale suggests, given they raised $2M in Bitcoin in April 2014 when the price for 1BTC was up to around $500, the Bitcoins they obtained then could be worth between ~$30M-$40M by today’s Bitcoin prices — though that would be assuming they held on to most of them. Bitcoin’s price also peaked far higher last year too.

As well as the token sale they also did an equity raise in 2016, via the fintech investment platform bnktothefuture, pulling in around $1.7M from that — in a mixture of cash and “some Bitcoin”.

“It’s gone both ways,” says Lambert, discussing the team’s luck with Bitcoin. “The crowdsale we were on the losing end of Bitcoin price decreasing. We did a raise from bnktothefuture in autumn of 2016… and fortunately we held on to quite a lot of the Bitcoin. So we rode the Bitcoin price up. So I feel like the universe paid us back a little bit for that. So it feels like we’re level now.”

“Fundraising is exceedingly time consuming right through the organization, and it does take a lot of time away from what you wants to be focusing on, and so to be in a position where you’re not desperate for funding is a really nice one to be in,” he adds. “It allows us to focus on the technology and releasing the network.”

The team’s headcount is now up to around 33, with founding members based at the HQ in Ayr, Scotland, and other engineers working remotely or distributed (including in a new dev office they opened in India at the start of this year), even though MaidSafe is still not taking in any revenue.

This April they also made the decision to switch from a dual licensing approach for their software — previously offering both an open source license and a commercial license (which let people close source their code for a fee) — to going only open source, to encourage more developer engagement and contributions to the project, as Lambert tells it.

“We always see the SafeNetwork a bit like a public utility,” he says. “In terms of once we’ve got this thing up and launched we don’t want to control it or own it because if we do nobody will want to use it — it needs to be seen as everyone contributing. So we felt it’s a much more encouraging sign for developers who want to contribute if they see everything is fully open sourced and cannot be closed source.”

MaidSafe’s story so far is reason enough to take note of their whitepaper.

But the consensus issue the paper addresses is also a key challenge for decentralized networks so any proposed solution is potentially a big deal — if indeed it pans out as promised.

 

Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus

MaidSafe reckons they’ve come up with a way of achieving consensus on decentralized networks that’s scalable, robust and efficient. Hence the name of the protocol — ‘Parsec’ — being short for: ‘Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus’.

They will be open sourcing the protocol under a GPL v3 license — with a rough timeframe of “months” for that release, according to Lambert.

He says they’ve been working on Parsec for the last 18 months to two years — but also drawing on earlier research the team carried out into areas such as conflict-free replicated data types, synchronous and asynchronous consensus, and topics such as threshold signatures and common coin.

More specifically, the research underpinning Parsec is based on the following five papers: 1. Baird L. The Swirlds Hashgraph Consensus Algorithm: Fair, Fast, Byzantine Fault Tolerance, Swirlds Tech Report SWIRLDS-TR-2016-01 (2016); 2. Mostefaoui A., Hamouna M., Raynal M. Signature-Free Asynchronous Byzantine Consensus with t <n/3 and O(n 2 ) Messages, ACM PODC (2014); 3. Micali S. Byzantine Agreement, Made Trivial, (2018); 4. Miller A., Xia Y., Croman K., Shi E., Song D. The Honey Badger of BFT Protocols, CCS (2016); 5. Team Rocket Snowflake to Avalanche: A Novel Metastable Consensus Protocol Family for Cryptocurrencies, (2018).

One tweet responding to the protocol’s unveiling just over a week ago wonders whether it’s too good to be true. Time will tell — but the potential is certainly enticing.

Bitcoin’s use of a drastically energy-inefficient ‘proof of work’ method to achieve consensus and write each transaction to its blockchain very clearly doesn’t scale. It’s slow, cumbersome and wasteful. And how to get blockchain-based networks to support the billions of transactions per second that might be needed to sustain the various envisaged applications remains an essential work in progress — with projects investigating various ideas and approaches to try to overcome the limitation.

MaidSafe’s network is not blockchain-based. It’s engineered to function with asynchronous voting of nodes, rather than synchronous voting, which should avoid the bottleneck problems associated with blockchain. But it’s still decentralized. So it needs a consensus mechanism to enable operations and transactions to be carried out autonomously and robustly. That’s where Parsec is intended to slot in.

