Filecoin’s Juan Benet on what decentralization means for data exchange
Many people understand that blockchain technology has the potential to improve financial systems; but decentralization is going to change so much more – including the way we share and store data itself. Juan Benet is the founder of Filecoin, a decentralized storage network that acts as a Bitcoin-based payment system (think PayPal for cryptocurrency). While Filecoin allows for a simpler, cleaner, more direct form of payment, it also opens the door to bigger ideas – like free and open data exchange.
Juan Benet: Hi, my name is Juan Benet and I work on Filecoin. Think of it kind of like the payment system of Bitcoin. Before Bitcoin, we didn’t really have a decentralized mode of paying each other money, right? So whenever you sent money to somebody else, like in the current banking system, you have to use a whole bunch of intermediaries to move the money. That means that they have a lot of control over who you can send money to, whether or not they can freeze your funds and so on. And so with Bitcoin we had a shift where suddenly people weren’t able to control who you send money to. And what we’re fighting to create is the same kind of structure but for data and, ultimately, computer programs being able to run over any data. The idea is to make it so that humans can communicate with each other, can work with each other – and so on – and generate data and use data without having to ask for permission to a whole set of centralized parties. We think that information and data are core components of humans’ activity day-to-day, nowadays, and eventually computing is going to be seen as kind of like a human right kind of thing. Already access to the Internet is a human right, so imagine being able to have a much more resilient and robust foundation for all of that information that doesn’t rely on any kind of centralized parties.
What are the challenges of solving this problem in the next 10 years?
I think the biggest challenge to these kinds of networks is making sure they’re efficient. So if the efficiency is not better than the current centralized architectures, they just won’t get used. It is very important for projects like Filecoin, for Filecoin itself and for projects like Filecoin, to make sure that the costs of storing and the access patterns, and so on, are as efficient as the centralized counterparts and ideally more efficient. So some of the way that we’re doing that is by driving the cost of storage as low as possible. We are setting up a – Filecoin is a decentralized storage market where participants who have a lot of storage can come and provide it. And if they have the ability to set a lower price than the current network offers, they are totally able to do so and then their storage is gonna get preferred over others, right? So imagine actually commoditizing storage, so taking digital storage and turning it into a proper commodity, and have a proper market where storage providers can compete to provide the best possible prices as low as possible. Without having to all of them come up with massive economies of scale to compete with the centralized players. So it turns out that the centralized players are not as efficient as the whole market could be, and if you turn into a real market, you could drive efficiency both in the cost of storage and in the latency of retrieval. So we think that by creating a market like this, we can actually improve the time to retrieval pretty significantly, so you can have a much faster internet access.
How will decentralization change our lives in the next 10 years?
I hope that in ten years we have a proper digital self-sovereignty. And what that means is, as a human, you’re using the Internet to interact with and communicate with a lot of other people. And as you do that, you’re generating a lot of data. That data is currently held by the applications that run those programs. So think of your social media posts being stored in Facebook or Twitter or something like that. And, we think that’s really problematic for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that it’s not really your data – it’s their data. They have control of the data and they can decide what to do with it. You know, there’s potentially some regulation that can improve things a little bit, but ultimately, it’s very difficult for humans to set up their own personal data store, and so on, that has their own policy for how to use the data and that kind of thing. So we hope that in ten years time, the technical reasons for why that was hard, to be removed, so that those kinds of systems can evolve. Meaning social networks where they work just as nicely as something like Facebook, but the data storage doesn’t have to be in a private server that they control, but rather can be in a public cloud on something like the Filecoin centralized storage network.
So where these social networks can interact over your data, and would have to require the kind of sharing and policies that individuals grant, and they have control over their own data. So humans having control over their identity, over the data they generate and share with other people, over the programs that they use and so on. So we hope that the idea of personal computing will extend to the software that we use. So today you can think of owning your laptop, right? And that’s a device that you own and the manufacturer can’t come to your house tomorrow and say, “Hey, you know, our business model has changed and we really want to recall this laptop because our business is moving in a different direction and you were renting it”. No, you buy these things, you now control them, you own them and they can’t come back and take it away. Software doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately today, people use web and mobile applications that are really run by a huge system out there. If that business changes, for whatever reason, either they shut down the service or change features and so on, and they can change all of what you were using. So these things aren’t really tools. And so we hope that you know, ten years out, we have the ability to control not just the data we generally use, but also the applications that we use to to generate the data and interact with other people. We also hope that the internet will be a lot more resilient and capable of withstanding serious attacks.
What do we have to consider when building decentralized technologies?
Yeah, it’s very critical that all of the people who are building tech – especially this new kind of infrastructure – that they pay very close attention to the properties that they’re enabling and think through what other people will be able to do with these systems. What kind of attacks might people be able to run. And, it is gonna be anything that gains significant scale, any kind of system that really succeeds, will get exploited and people will use it for a bunch of good things and a bunch of bad things. So it’s important that we try and and limit the attack surface as much as we can.
How do we not screw it up?
“What are the things we don’t know?” are going to become important later. What are the things that we don’t think or don’t yet know about, or don’t understand are important and so on. I’ll give you a very concrete example. So today, very recently society has become very acutely aware that social media has been used as a propaganda machine, right? So various parties around the world are buying ads to distribute, disseminate certain kind of information and to drive behavior. And aside from that, social media and the structure that we currently have, have fractured our common understanding. And so, people didn’t really predict that. There was a vague idea back in the day when social networks were first beginning, that this might be a risk, but it was completely discounted. Nobody really understood. We all believed that as long as you gave people the tools to be able to connect to each other and to talk to each other, and so on, then everything was gonna be great. What turns out, it’s actually disconnected us even further. So it’s created pockets of society where people can recede into echo chambers with each other and no longer talk to the rest of society and that is highly divisive. And it’s a huge threat to our civilization in a big way. It’s creating an environment where, you know, things like democracy might not even work anymore. You can’t even find common ground and you can’t even argue about positions, people are in complete disagreement about things. And so that wasn’t predicted. So, I think that what’s gonna happen with these systems, is something like that will happen, where something we weren’t even aware of might go wrong. So that’s one of the things that we’re concerned about. And we try to think through potential failure scenarios, and so on.