What Ethereum's DAO Disaster Means for Bitcoin Development

As The DAO struggles to find its path forward after multiple attacks, entrepreneurs must find a way forward. Is bitcoin's blockchain ready for them?

Jun 22, 2016 at 12:05 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 12:20 p.m. UTC
CoinDesk Insights

Up until the point when The DAO collapsed, it was a symbol of the explosion of innovation that the ethereum blockchain had enabled.

While the consumer-facing apps built on the bitcoin blockchain have been largely limited to various wallets, exchanges and casinos, at the time of The DAO's collapse, more than 50 projects were awaiting votes on their request to fund ideas as diverse as a new way to lease cars and entirely new forms of governance.

But, these efforts are now stalled, and the $60m worth of ether destined to be invested in them, as of now, is lost in limbo.

Amid the ongoing crisis, some of bitcoin’s best-known computer scientists are using the incident to point to bitcoin’s slow growth as its greatest asset.

They argue that while bitcoin’s simplistic machine language takes much longer to write with than ethereum’s Turing-complete coding language, Solidity, it is also less prone to mistakes.

Bitcoin Core developer Peter Todd told CoinDesk:

"My thinking is if I can’t explain a system to a drunk guy with a fine arts degree and have him have a decent chance of understanding how it works, at least at some level, chances are the system is too complex for me to understand."

Make me a sandwich

It wasn’t until the morning of the attack that Todd says he first looked in detail at the way Solidity operates.

What he discovered was what he described as a problem of levels of abstraction. Too much knowledge was demanded of the developers whose ideas were behind the explosion of ethereum-based app development.

While ethereum’s digital currency-powered blockchain, combined with a Turing-complete programming language, promised to let developers easily construct distributed applications (dapps), according to Todd, the skill to actually deliver on that promise might be higher than expected.

Though it takes more work using bitcoin’s scripting language to accomplish the same tasks as with ethereum’s Solidity, it's also easier to see the problems, Todd argued. The very nature of the bitcoin scripting language means that each of its different states can be analyzed in isolation. With Solidity on the other hand, the problem is essentially a moving target.

Todd likened it to making a sandwich. With ethereum, the sandwich would require instructions on where to place the knife on the bread before applying mustard, and how many times to spread the condiment.

Whereas with bitcoin, developers order the ingredients themselves.

"You say, I want this on my sandwich, go make that happen," said Todd. "And you will get predictable results because you’re at the right level of abstraction."

Christopher Allen, principal architect at bitcoin development startup Blockstream, put the sandwich metaphor differently:

"[Ethereum] is like if you were given a pig and some wheat."

Build me a plane

Prior to joining Blockstream earlier this year, Allen co-authored the TLS security standards that help protect a wide range of communications via our modern computer networks.

Allen said the perception that ethereum was easy to build with naturally led to an expectation that complicated, large-scale projects like The DAO should be built. When in reality, he argues, the problems could be broken down into simpler components and resolved in more traditional ways.

One example Allen mentioned that those whose projects are now in limbo in The DAO might want to consider is using existing contract law and the open-source principles to found and test a network of traditional limited liability corporations. Then, after the LLCs are established, run experiments with how to encode certain parts of the work-flow using ethereum's blockchain or bitcoin’s blockchain.

Another way forward for those DAO projects trapped in limbo is to break down the concepts coded into their software into more the fundamental elements of a transaction, for which he says bitcoin is better suited.

By using this method, and solving small groups of problems at a time, he contends DAO developers could discover new ways to use existing bitcoin technology and other tools currently being developed to express the idea as a series of transactions.

Allen compares today’s dapp construction to the early days of the airplane development when successful models were built using wood and paper.

Allen said:

"We need to have more test pilots and we need to have more experimental planes and things of that nature. This is dangerous for a while."

Bitcoin is a net

In the history of digital currency, The DAO will likely go down as the Mt Gox of ethereum. One key difference, however, is that this time around the digital currency industry has a stronger sense of itself.

Unlike Mt Gox, which had a relatively small support team and was overseen autocratically by its then-CEO, The DAO is being triaged by the Internet of Things startup, Slock.it, which wrote its original open-source code; members of the Ethereum Foundation that helps oversee the ethereum codebase; and a drove of independent coders connecting online.

But another key difference is that when Mt Gox collapsed, the bitcoin community had nothing to fall back on but its own ingenuity.

While Peter Todd argues that computer science isn’t yet ready to successfully pull-off what The DAO claimed to offer — a leaderless organization run on a bundle of smart contracts and designed to support an ecosystem of related startups — he says that ongoing work by Bitcoin Core developers and the surrounding ecosystem are advancing efforts to build similar distributed autonomous services without the bugs.

Yesterday, he published a lengthy update on his work to build a state-machine approach to "smart contract" systems, called Proofchains or Dex. In interview Todd also mentioned the work of Johnson Lau’s Merkelized Abstract Syntax Tree, which he said "begins to allow us to do much more complex constructions".

Allen’s Blockstream already has Elements Project, an open-source community for deploying sidechains used to test early versions of bitcoin’s proposed Segregated Witness upgrade. Segregated Witness is in its own right another example of efforts underway by the bitcoin community to increase the complexity it can host, while not sacrificing safety.

Far from being a stranger to controversy, Todd himself is one of the central figures behind the debate over how best bitcoin can scale.

In interview he said he felt bad for the Ethereum developers who are currently trying to solve the problems that led to the current crisis.

But in the same way he and other bitcoin developers learned from Mt Gox, he said he’s trying to learn from The DAO:

"We really have to be careful to not allow the kinds of things that happened with The DAO. Or even worse, things that might risk the entire bitcoin ecosystem. Could it be said that we are too conservative? Quite possibly."

Bitcoin image via Shutterstock

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