Let's be Clear: I didn't invent Bitcoin
WHEN POLITICIANS and business leaders talk about the need to create a knowledge economy, they probably don’t mean our brightest and best should go out and literally create a new economy using their knowledge. But that is exactly what the New Yorkermagazine this week accused a Trinity College student of doing, in a lengthy article on the virtual currency Bitcoin.
The US technology writer Joshua Davis went sleuthing for “Satoshi Nakamoto”, the pseudonymous figure who revolutionised virtual currency and electronic finance when he announced Bitcoin in 2009. Bitcoins, a virtual currency, can be bought and sold in online exchanges, or used to buy things – some real-world cafes and motels accept them.
Davis combed through the world’s best programmers and cryptographers, eliminating them until he had what he thought was a plausible suspect for its creation: 23-year-old Michael Clear, a Trinity College computer-science postgrad.
Clear was mightily surprised: when Davis contacted him at a cryptography conference in California in August, Clear thought he made it plain that he wasn’t Satoshi.
“I thought I might feature in one paragraph as a possible candidate who was quickly eliminated,” he says, bemused by the whole thing. He has spent the week since the article was published denying he is Satoshi, writing on his website: “Although I am flattered that Josh had reason to think I could be Satoshi, I am certainly the wrong person . . . It seems that even limited searches yield candidates who fit the profile far better than I think I do.”
Clear pointed Davis towards a Scandinavian virtual-currency researcher as a more likely Satoshi, as a lighthearted illustration that even a cursory search could yield a huge number of more credible candidates.
“I think he didn’t get my sense of humour there – maybe it was a little dry for him,” Clear says. Above all, though, he says, “I have never been deeply interested in economics.”
And economics is central to Bitcoin. Controlled by peer-to-peer software, a finite number of bitcoins will be created over the next few years, earned or “mined” by people using the software to crunch numbers and help with the decentralised accountability such a system requires, so they can’t be duplicated or stolen.
Bitcoin is said to be a masterpiece of programming. As the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman said: “Bitcoin has created its own private gold-standard world, in which the money supply is fixed rather than subject to increase via the printing press.”
As interest in Bitcoin increased and its value rose – at its peak stock was worth nearly $33 before tumbling back down to about $5 – the mystique about its creator became a core part of its appeal. But there was no evidence that Satoshi ever existed: he was the Keyser Söze of digital currency creation. So when Davis revealed he finally had a suspect, it created a flurry of media interest, with subsequent articles and blog posts removing the ambiguity of Davis’s piece altogether, despite Clear’s denials.
In true New Yorkerstyle, Davis’s article is a compelling narrative, reminiscent of those pieces where some Catcher in the Ryefan would go hunting for JD Salinger. Clear himself says he enjoyed it, despite what he felt were some misrepresentations. Other Bitcoin observers have also cast doubt on Davis’s detective work, questioning the rigour of his search: among other things, he relied on Satoshi’s excellent use of the Queen’s English to limit his search to British and Irish researchers and settled on Clear because Davis expected to find Satoshi at that Californian conference.
Clear was elected a Trinity scholar in 2008 (not top undergraduate, as the New Yorkersaid). He graduated with a gold medal in 2010 and won the computer-science category of the Undergraduate Awards, for which he’ll get another gold medal from President Mary McAleese at the end of the month.
“I like talking about projects that I was actually involved in,” he says, discussing his security-software start-up and his PhD research on something called fully homomorphic encryption, but he has no interest in taking credit for other people’s work.
Despite the hassle of having to fend off allegations of being the man who invented Bitcoin, Clear now has a reputation as a world-class programmer and cryptographer.
The whole affair also says a lot about the standards being set by Trinity College’s computer-science department. Maybe that long-promised knowledge economy isn’t so far-fetched after all.