The protocol does not use proof of work. And is able, so the whitepaper claims, to achieve consensus even if a third of the network is comprised of malicious nodes — i.e. nodes which are attempting to disrupt network operations or otherwise attack the network.

Another claimed advantage is that decisions made via the protocol are both mathematically guaranteed and irreversible.

“What Parsec does is it can reach consensus even with malicious nodes. And up to a third of the nodes being malicious is what the maths proofs suggest,” says Lambert. “This ability to provide mathematical guarantees that all parts of the network will come to the same agreement at a point in time, even with some fault in the network or bad actors — that’s what Byzantine Fault Tolerance is.”

In theory a blockchain using proof of work could be hacked if any one entity controlled 51% of the nodes on the network (although in reality it’s likely that such a large amount of energy would be required it’s pretty much impractical).

So on the surface MaidSafe’s decentralized network — which ‘only’ needs 33% of its nodes to be compromised for its consensus decisions to be attacked — sounds rather less robust. But Lambert says it’s more nuanced than the numbers suggest. And in fact the malicious third would also need to be nodes that have the authority to vote. “So it is a third but it’s a third of well reputed nodes,” as he puts it.

So there’s an element of proof of stake involved too, bound up with additional planned characteristics of the Safe Network — related to dynamic membership and sharding (Lambert says MaidSafe has additional whitepapers on both those elements coming soon).

“Those two papers, particularly the one around dynamic membership, will explain why having a third of malicious nodes is actually harder than just having 33% of malicious nodes. Because the nodes that can vote have to have a reputation as well. So it’s not just purely you can flood the Safe Network with lots and lots of malicious nodes and override it only using a third of the nodes. What we’re saying is the nodes that can vote and actually have a say must have a good reputation in the network,” he says.

“The other thing is proof of stake… Everyone is desperate to move away from proof of work because of its environmental impact. So proof of stake — I liken it to the Scottish landowners, where people with a lot of power have more say. In the cryptocurrency field, proof of stake might be if you have, let’s say, 10 coins and I have one coin your vote might be worth 10x as much authority as what my one coin would be. So any of these mechanisms that they come up with it has that weighting to it… So the people with the most vested interests in the network are also given the more votes.”

Sharding refers to closed groups that allow for consensus votes to be reached by a subset of nodes on a decentralized network. By splitting the network into small sections for consensus voting purposes the idea is you avoid the inefficiencies of having to poll all the nodes on the network — yet can still retain robustness, at least so long as subgroups are carefully structured and secured.

“If you do that correctly you can make it more secure and you can make things much more efficient and faster,” says Lambert. “Because rather than polling, let’s say 6,000 nodes, you might be polling eight nodes. So you can get that information back quickly.

“Obviously you need to be careful about how you do that because with much less nodes you can potentially game the network so you need to be careful how you secure those smaller closed groups or shards. So that will be quite a big thing because pretty much every crypto project is looking at sharding to make, certainly, blockchains more efficient. And so the fact that we’ll have something coming out in that, after we have the dynamic membership stuff coming out, is going to be quite exciting to see the reaction to that as well.”

Voting authority on the Safe Network might be based on a node’s longevity, quality and historical activity — so a sort of ‘reputation’ score (or ledger) that can yield voting rights over time.

“If you’re like that then you will have a vote in these closed groups. And so a third of those votes — and that then becomes quite hard to game because somebody who’s then trying to be malicious would need to have their nodes act as good corporate citizens for a time period. And then all of a sudden become malicious, by which time they’ve probably got a vested stake in the network. So it wouldn’t be possible for someone to just come and flood the network with new nodes and then be malicious because it would not impact upon the network,” Lambert suggests.

The computing power that would be required to attack the Safe Network once it’s public and at scale would also be “really, really significant”, he adds. “Once it gets to scale it would be really hard to co-ordinate anything against it because you’re always having to be several hundred percent bigger than the network and then have a co-ordinated attack on it itself. And all of that work might get you to impact the decision within one closed group. So it’s not even network wide… And that decision could be on who accesses one piece of encrypted shard of data for example… Even the thing you might be able to steal is only an encrypted shard of something — it’s not even the whole thing.”

Other distributed ledger projects are similarly working on Asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerant (AFBT) consensus models, including those using directed acrylic graphs (DAGs) — another nascent decentralization technology that’s been suggested as an alternative to blockchain.

