The Internet did something strange last week. When a researcher named Skye Grey posted a detailed analysis of textual biases in the writing of shadowing Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and a researcher named Nick Szabo at George Washington University, the interest was muted but optimistic. Did Grey, who declined to go into much personal detail, crack the code? Or was it, as always, just a matter of lucky conjecture.
Whether or not Satoshi is a real person, group of people, or some sort of government entity is important. It gives closure to the currency’s origin story and it can confirm or deny a whole host of rumors and innuendo bandied about in the fringier corners of the Bitcoin market. If BTC were a way to get us out from under the government, why is Satoshi so secretive? While Grey’s analysis is still being proved or disproved, the process, in the end, is fascinating.
Given that Grey’s analysis was, on the surface, solid, I reached out for a short interview.
TC: Tell me about yourself. Why did you do this study?
SG: Originally it was simple curiosity that drew me to the question. I like mysteries. Then I decided to publish what I found for two reasons:
- so that other people could attack my method and findings, or validate them. I want certitudes, and keeping for me what I had found would not get me anywhere.
- so as to address people’s concerns that a “bad guy” might have created Bitcoin. I think this question is what could harm the mainstream adoption of Bitcoin in the near future.
TC: How sure are you it’s Nick Szabo?
SG: I am not certain it’s Nick Szabo, but I have quite a few independent pieces of evidence pointing in his direction, each one interesting in itself:
- text analysis (only 0.1% of cryptography researchers could have produced this writing style –again, please, attack my methods on this)
- fact that Nick was searching for technical collaborators on the bit gold project (a very similar cryptocurrency) a few months before the announcement of Bitcoin (and then the bit gold project became perfectly silent)
- lack of citation of Nick’s work by Satoshi, whereas he cited other, less related cryptocurrencies
- lack of reaction on Nick’s part about Bitcoin, whereas a decentralized currency like Bitcoin had been a major project of his for 10 years
- fact that Nick deliberately post-dated his bit gold articles to look posterior to Bitcoin, shortly after the announcement of Bitcoin
Currently I am in contact with two different persons who will be running their own independent textual analysis to confirm my own.
TC: Does it matter? What would it change if it did, in your opinion?
SG: I think it’s very important to identify Satoshi at this point in Bitcoin’s history. The “agenda” behind Bitcoin, if there is any, cannot stay in the shadow if Bitcoin is to become a mainstream alternative currency, a challenge to the world’s monetary status quo. There has been speculation that Bitcoin may have been created by a government agency (the main employers of cryptographers of mathematicians) in an attempt to make financial transactions easier to mine for interesting data patterns: we need to clear that up before we start relying heavily on Bitcoin in our lives.
I think it would be great news for Bitcoin if Nick Szabo turned out to be the mastermind behind it. Nick appears to be a remarkably brilliant, disinterested polymath academic. Who would you rather have at the origins of Bitcoin, a visionary professor and collaborators, or spooks?
TC: How has your digging gone over in the BTC community? It seems like an unpopular topic at best.
SG: It has not been received well, many people are telling me to “leave Satoshi alone”. But when one starts having a huge impact on the world, one loses his right to anonymity. Satoshi currently holds about BTC 1M, valued at USD $1B, and has the power to potentially crash the Bitcoin markets. We need to know who the people who have power over us are, and what their intentions are. This is why we require background checks on our elected leaders. In the same way we need a “background check” on the Bitcoin system before we start handing it our monetary exchanges. Next would be to know what has become of Satoshi’s BTC stash.
The anonymous figure of Satoshi probably played a role in the early adoption of Bitcoin (“we are all Satoshi”), because the mystery created a powerful story drawing in early enthusiasts. Now this anonymity has become an obstacle to mainstream adoption, because there is legitimate concern over the origins and purpose of Bitcoin.
TC: How easy is it to assess identity via written “tics?”
SG: It’s rather easy. We all use language in our own particular way: the probability distribution over rare expressions, sentence structures, and stop words in our writing constitute a “signature” of sorts. It is not nearly as uniquely discriminative as a fingerprint, or DNA, but it is discriminative enough to distinguish one person out of a few hundreds or even thousands. For some people who tend to have more particular tics, like authors or academics, it constitutes a solid identification process.
In the case of Satoshi, I identified a number of unusual content-neutral expressions used both in Satoshi’s whitepaper and in Nick’s papers. For 4 of these expressions, I was able to estimate (using Google Scholar) the proportion of researchers in the cryptography community susceptible of using these expressions in a paper. These proportions are respectively 15%, 10%, 15%, and 50%. Assuming the use of each one is independent of the use of the others, the joint probability of finding a researcher using all of them in their writing is on the order of 0.1%. So this particular combination of writing tics could identify one cryptographer out of 1000. Even if these approximations are off by a large factor, the joint probability will stay quite small.
TC: Are there any close runners-up for the Satoshi identity?
SG: Nick is by far the number one candidate. I have nothing else significant enough to be worth mentioning.
TC: How many bitcoin do you have?
SG: Let’s say I have between 1 and 10 BTC. I am not heavily invested in Bitcoin, but I am definitely bullish on its adoption prospects.