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Navigating Bitcoin, Ethereum, XRP: How Google Is Quietly Making Blockchains Searchable

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It’s a balmy 80 degrees on a mid-December day in Singapore, and something is puzzling Allen Day, a 41-year-old data scientist. Using the tools he has developed at Google, he can see a mysterious concerted usage of artificial intelligence on the blockchain for Ethereum.

Ether is the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency (after bitcoin and XRP), and it still sports a market cap of some $11 billion despite losing 83% of its value in 2018. Peering into its blockchain—the distributed database of transactions underpinning the cryptocurrency—Day detects a “whole bunch” of “autonomous agents” moving funds around “in an automated fashion.”

While he doesn’t yet know who has created the AI, he suspects they could be the agents of cryptocurrency exchanges trading among themselves in order to artificially inflate ether’s price.

“It’s not really just single agents doing things on their own,” Day says from Google’s Asia-Pacific headquarters. “They’re forming with other agents to have some larger group effect.”

Day’s official title is senior developer advocate for Google Cloud, but he describes his role as “customer zero” for the company’s cloud computing efforts.

READ MORE | The Coffee Farmers Betting On Blockchain To Boost Business

As such it’s his job to anticipate demand before a product even exists, and he thinks making the blockchain more accessible is the next big thing.

Just as Google enabled (and ultimately profited) from making the internet more usable 20 years ago, its next billions may come from shining a bright light on blockchains. If Day is successful, the world will know whether blockchain’s real usage is living up to its hype.

Danish researcher Thomas Silkjaer is using Google’s BigQuery to map publicly available information about XRP cryptocurrency addresses. The craters represent some of cryptocurrency’s largest exchanges.

Last year Day and a small team of open-source developers quietly began loading data for the entire Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains into Google’s big-data analytics platform, BigQuery. Then, with the help of lead developer Evgeny Medvedev, he created a suite of sophisticated software to search the data.

In spite of a total lack of publicity, word of the project spread quickly among crypto-minded coders. In the past year, more than 500 projects were created using the new tools, trying to do everything from predicting the price of bitcoin to analyzing wealth disparity among ether holders.

When it comes to cloud computing, Google is far behind Amazon and Microsoft. Last year Google pocketed an estimated $3 billion in revenue from cloud ser­vices. Amazon and Microsoft, meanwhile, generated about $27 billion and $10 billion, respectively.

Day is hoping that his project, known as Blockchain ETL (extract, transform, load), will help even the playing field. But even here Google is trying to catch up. Amazon entered blockchain in a big way in 2018 with a suite of tools for building and managing distributed ledgers.

READ MORE |Blockchain Startups Showed No “Signs Of Life” In 2018

Microsoft got into the space in 2015, when it released tools for Ethereum’s blockchain. It now hosts a range of services as part of its Azure Blockchain Workbench. But while Amazon and Microsoft are focusing on making it easier to build blockchain apps, Day is focusing on exposing how blockchains are actually being used, and by whom.

“In the future, moving more economic activity on chain won’t just require a consensus level of trust,” says Day, referring to the core validating mechanism of blockchain technology.

“It will require having some trust in knowing about who it is you’re actually interacting with.” In other words, if blockchain is to go mainstream, some of its beloved anonymity features will have to be abandoned.

A native of Placer County, California, Day got his first computer at the age of 5 and a few years later started writing simple programs. A fascination with volcanoes and dinosaurs turned his interest to life sciences, and he ultimately graduated from the University of Oregon with a dual degree in biology and Mandarin in 2000. From there he headed to UCLA to pursue a doctorate in human genetics and helped build a computer program to browse the genome.

This Silkjaer image uses data for the XRP cryptocurrency to show the movement of funds across the entire ledger of transactions, culminating in a snapshot of funds in an actual user’s wallet.

It was at UCLA where Day began relying on distributed computing, a concept that is core to blockchains, which store their data on a large network of individual computers. In the early 2000s Day needed to analyze the massive amounts of data that make up the human genome. To solve this problem he hooked many small computers together, vastly increasing their power.

“Distributed-systems technology has been in my tool kit for a while,” Day says.

“I could see there were interesting characteristics of blockchains that could run a global supercomputer.”