And indeed AFBT techniques predate Bitcoin, though MaidSafe says these kind of models have only more recently become viable thanks to research and the relative maturing of decentralized computing and data types, itself as a consequence of increased interest and investment in the space.

However in the case of Hashgraph — the DAG project which has probably attracted the most attention so far — it’s closed source, not open. So that’s one major difference with MaidSafe’s approach. 

Another difference that Lambert points to is that Parsec has been built to work in a dynamic, permissionless network environment (essential for the intended use-case, as the Safe Network is intended as a public network). Whereas he claims Hashgraph has only demonstrated its algorithms working on a permissioned (and therefore private) network “where all the nodes are known”.

He also suggests there’s a question mark over whether Hashgraph’s algorithm can achieve consensus when there are malicious nodes operating on the network. Which — if true — would limit what it can be used for.

“The Hashgraph algorithm is only proven to reach agreement if there’s no adversaries within the network,” Lambert claims. “So if everything’s running well then happy days, but if there’s any maliciousness or any failure within that network then — certainly on the basis of what’s been published — it would suggest that that algorithm was not going to hold up to that.”

“I think being able to do all of these things asynchronously with all of the mathematical guarantees is very difficult,” he continues, returning to the core consensus challenge. “So at the moment we see that we have come out with something that is unique, that covers a lot of these bases, and is a very good use for our use-case. And I think will be useful for others — so I think we like to think that we’ve made a paradigm shift or a vast improvement over the state of the art.”

 

Paradigm shift vs marginal innovation

Despite the team’s conviction that, with Parsec, they’ve come up with something very notable, early feedback includes some very vocal Twitter doubters.

For example there’s a lengthy back-and-forth between several MaidSafe engineers and Ethereum researcher Vlad Zamfir — who dubs the Parsec protocol “overhyped” and a “marginal innovation if that”… so, er, ouch.

Lambert is, if not entirely sanguine, then solidly phlegmatic in the face of a bit of initial Twitter blowback — saying he reckons it will take more time for more detailed responses to come, i.e. allowing for people to properly digest the whitepaper.

“In the world of async BFT algorithms, any advance is huge,” MaidSafe CEO David Irvine also tells us when we ask for a response to Zamfir’s critique. “How huge is subjective, but any advance has to be great for the world. We hope others will advance Parsec like we have built on others (as we clearly state and thank them for their work).  So even if it was a marginal development (which it certainly is not) then I would take that.”

“All in all, though, nothing was said that took away from the fact Parsec moves the industry forward,” he adds. “I felt the comments were a bit juvenile at times and a bit defensive (probably due to us not agreeing with POS in our Medium post) but in terms of the only part commented on (the coin flip) we as a team feel that part could be much more concrete in terms of defining exactly how small such random (finite) delays could be. We know they do not stop the network and a delaying node would be killed, but for completeness, it would be nice to be that detailed.”

A developer source of our own in the crypto/blockchain space — who’s not connected to the MaidSafe or Ethereum projects — also points out that Parsec “getting objective review will take some time given that so many potential reviewers have vested interest in their own project/coin”.

It’s certainly fair to say the space excels at public spats and disagreements. Researchers pouring effort into one project can be less than kind to rivals’ efforts. (And, well, given all the crypto Lambos at stake it’s not hard to see why there can be no love lost — and, ironically, zero trust — between competing champions of trustless tech.)

Another fundamental truth of these projects is they’re all busily experimenting right now, with lots of ideas in play to try and fix core issues like scalability, efficiency and robustness — often having different ideas over implementation even if rival projects are circling and/or converging on similar approaches and techniques.

“Certainly other projects are looking at sharding,” says Lambert. “So I know that Ethereum are looking at sharding. And I think Bitcoin are looking at that as well, but I think everyone probably has quite different ideas about how to implement it. And of course we’re not using a blockchain which makes that another different use-case where Ethereum and Bitcoin obviously are. But everyone has — as with anything — these different approaches and different ideas.”

“Every network will have its own different ways of doing [consensus],” he adds when asked whether he believes Parsec could be adopted by other projects wrestling with the consensus challenge. “So it’s not like some could lift [Parsec] out and just put it in. Ethereum is blockchain-based — I think they’re looking at something around proof of stake, but maybe they could take some ideas or concepts from the work that we’re open sourcing for their specific case.

