Transhumanism and the History of Bitcoin

What has Transhumanism got to do with the history of Bitcoin?

Actually quite a bit.

One of the leading developers the core mathematical ideas that make Bitcoin possible today is Dr. Ralph Merkle. Dr. Merkle is also a leading researcher  in the areas of cryonics and nanotechnology and also is an Alcor board member since 1998.

Dr. Merkle received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1979 where he co-invented public key cryptography. Dr. Merkle invented cryptographic hashing now called the Merkle–Damgård construction based on a pair of articles published 10 years later that established the security of the scheme, and he also invented Merkle trees an efficient data structure used in BitCoin. The Merkle–Damgård construction was originally described in Ralph Merkle’s Ph.D. thesis in 1979.

Merkle trees are binary trees of hashes and they help to make BitCoin efficient. Specifically, the Merkle trees in Bitcoin use a double SHA-256 hash, that is they store the SHA-256 hash of an SHA-256 hash.

(Merkle’s work explained by Samid)

Ideas about digital currencies were popular in the early Extropian and cypherpunk movements. The idea of a so called “cryp”, which was imagined as a form of cryptographic currency or digital cash was discussed on the Extropian mailing list as early as 1992.  [Eli Brandt, Nov 11, 1992, on the Extropians email list] The notion of the cryp is that payment is made by “electronic means where the seller is guaranteed payment, but the buyer can remain anonymous”.

There was some overlap of course between the cypherpunks and early Extropians. Various ideas were cross pollinated at that time. Earlier attempts to integrate cryptography with electronic money were made by David Chaum who developed both DigiCash and ecash, systems both of which used cryptography to anonymise electronic money transactions. The goal was supposedly emulating the anonymity of paper and coin based currencies in electronic form. However both systems required centralized issuing and clearing unlike Bitcoin.

The theoretical ideas behind electronic money and Chaum’s work drew mainstream press attention in the early 1990s, for example Stephen Levy’s article in WIRED 2.12. The idea was quite widely known in the fringe software and cyber scene, including virtual reality software developers, Internet hackers, and the various readers of Extropy and Mondo 2000 Magazine that also covered this idea. Many of these people were starting to connect with each other around the San Francisco Bay Area at that time using the Internet and USENET, email lists, etc. However, none of these early eMoney systems was successful for various reasons largely not applicable today. Electronic or digital money also features in a variety of science fiction and cyberpunk fiction, including films of that era such as Total Recall.

The ability to engage in anonymous and untraceable financial transactions was seen as critical to the essentially libertarian aims of the Extropians in the early 1990s, and the idea of cryp along with important inventions such as the Internet and molecular manufacturing would allow for a true free and abundant society. The idea was much like what we would now call a peer to peer system operating free from the interference of national governments.

Of course Bitcoin is not quite what was envisioned with the cryp. And the differences are important, for example the anonymity of the current use of Bitcoin is limited for the inexperienced user and at best requires use of additional software such as Zerocoin or Dark Wallet or perhaps illegal mixing services to achieve what was imagined by the Extropians.

So when someone asks what transhumanists have done for the world, one thing to quite seriously mention is Bitcoin and the pioneering work of Dr. Ralph Merkle and how his technical ideas merged with the dreams of the early Extropians to develop an economy around cryp.

Final thought: Is Satoshi a transhumanist?


Dr. Merkel on Quantum Computing and Public Key Cryptography

“QCs are in our future. This, of course, means all of our existing public-key cryptosystems (PKCSs) will become vulnerable to attack. As the time to develop new, QC-resistant PKCSs is long, the time to certify them is long, the time to standardize them is long, the time to deploy them is long, and the time for existing systems to finally be replaced is long, even if a QC is 20 years away starting the process today might already be too late. And no one really knows how long it might be before someone has a QC.”

Dr. Merkle’s home page is at He joined Alcor in 1989 and joined the Alcor Board in 1998. See video of Dr. Merkle’s presentation on Nanotechnology and Cryonics at the 2006 Alcor Conference.

Dr. Merkle joined Xerox PARC in 1988, where he pursued research in security and computational nanotechnology until 1999. He was a Nanotechnology Theorist at Zyvex until 2003, when he joined the Georgia Institute of Technology as a Professor of Computing until 2006.

He chaired the Fourth and Fifth Foresight Conferences on Nanotechnology, was co-recipient of the 1998 Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology for theory, co-recipient of the ACM’s Kanellakis Award for Theory and Practice and the 2000 RSA Award in Mathematics. Dr. Merkle has fourteen patents and has published extensively. He is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. In 2001 he and Robert Freitas co-founded the Nanofactory Collaboration and in 2008 he and Freitas published “A Minimal Toolset for Positional Diamond Mechanosynthesis” which describes positionally-controlled atom-by-atom fabrication of diamondoid materials. In 2011 Dr. Merkle was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Dr. Merkle on Molecular Nanotechnology


Dr. Merkle on Cryonics


5 Responses

  1. Mike Lorrey says:

    This is leaving out the originator of the concept, Nick Szabo, whose original proposal for bitcoin (then called bit gold) I reviewed for him back in the day. The wayback machine identifies who Satoshi really is:

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