Hired in 2016 to work in the health and bio­informatics areas of Google, Day segued to blockchains, the hottest distributed-computing effort on the planet. But the talents he had honed—sequencing genomes for infectious diseases in real time and using AI to increase rice yields—were not easily applied to decoding blockchain.

Before Day and Medvedev released their tools, just searching a blockchain required specialized software called “block explorers,” which let users hunt only for specific transactions, each labeled with a unique tangle of 26-plus alphanumeric characters. Google’s Blockchain ETL, by contrast, lets users make more generalized searches of entire ecosystems of transactions.

To demonstrate how customers could use Blockchain ETL to make improvements to the crypto economy, Day has used his tools to examine the so-called hard fork, or an irrevocable split in a blockchain database, that created a new cryptocurrency—bitcoin cash—from bitcoin in the summer of 2017.

This particular split was the result of a Hatfield and McCoy “war” within the bitcoin community between a group who wanted to leave bitcoin as it was and another who wanted to develop a currency that, like cash, was cheaper and faster to use for small payments.

Using Google’s BigQuery, Day discovered that bitcoin cash, rather than increasing so-called micro-transactions, as the defecting developers claimed, was actually being hoarded among big holders of bitcoin cash.

“I’m very interested to quantify what’s happening so that we can see where the legitimate use cases are for blockchain,” Day says. “Then we can move to the next use case and develop out what these technologies are really appropriate for.”

Day’s work is inspiring others. Tomasz Kolinko is a Warsaw-based programmer and the creator of a service that analyzes smart contracts, a feature of certain blockchains that is designed to transparently enforce contractual obligations like collateralized loans but with less reliance on third parties, like lawyers. Kolinko was frustrated with his blockchain queries.

READ MORE |Ugandan Firm Uses Blockchain To Trace Coffee From Farms To Stores

In December, Kolinko met Day at a hackathon in Singapore. Within a month of the meeting, Kolinko was using Google’s tools to search for a smart contract feature called a “selfdestruct,” designed to limit a contract’s life span. Using his own software in conjunction with Day’s, Kolinko took 23 seconds to search 1.2 million smart contracts—something that would have taken hours before.

The result: Almost 700 of them had left open a selfdestruct feature that would let anyone instantly kill the smart contract, whether that person was authorized or not. “In the past you couldn’t just easily check all the contracts that were using it,” Kolinko says. “This tool is both the most scary and most inspiring I’ve ever built.”

Day is now expanding beyond bitcoin and ethereum. Litecoin, zcash, dash, bitcoin cash, ethereum classic and dogecoin are being added to BigQuery. Independent developers are loading their own crypto data sets on Google.

Last August, a Dutch developer named Wietse Wind uploaded the entire 400 gigabytes of transaction data from Ripple’s XRP blockchain, another popular cryptocurrency, into BigQuery.

Wind’s data, which he updates every 15 minutes, prompted a Danish designer named Thomas Silkjaer to create a heat map of crypto flows. The resulting colorful orb reveals at a glance more than a million crypto wallets, including big ex­changes like Binance and London’s crypto debit card startup Wirex, which are neck deep in XRP transactions.

“Google has been a bit of a sleeping giant in blockchain,” says BlockApps CEO Kieren James-Lubin, who is partnering with Google to sell enterprise blockchain apps.

In addition to Day’s work, Google has filed numerous patents related to the blockchain, including one in 2018 to use a “lattice” of interoperating blockchains to increase security, a big deal in a world where untold millions of crypto have been stolen by hackers.

The company is also pushing its developers to build apps on the Ethereum blockchain, and Google’s venture arm, GV, has made a number of significant investments in crypto startups.

The giant, it seems, is waking up.

-Michael del Castillo; Forbes Staff

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Data Is The New Gold

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The city of Johannesburg was established in 1886 after the discovery of gold. Gold is a mineral that has been deemed valuable for thousands of years. It does not rust and it is malleable.

Gold has been used in jewelry as well as in the semiconductor industry to build electronic circuits. You can bury gold for hundreds of years and the worst it can get is accumulate dust.

Because of its durability, gold has been used to store value in the form of money. In many countries, printed and minted money used to be linked to stored gold, which was reserved in the central bank. This way, central banks used to print as much money as they had gold reserves. There had been many attempts to move away from the gold standard beginning in the United Kingdom in the 1920s.