“If you get other blockchain-less networks like IOTA, Byteball, I think POA is another one as well. These other projects it might be easier for them to implement something like Parsec with them because they’re not using blockchain. So maybe less of that adaption required.”

Whether other projects will deem Parsec worthy of their attention remains to be seen at this point with so much still to play for. Some may prefer to expend effort trying to rubbish a rival approach, whose open source tech could, if it stands up to scrutiny and operational performance, reduce the commercial value of proprietary and patented mechanisms also intended to grease the wheels of decentralized networks — for a fee.

And of course MaidSafe’s developed-in-stealth consensus protocol may also turn out to be a relatively minor development. But finding a non-vested expert to give an impartial assessment of complex network routing algorithms conjoined to such a self-interested and, frankly, anarchical industry is another characteristic challenge of the space.

Irvine’s view is that DAG based projects which are using a centralized component will have to move on or adopt what he dubs “state of art” asynchronous consensus algorithms — as MaidSafe believes Parsec is — aka, algorithms which are “more widely accepted and proven”.

“So these projects should contribute to the research, but more importantly, they will have to adopt better algorithms than they use,” he suggests. “So they can play an important part, upgrades! How to upgrade a running DAG based network? How to had fork a graph? etc. We know how to hard fork blockchains, but upgrading DAG based networks may not be so simple when they are used as ledgers.

“Projects like Hashgraph, Algorand etc will probably use an ABFT algorithm like this as their whole network with a little work for a currency; IOTA, NANO, Bytball etc should. That is entirely possible with advances like Parsec. However adding dynamic membership, sharding, a data layer then a currency is a much larger proposition, which is why Parsec has been in stealth mode while it is being developed.

“We hope that by being open about the algorithm, and making the code open source when complete, we will help all the other projects working on similar problems.”

Of course MaidSafe’s team might be misguided in terms of the breakthrough they think they’ve made with Parsec. But it’s pretty hard to stand up the idea they’re being intentionally misleading.

Because, well, what would be the point of that? While the exact depth of MaidSafe’s funding reserves isn’t clear, Lambert doesn’t sound like a startup guy with money worries. And the team’s staying power cannot be in doubt — over a decade into the R&D needed to underpin their alt network.

It’s true that being around for so long does have some downsides, though. Especially, perhaps, given how hyped the decentralized space has now become. “Because we’ve been working on it for so long, and it’s been such a big project, you can see some negative feedback about that,” as Lambert admits.

And with such intense attention now on the space, injecting energy which in turn accelerates ideas and activity, there’s perhaps extra pressure on a veteran player like MaidSafe to be seen making a meaningful contribution — ergo, it might be tempting for the team to believe the consensus protocol they’ve engineered really is a big deal.

To stand up and be counted amid all the noise, as it were. And to draw attention to their own project — which needs lots of external developers to buy into the vision if it’s to succeed, yet, here in 2018, it’s just one decentralization project among so many. 

 

The Safe Network roadmap

Consensus aside, MaidSafe’s biggest challenge is still turning the sizable amount of funding and resources the team’s ideas have attracted to date into a bona fide alternative network that anyone really can use. And there’s a very long road to travel still on that front, clearly.

The Safe Network is in alpha 2 testing incarnation (which has been up and running since September last year) — consisting of around a hundred nodes that MaidSafe is maintaining itself.

The core decentralization proposition of anyone being able to supply storage resource to the network via lending their own spare capacity is not yet live — and won’t come fully until alpha 4.

“People are starting to create different apps against that network. So we’ve seen Jams — a decentralized music player… There are a couple of storage style apps… There is encrypted email running as well, and also that is running on Android,” says Lambert. “And we have a forked version of the Beaker browser — that’s the browser that we use right now. So if you can create websites on the Safe Network, which has its own protocol, and if you want to go and view those sites you need a Safe browser to do that, so we’ve also been working on our own browser from scratch that we’ll be releasing later this year… So there’s a number of apps that are running against that alpha 2 network.

