Eight years ago, David Irvine launched a company with modest ambitions: to decentralize the Internet.
MaidSafe aims to offer an alternative to the widespread use of servers: a decentralized data network on which decentralized applications can be built.
Decentralization is a persistent theme that has surfaced again and again in the cryptocurrency community, but Irvine has his own unique take on the phenomenon. He often describes how ants, neurons and other natural marvels guide the structure of the decentralized data platform.
In an interview with CoinDesk, Irvine dissected the features of MaidSafe's security-minded network at greater length. Working to shield the privacy, security, and safety of its users, Irvine's network behaves somewhat like an ant colony – as we shall see.
The structures behind nature
Irvine kicked off the conversation by noting that nature itself has no overarching authority: “If you look at the globe from a distance, from a logical perspective, we've actually got a planet full of decentralized systems. They all co-exist at any point in time.”
By Irvine's definition, the world as we know it is composed of relatively unintelligent pieces that squash together to produce a complicated order. He suggested that we need only to look inwards to observe this: “When you take these cells and you put several trillion of them together, all these things with minimal intelligence, they make up a human. The human is a very complex beast.”
Neurons are one example. One neuron is useless on its own, but when it collaborates with a host of others in the brain, they compose “something of remarkable intelligence”.
Thus, Irvine argued, decentralized technologies are more effective because they resemble nature. That is why, in his opinion, the copious lines of code that drive IBM Watson, the cognitive device that famously won Jeopardy, are not the future of artificial intelligence.
However, many sectors, including telecommunications, are currently centralized. Internet service providers store our personal information and data in centralized servers, out of necessity. Companies like Facebook and Google snatch up data and use it for advertising. Centralization also makes it easy for an entity, such as the NSA or GHCQ, to tap into it.
Irvine said he worries that this structure stems privacy, and consequently creativity. However, he thinks nature provides the model for the necessary fixes.
Inside the colony
Irvine pointed to ant colonies as a vivid example of decentralized orders.
These critters divide into a labor camps: soldiers, foragers, cleaners, and food carriers. Ants are constantly assessing the “personas” of the other ants with sensors in their antennae. And they can alter their persona to meet changing conditions.
One morning, an ant might amble out of the hive as a soldier ant, but after meeting a few soldier ants it might determine that that labor camp is too crowded and swap personas, taking on another role.
Organized as such, ants are capable of solving fairly complex problems, he said. For example, Deborah M. Gordon, a Stanford ecologist whom Irvine draws inspiration from, experimented by tossing droplets of dirt in the paths of the ants. A cohort of ants switched to the “cleaner” persona to deal with the debris.
Gordon even suggested in a recent TED talk that Internet network experts learn from these connected organisms.
The MaidSafe network is orchestrated like a giant ant colony. Irvine described in detail how each node, connected over a peer-to-peer network, can infer rules and actions based on the message it receives.
For example, a node may decide to store or communicate the data, assuming a persona similar to a soldier or cleaner ant, in response to the message. However, clearly, the analogy only goes so far: “MaidSafe nodes are like an ant colony, but the nodes are allowed to change their persona a million times per second.”
It is as if MaidSafe is composed of nimble, digital organisms.
When asked why experts have not followed a similar model, Irvine recounted how MaidSafe flies in the face of the way computer scientists are trained. Communicating the ideas behind the decentralized project has been difficult:
“Sometimes when someone says they're an expert, I think 'Oh, good god, you must not be'.”
Ant colonies have been a more effective tool for communicating MaidSafe's decentralized structure to both the skeptical and the uninitiated.
Building the project has been “inordinately difficult”, but nature shows these systems are possible, Irvine said. Dismissing the task as too hard is “rubbish”:
"That, to me, is where we suffer these days from 'There's an app for that' mentality or 'I read all of these newspapers, but only read headlines'. The ability to go into detail seems to be getting lost."
Success is a matter of taking “the Edison route” and crossing off the 10,000 ways that don't work, before reaching the one that does, he added.
What would aliens think?
Irvine suggested that people thinking about the Internet should adopt the point of view of an intelligent being from another planet – who is disconnected from earth and could deliver a fairer judgment.
The alien might perceive the prevailing benefits: the borderless flow of the Internet and the network's ability to “seek some of the intelligence out of their brains,” Irvine said. But, uninhibited and unbiased, an external intelligent being would pick up on the malicious aspects. It might ponder:
“What are these third parties in the middle? What's this Google thing or this Yahoo thing? Some of these people are actually being prevented from looking at some of this information. Then it doesn't look like a move forward. This is not evolution because these people are losing the ability to be creative.”
After discovering these flaws, “this intelligent being from outer space would probably just be very depressed”, he added.
When considering the world from afar, with nature, neurons and ants all considered, for Irvine, decentralization forms a point of view and also a catalyst for change.
Ants image via Shutterstock