What Are People Building With 21 Inc’s Bitcoin Computer?

While it's still early days, there are a number of intriguing projects built around 21 Inc's Bitcoin Computer. CoinDesk looks at the best.

AccessTimeIconJan 7, 2016 at 6:42 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 12:04 p.m. UTC
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Over the course of 2015, 21 Inc went from a mystery startup with no public business plan to one of the industry's most exciting and often debated companies.

With $116m raised from investors, it's safe to say that 21 Inc had high expectations for its first product, the 21 Bitcoin Computer, which it released in September 2015 to wildly varying reviews.

Some developers were dismayed that a Linux-based device based on a Raspberry Pi could be priced so high when it would never mine enough bitcoin to pay for itself. Others argued that the 21 Bitcoin Computer wasn't a conventional bitcoin mining product, but rather a platform that would unlock new use cases for the technology.

In a world rapidly moving towards an Internet of Things, 21's big idea is to one day embed more refined versions of its chips into everyday consumer devices.

Writing in a blog post, CEO Balaji Srinivasan spoke about how 21's technology could one day be used for device authentication, to enable micropayments or even subsidise the distribution of consumer smartphones to the developing world.

He further revealed that 21's vision was not to "build a chip", but create a "full technology stack around the chip" that would include reference devices, data sheets, a cloud backend and software protocols.

The 21 Bitcoin Computer itself features a command line interface and Python 3 library, a 128 GB SD card and a suite of pre-configured software designed to work with the bitcoin blockchain. But, using these building blocks, the company is encouraging users to dream up cool and new things.

And people are doing just that.

While it's very early days, there are a number of intriguing projects in development – more as proofs-of-concept than attempts at creating a working business model.

Here are some of the best.

21, bitcoin computer
21, bitcoin computer

1. Analysing and selling your genes

, junior group leader at the New York Genome Center and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, is testing the 21 Bitcoin Computer (21BC) for different novel use cases involving human genomes.

One project aims to predict phenotypes (which can include your physical characteristics and health, among other things) and/or probabilities of contracting a certain disease from a specific type of text file (VCF) containing a gene sequence.

Pickrell explains on his GitHub page that the tool requires a genome sequence in a VCF file and allows users to predict phenotypes of the person to whom the genome belongs. Specifically, this command line tool pulls a phenotype prediction model from an external server in exchange for bitcoin and then returns the prediction.

Currently, he points out, the server only provides a model for predicting Alzheimer's disease risk and there are "lots of caveats" to risk prediction, hence this project is rather a "toy model".

Intriguingly, Pickrell has another 21BC project that would allow people to sell API calls to their genotypes and phenotypes.

2. Managing work with a 'Mechanical Turk'

Mechanical Turk is a term used for machines that appear to automatically carry out a task when in reality it is being carried out by humans hidden in the background.

Bitcoin Core developer Jeff Garzik recently previewed untested code based on that concept using 21's device to automate the delivery and inspection of work by multiple individuals, as well as award payment for a job well done.

This example uses image analysis but it could be applied to a wide number of operations.

On his GitHub page for the project, Garzik breaks down the process as follow:

  1. Supervisor submits an image, and a list of questions about an image. A minimum number of workers, and a bitcoin reward, is specified.
  2. Workers download the image, answer the question(s), submit results.
  3. API collects work. When X workers have submitted answers, they are compared for matches. The most matches - most accurate - workers receive the reward.

Garzik has a number of 21BC projects on the go, including Causeway, a server storage service that stores and returns data for a certain amount of time, and accept updates if they are signed by a user's payment address.

Or how about a fortune cookie API that lets people receive a "pithy saying" for 10 satoshis?

3. Monetising social media 

What if you could earn money just by reposting from your social media account?

That's the idea behind a project by self-described entrepreneur and tech fan Justin Guy, which harnesses the 21BC to sell retweets on Twitter.

Additionally, a developer going by the username '21JD21' has created a Reddit-like link-sharing site built with the 21BC that charges users to post links, comment and up-vote or down-vote.

BitLink, as the project is called, pays out to whoever posted the link or comment being voted on, thus giving greater rewards to the most active posts.

Other projects have previously sought to monetise social media, for example, with a Bitly alternative that rewards users in bitcoin. Called Cred, the application encourages readers to share content through specialised links that generate rewards – effectively, the application inserts its own advertisements into the user experience.

4. Selling your Wi-Fi

Noted bitcoin advocate, author and entrepreneur Andreas M Antonopoulos also has a GitHub page listing a 21BC project. His is an experimental Wi-Fi captive portal that accepts bitcoin payments for Wi-Fi minutes.

The bitcoin world has previously made attempts to share Wi-Fi with bitcoin payments and CoinDesk wrote about back it in August. While one firm we looked at set up as a bitcoin payment option alongside traditional payments at public hotspots, the other took a different approach and employed networks of Wi-Fi providers incentivised with bitcoin.

21 Inc's device allows a different method again – potentially allowing anyone to sell their Wi-Fi by putting a 21BC in place.

5. Selling creations and assets

Steven McKie is working on making a 21BC endpoint to allow payments for a SoundCloud 3-D audio visualiser coded by developer Alex Smith.

Another project called Download21 allows people to get paid for offline caching of files from streaming music sites.

It can be run as both server and client, and so allows users to run their own server providing file downloads as a service, or to extract files from someone else's server and pay in satoshis.

6. Internet of Things

While it's too early for any projects to have been announced, electronics and engineering giant Bosch recently revealed it had bought a 21BC for its PhD students to play with – the goal being to develop the firm's IoT concepts.

The Bosch Lab said it sees "the young but heavily funded startup 21 Inc ... as a key player in approaching this vision".

What are your favorite 21BC creations? Share your thoughts below:

Sandcastle image via Shutterstock


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