READ MORE | The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

However, the first successful move from the gold standard was in the 1970s during the Nixon Administration in America.

At this time, the United States (US) ran out of gold and moved from the gold standard and floated the US dollar. Floated currency is regulated by the laws of demand and supply and is closely linked to the economic productivity of a country.

The idea of gold as the most important economic asset has passed. Instead of entrepreneurs going to California to look for gold, as they did in the past, they now go to Silicon Valley to create companies that exploit the acquisition and sharing of data.

Facebook is one such company that has connected the world and expanded our friendships – although, in my opinion, it lowered the quality of those friendships.

Facebook’s most valuable asset is not the software that connects people, which can easily be replicated, but the data of the over two billion active users it connects.

The most valuable asset of Uber, the ride-hailing service that does not own a single taxi, is the data of the people who use it. The prime asset of Google, the largest library, which owns no physical library, is the index that takes customers to their desired websites.

Therefore, the new valuable asset is not gold but it is data. Data has become the new gold! With a population of 1.3 billion people and a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.74 trillion, the population of Africa is growing at the rate of 2.6%.

Much of Africa’s demographic is youthful. Much of this population is increasingly connected to the internet.

In 2017, Facebook had 170 million subscribers, which constitutes approximately 15% of the total population of Africa and this subscription is growing. Companies such as Google reportedly give accounts in exchange of subscriber data. These companies have been reported to have sold this data to entities such as advertisers, political parties etc. The exchange of personal data for an account is unfair trade because the value of personal data is far greater than the value of an account. 

READ MORE | Big Data And Smart Farmers For Africa’s Agricultural Transformation

What do we do to commercialize the vast African database?

Firstly, we need to develop technological capacity to gather, process and monetize the African database. To achieve these, we ought to improve and expand our educational institutions, paying attention to the development of programs in data science. We need to embed data science subjects such as data analytics and software engineering into primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Governments and the African Union ought to expand projects such as the Deep Learning Indaba as well as the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences that are developing mathematics, machine learning and artificial intelligence expertise in Africa.

To gather data, we need to politically organize ourselves to create economies of scale. Regionally, organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should create regional data banks that collect, protect and store regional data.

 Continentally, the African Union should coordinate data gathering and develop data protection policies. We need to create laws and policies that regulate data nationally, regionally and continentally.

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Everything You Need To Know About The Future Of Pesticides And Bees

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Seeing a bee in the city often results in panicked humans running away out of fear of being stung. But the bees are likely less interested in humans than they are in the wildflowers they’re circling around, which are likely a safe and pesticide-free place for the bees to feed. Contrary to what we might assume, researchers have found that urban bees tend to live healthier lives than rural ones — they reproduce more, have more food stores, encounter fewer parasites and live longer.

Pesticides are a tricky topic — while they are great for the crops they are meant to protect, they harm the bees that agriculture relies on. Their use sparked debate at the Forbes 2019 AgTech Summit, where beekeepers discussed the impact of these chemicals for bees, and the potential research still needed to understand their effects, and how technology, urban settings and regulation will affect the future of pollinators. Here’s everything they said — and you need to know — about how pesticides affect bees.

What are pesticides, and how do they affect bees?

Farmers have traditionally used pesticides to control pests like weeds, insects, mold and mildew and animals like rats and mice, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. But they weren’t supposed to affect bees, who are critical to our food system — their pollination impacts every third bite of our food, according to the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit that challenges pesticide use in farming.

The most harmful chemicals to bees are known as neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists have found that bees can be poisoned by flying through a field sprayed with the chemicals, but usually bees find harm through drinking contaminated pollen, nectar and water over time, according to PAN. Exposure to these pesticides can detrimental harm to bees over time, weakening their immune systems, shortening their adult life cycle and increasing their disorientation, and could be a cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned 12 types of neonicotinoids in May — from companies Syngenta, Valent and Bayer — there are still 47 more types on the market. 

Can technology help with pesticides use?

