Interview with Mike Hearn: Will the real Satoshi please stand up?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

There’s an enduring mystery in the bitcoin world; it has nothing to do with mining algorithms or hidden features within the bitcoin coding; it is: who is Satoshi Nakamoto? In fact, if bitcoiners had a song, perhaps it would be: “Will the real Satoshi please stand up?”

The enigmatic character who created the original Bitcoin software in 2008 is the subject of many theories as to who he is and where he is from. Depending on what you read, or whom you listen to, Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym for one person or even a group of people and theories as to his location or place of origin range from Japan, to Britain to Finland.

On the P2P (peer to peer alternatives) site in February 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto introduced bitcoin on his profile page, which states he is a 38-year-old male in Japan.

Prime suspects as to the hidden identity of Satoshi have included OpenCoin founder and creator of Mt.Gox, Jed McCaleb and Finnish compuer scientist, Martti Malmi. Malmi states here that he contacted Satoshi Nakamoto after he came up with the idea of a decentralised Internet currency. He was also the first person to make a Bitcoin to US dollar transaction.

According to the bitcoin Wikipedia entry, an investigation by Fast Company links three men, Neal King, Vladimir Oksman and Charles Bry, who in 2008 filed an encryption patent containing similar encryption technologies to bitcoin and the fact the bitcoin.org domain name was registered 72 hours later. Similar phrases were also said to have appeared in the patent and the 2008 bitcoin white paper.

Shinichi Mochizuki has been another name thrown into the ring. The Japanese mathematician was born in 1969, making him similar in age to how old Satoshi claimed to be and having lived and studied in the US also has fluency in English. On that point, it is also thought Satoshi could be British due to some of the language and formatting of his written work.

Even Paco Ahlgren has been mentioned and although much less widely circulated, his name has still cropped up in forums. The author and financial analyst has written articles extolling the virtues of bitcoin: http://www.pacoahlgren.com/pacoahlgren/bitcoin-cannot-fail/

So, although we may never find out the real identity, one man who probably has a better insight into Satoshi Nakamoto than most, is Google software developer and author of bitcoinj, Mike Hearn, who I spoke to recently.

He first heard about bitcoin back in 2009 when it was just a few months old and there were no forums or communities in which to get involved. Interested in how it worked and with no one to transact with, he emailed Satoshi Nakamoto. “I asked him some questions about how it worked and stuff I didn’t understand and he sent me some coins and I sent them back,” Hearn says, adding, laughing, “I should probably have kept them.”

With nothing much happening in the early days, Hearn “lost interest for a bit” but came back to bitcoin in September 2010, realising a small community had formed and bitcoins now had a price, albeit of only around 10-20 cents. He started to develop on it himself at that point and says, “Throughout this time I emailed back and forth with Satoshi quite a lot about technical topics.”

But when asked about who Satoshi is or whether Satoshi is one individual or possibly a group, Hearn seems adamant that Satoshi is just one man. “I don’t know where this idea that it was a group of people came from. Some people seem to say, ‘this is really clever therefore it must have been a group of people,’ but that doesn’t really hold. I don’t think there is any evidence that it was more than one guy. For one thing, the way the code was written implies it was the work of one guy.”

With Satoshi Nakamoto having stepped away publicly from bitcoin, I asked Hearn what he thought he would be making of how quickly bitcoin is growing and in particular, what he might think of how the pace of bitcoin mining is evolving. “I don’t think anyone really understood the speed at which things would go,” he says. “[Satoshi] talked about maybe one day there would be industrial consortiums with farms of GPUs. The way he phrased it was ‘in the distant future, this might happen.’” However, he seems to think Satoshi would have liked to delay that moment to allow as many people as possible to take part with their regular computers. “Satoshi did anticipate that mining hardware would get better but it was remote, theoretical possibility. The whole idea that it would take off sounded so ridiculous back then.”

Hearn believes it is not only the speed at which hardware is changing but also how fast it is entering public consciousness that would surprise Satoshi. When people were encouraging bitcoin to be used for projects such as Wikileaks, Hearn says Satoshi believed it was “too early” and bitcoin was “too small”. That argument certainly couldn’t be used today.

Whoever Satoshi is, Hearn thinks he would have liked him. He ends by telling me, “I think I would have liked him if I’d met him. I even tried to recruit him to work at Google once.”

For a little more from this interview, a short clip is available here. Please bear in mind this is not a quality, audio recording but hopefully you find might find it interesting.

More from this interview on decentralised exchange and alternative currencies will be featured in another post soon!

 

By Louise Goss


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