“What alpha 3 will bring is it will run in parallel with alpha 2 but it will effectively be a decentralized routing network. What that means is it will be one for more technical people to run, and it will enable data to be passed around a network where anyone can contribute their resources to it but it will not facilitate data storage. So it’ll be a command line app, which is probably why it’ll suit technical people more because there’ll be no user interface for it, and they will contribute their resources to enable messages to be passed around the network. So secure messaging would be a use-case for that.

“And then alpha 4 is effectively bringing together alpha 2 and alpha 3. So it adds a storage layer on top of the alpha 3 network — and at that point it gives you the fully decentralized network where users are contributing their resources from home and they will be able to store data, send messages and things of that nature. Potentially during alpha 4, or a later alpha, we’ll introduce test SafeCoin. Which is the final piece of the initial puzzle to provide incentives for users to provide resources and for developers to make apps. So that’s probably what the immediate roadmap looks like.”

On the timeline front Lambert won’t be coaxed into fixing any deadlines to all these planned alphas. They’ve long ago learnt not to try and predict the pace of progress, he says with a laugh. Though he does not question that progress is being made.

“These big infrastructure projects are typically only government funded because the payback is too slow for venture capitalists,” he adds. “So in the past you had things like Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet — that was obviously a US government funded project — and so we’ve taken on a project which has, not grown arms and legs, but certainly there’s more to it than what was initially thought about.

“So we are almost privately funding this infrastructure. Which is quite a big scope, and I will say why it’s taking a bit of time. But we definitely do seem to be making lots of progress.”

Researchers create the first 3D-printed corneas

Researchers at Newcastle University have been able to 3D-print a biocompatible corneal framework using a new gel formulations that “keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer.”

There is a significant shortage of corneas available to transplant, with 10 million people worldwide requiring surgery to prevent corneal blindness as a result of diseases such as trachoma, an infectious eye disorder,” wrote the researchers. “In addition, almost 5 million people suffer total blindness due to corneal scarring caused by burns, lacerations, abrasion or disease.”

The product uses “human corneal stromal cells” from a donor cornea mixed with alginate and collagen to create bio-ink that can turn into a living cornea. This means that one donor cornea can help multiple patients.

““This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel. Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately,” said researcher Che Connon. He built the technology with Dr. Steve Swioklo.

The corneas take ten minutes to print on a cheap 3D printer, a vast improvement on previous efforts. Further, the gel can keep stem cells alive for days, allowing you to print a few corneas over the course of a week.

“This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel. Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately,” said Connon.

Papua New Guinea threatens to close Facebook for a month to investigate its harmful impact

Facebook is proving problematic for many governments worldwide, but few would think to shut it down entirely.

That’s exactly the approach that Papua New Guinea, the Pacific sea island nation located near Australia, is proposing to take with a new measure that could see the social network closed off for a month. During that period, the government plans to investigate the impact of fake accounts, pornography and false news and information which it said are rife on the social network in the country.

The prospect of a month-long ban was announced by Papua New Guinea’s communications minister Sam Basil who told Post Courier that the government “cannot allow the abuse of Facebook to continue in the country.”

Internet penetration in the country is thought to be less than 15 percent, which suggests at face value that Facebook isn’t particularly mainstream. However, that may not be an accurate measure of how many of the country’s eight million population use the social network since mobile is the primary access point in many parts of Asia Pacific. Still, the ban is unlikely to be welcomed by the population.

Post Courier reported that Basil even floated the idea of a dedicated social network to replace Facebook in the country.

At this point, the Facebook ban — however delicious it may sound given recent events — is not confirmed for Papua New Guinea. It remains a possibility once Basil has liaised with police, according to the media report.

Our attempts to reach Basil via phone and email to confirm the plan were not successful.

Facebook has been under fierce pressure around the way it handles data for its 1.5 billion users after it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm that worked on the successful Trump election campaign, hijacked data on nearly 90 million users of the social network.

The aftermath of the scandal has seen Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify on data security and processes in front of Congress and the House in the U.S., as well as the EU parliament in Europe.

Meanwhile, and of equal importance, Facebook has also been engaged in controversies in the emerging world. The UN has accused it of accelerating racial violence in Myanmar, while the service was closed for three days in Sri Lanka to stop anti-muslim violence. In the Philippines, it has been scrutinized for helping controversial President Rodrigo Duterte into power, while Vietnamese activists have expressed concern that it is helping the government crack down on people in the country.

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