There’s lots of startups looking into technology to change pesticides use and how we define them, especially in Europe, said Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, co-founder and CEO of ApisProtect. Her company, based in Ireland, utilizes machine learning to gather data about bee hive health. But Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals, said that to completely rely on these new solutions for pesticides wouldn’t necessarily be the right solution. “To think there is going to be a pesticide outlet that’s not going to be damaging in some way, shape or form is just a little bit naive,” Stein says.

If anything, removing pesticides all together could mean growers would have to resort back to older methods of pest control that could potentially be more harmful to the bees, says Stein, who was listed on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30. Instead, there should be further research into how pesticides interact with other chemicals, and the subsequent effect on bees. Her company — whose mission is to reinvent the medicine cabinet with bee-based products —outsources its production to regions with no pesticides use like Canada, and conducts third-party pesticides testing on all its raw materials to produce its organic products.

pollination panel agtech
From left to right: Moderator Chloe Sorvino, Timothy “Paule” Jackson, Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, Carly Stein and Ellie Symes speak about pollination at the 2019 Forbes AgTech Summit.MATT KANG FOR FORBES

How can urban beekeeping help?

But there are locations that are more sustainable for beekeeping, though, and they might not be where you predict. Timothy “Paule” Jackson’s nonprofit, Detroit Hives, builds urban bee farms in abandoned lots in Detroit, Michigan. By planting wildflowers, it provides bees a safe place to feed with little to no pesticides, Jackson said. “We have so many bees where wildflowers are sprouting, and we’re not spraying any chemicals on these wildflowers that they are actually boosting the native bee population,” Jackson says.

Stein mentioned that urban bees are often healthier than wild bees because of urban bee farms like Detroit Hives. While she loves meeting urban beekeepers, the issue is that there aren’t enough of them to sustain commercial production in the U.S., she says.

How can growers help beekeepers?

While there may be no immediate solution to pesticides, what’s needed is a stronger line of communication between beekeepers and growers, said Ellie Symes, CEO Of The Bee Corp and winner of the THRIVE Sustainability Award. She’s noted that her company has actually started working closer with growers, helping bridge the gap of education between the two groups of agricultural workers. It’s helpful for at least beekeepers to know what crops are being sprayed with pesticides and when, she says.

“We are starting to see the different players working together, the chemical companies getting involved and being interested and that’s what matters,” Symes says. “We’ll figure this issue out, but everyone’s gotta be involved.”

=Haley Kim; Forbes Staff

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The Anatomy Of A Fake Cryptocurrency Trade: How Exchanges Create Phony Transactions

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Take a close look at trading activity on BKEX—a cryptocurrency exchange founded in 2018 and registered in the British Virgin Islands—and you’ll see something odd. Compare its transactions side-by-side with those of Binance, one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world, and you’ll notice BKEX’s trading history is a replica, printing the same numbers delayed by a few seconds.

According to CoinMarketCap, BKEX has $1.1 billion in daily volume, making it the 20th-largest exchange on the planet. Yet it seems to be simply copying Binance’s trade history and passing it off as its own, in perhaps the laziest attempt in history to fool people into thinking it’s a lively place to trade digital assets.   

A new report by Alameda Research, a 20-person crypto trading firm with offices in Hong Kong and Berkeley, California, reveals a clever set of tricks used by crypto exchanges to fabricate volume.

In the wake of other reports on phony trades, including one by digital asset manager Bitwise indicating that 95% of all transactions are bogus, Alameda felt it could create better research by leveraging its trading data and experience.

READ MORE | Is Forex A Scam Or Money Goals?

The startup was cofounded in 2017 by Sam Bankman-Fried, 27, an MIT alum and former trader at high frequency trading outfit Jane Street. Gary Wang, 26, a fellow MIT grad and former Google software developer, is his cofounder. The firm has $100 million in assets, and over the past month it has traded $1 billion a day on average, making it one of the largest crypto trading firms in the world. 

Exchanges make money by charging users to trade, and they have many reasons to artificially inflate volume. More activity means a higher rank on the still-popular website CoinMarketCap, which can attract new users.

Exchanges also charge fees to new cryptocurrency projects that want to get listed in their marketplace, and the perception of popularity helps them command higher rates. Since an exchange’s place of business is just a website or an app, and many located outside the U.S. are unregulated, it can publish any numbers it wants and call them trades.

Meanwhile, CoinMarketCap continues to insufficiently vet exchanges’ transaction volume, often taking companies at their word and publishing dubious numbers. 

According to Alameda’s research, another method exchanges use to juice their statistics is sneaking in large, fake transactions amid a flurry of smaller ones. CoinEgg, a Hong Kong-registered exchange that trades $1.1 billion a day reported by CoinMarketCap, recently employed this tactic with litecoin (LTC) trades.

During a period when Alameda observed 15 different offers to buy and sell litecoin in a maximum quantity of 134 LTC, several trades printed as large as 2,000 LTC, as if a buyer appeared out of thin air. 

Trading marketplaces typically publish their “order book,” showing a list of bid prices at which people are willing to buy an asset, plus a separate set of offer prices where people are willing to sell.

READ MORE | How Cryptocurrency Scams Work

For instance, Bill might be willing to buy bitcoin at $10,000, while Mary wants to sell at no less than $10,050. For a trade to happen, a new buyer must be willing to pay the $10,050 that Mary is offering, and the vast majority of trades that clear will align with orders that previously showed up in the order book, unless two users place offsetting orders at the same exact time. 

Yet on some exchanges, trades get executed at prices and sizes that fall outside anything sitting on the order book. On Digifinex, a Singapore-based crypto trading venue, Alameda observed bids and asks for bitcoin between $8,296 and $8,298, but several trades printed at $8,290 and $8,293, prices lower than what anyone was willing to sell at.

On LAToken, a Moscow digital exchange, Alameda saw bids and offers with a maximum size of 1.6 bitcoin in the order book. Implausibly, several trades sailed through at sizes up to 20 bitcoin. LAToken founder Valentin Preobrazhenskiy says his platform only has a “tiny share” of 20-bitcoin orders and that exchanges use inflated volumes as a marketing tool.

“The situation would change when large exchange-ranking sites would add a section for trading volumes based on trades reported to regulators,” he says. On Singapore-based ABCC, the best bid and offers Alameda saw were for sizes less than one ether, yet several transactions materialized with sizes of up to 11 ether. 

Among trading venues, there’s also the well-worn method of simply printing transactions that fall in the middle of the bid and ask prices, which Alameda’s research spotted in IDAX and Coineal. In total, Alameda’s report gives examples of fishy trading patterns on 60 different crypto exchanges. Aside from LAToken, none of the exchanges named above responded immediately to Forbes’ request for comment. 

The methodology behind Alameda’s research was to test each exchange on six different criteria. First, they manually looked at an exchange’s order book and observed where trades printed. If more than 10% of transactions didn’t appear on the order book, it failed on this dimension. Another test involved observing the percent of an exchange’s trades that took place at the best available bids or offers. 

A third criterion was to analyze how much Alameda itself traded on a given exchange, since the startup deals in “virtually every cryptocurrency,” considers its algorithms “exchange-agnostic” and estimates that it trades 5% of all global crypto volume.

“If we trade more than .5% of an exchange’s reported volume, we consider that exchange to pass according to this criterion,” the report  reads. For more details on its methodology, see the full report.

Beyond exchanges’ bad behavior, the report has other provocative insights. It claims that crypto—including both “spot” trades of actual digital assets and derivatives, like bitcoin futures—trades $38 billion in real volume a day, and 87% of that happens on Asian exchanges, with just 9% happening on U.S. venues. The strict regulatory environment in the U.S. is likely a contributing factor in Asia’s dominance, Alameda says. 

Compared with Bitwise, which released a follow-up fake volume reportin May 2019, Alameda thinks more crypto volume is real. For large exchanges like OKEx and Huobi, which were founded in China, Alameda estimates about 70% of their transactions are authentic.

Bitwise is much more skeptical, as is the Blockchain Transparency Institute, which has estimated that more than 60% of Huobi’s volume is fake and more than 90% of OKEx’s volume is fabricated. 

A Huobi spokesperson says it doesn’t engage in wash trading, but that it has observed some market-makers doing so on its platform, and it takes steps to stamp them out.

An OKEx spokesperson says the company isn’t involved in and doesn’t tolerate wash trading, adding, “Recently we have joined the Data Accountability & Transparency Alliance (DATA) led by CoinMarketCap, as a commitment to reveal as much data as possible.”

-Jeff Kauflin; Forbes Staff

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