Bitcoin’s next challenges, by Antoine Riard

written by Antoine Riard

Bitcoin’s next challenges, by Antoine Riard

We asked a few questions about the future of Bitcoin development to Antoine Riard, open source Bitcoin/Lightning developer, and previous Okcoin grantee. Here are his answers. 👇

TL;DR

  • The Lightning Development Kit has reached mass market adoption 🚀
  • Bitcoin development faces two challenges: Specialization and ossification ⚙️
  • For Bitcoin to succeed we’ll need the next 1000 contributors to come from all over the world 🌍

Antoine Riard is an open source Bitcoin and Lightning developer that Okcoin has been sponsoring over the last year. Antoine primarily focuses on contributing to the Lightning Development Kit (LDK), in parallel to researching Lightning security. As his grant year draws to a close, we chatted about his journey as a developer and what he thinks the future of Bitcoin will look like.

What’s been your journey towards becoming a Bitcoin developer?

Before landing in Bitcoin, I was attending School 42 — a future-proof computer science program aiming to train the next generation of software engineers. This program is unique, because it’s entirely project-based and evaluations are made in a purely peer-to-peer fashion. The system granted us great personal autonomy and allowed us to experiment across a wide range of technical subjects, from UNIX to Kernel programming, and much more.

I was still in my final year at 42 (in 2018) when I began contributing to Rust-Lightning (the crux of LDK today). At the time, Lightning was a small network of hundreds of peers with only a handful of engineers working on it full-time. While still in school (in early 2019), I began contributing to Bitcoin Core to better understand the base layer that Lightning was going to run on. It was then that Chaincode invited me to participate in their famous residency program — that was a unique, life-changing opportunity.

As my residency came to a close, Chaincode offered to extend my stay. I took this opportunity to pursue a flow of contributions around Bitcoin Core and Lightning. I also wrote small parts of the Discreet Log Contract specification. At the same time, I began seriously researching Lightning security.

What have you been focusing on during your last year?

The success of LDK

A major area of my focus has been to contribute to the Lightning Development Kit and taking steps to move the project towards production readiness, including adding new features, reviewing PRs, writing documentation, refactoring codebase internals, and onboarding new contributors. Thanks to the hard work of many other developers, LDK was successfully deployed by CashApp in early 2022. Seeing a major fintech player like CashApp adopting a project created by a decentralized community was a significant milestone.

Lightning’s security challenges

In parallel, I continued to actively research Lightning security (focusing on pinning attacks, standardness issues, time-dilation attacks, and more). One key learning from my research was that most of the security issues we had at the Lightning level were due to the complexity of interfacing well with Bitcoin base layer components, such as network mempools. In my opinion, these subsystems were designed and implemented at a time when scaling Bitcoin in layers (like Lightning) wasn’t as prevalent. 

Read about how the work of one of our other grantees, Gloria Zhao, improves Lightning’s security.

Community building

As the number of Bitcoin open-source projects increases, development becomes more fragmented. While each project having their own Github repository, mailing list, and communication channels improves efficiency, knowledge silos can start building up, making it increasingly difficult to communicate when working on cross-layer issues. To mitigate this, I helped set up several online meetings to raise awareness on second-layer transaction-relay requirements and network mempool design. These issues matter not only for Lightning, but for other second-layers like Bitcoin vaults or liquidity swaps. 

“Bitcoin development is more of a team game than a solo game.”

Setting up those meetings and seeing the growth of LDK as a result helped me realize that ultimately, Bitcoin protocol development is more of a team game (albeit decentralized) than a solo game. But during the height of the pandemic, things began slowing down — the Taproot softfork activation consumed a lot of time and energy, and there was a lack of the usual circuit of in-person conferences and meetups. This made it quite difficult for development, as typically people took these opportunities to resolve technical misunderstandings and prioritize ideas. In light of this, I began efforts to help organize the first post-pandemic Bitcoin engineering meetup. It was important to rebuild the sense of a shared space, building the future of money among other Bitcoin contributors. 

What do you think is coming next for Bitcoin?

Turning Bitcoin development into a career

I think we’re living a transitory moment in Bitcoin protocol development history. In the past few months, we’ve had a few veteran Bitcoin Core contributors announce their withdrawal from Core maintenance roles. Slowly, the original group of Bitcoin developers are becoming less and less active. This raises the question of how best we can transmit knowledge to future generations of developers while ensuring we continue to bind to the highest standards of adversarial mindsets and safety-first engineering principles. 

“Being a Bitcoin protocol developer is becoming a career.”

Overall, I think we’re seeing Bitcoin protocol development move towards professionalism. Since around 2018, programs like the Chaincode residency have launched to help onboard new contributors, and more financial and educational resources are dedicated to Bitcoin protocol development every year. Just like in the Linux space, the trade of Bitcoin protocol developer is becoming more akin to a career, and I believe we’ll continue to see more companies like Block setting up open-source engineer units like Spiral that focus on understanding Bitcoin technical infrastructure.

Today, I would guess the number of active contributors is between 100-200 people. In the far future, I hope to see 1000-2000 active contributors.

The two main challenges of Bitcoin development

I believe we will face a few challenges in the Bitcoin protocol development community. One is the growth of contributors, which I think is driven by the sophistication of the existing codebase in Bitcoin Core. This creates fewer generalists and more specialists (such as wallet devs, gui devs, p2p devs, etc.). The other trend is the explosion of new, higher layers protocols — Lightning is only one of them, amongst others like vaults, DLCs, Fedimint, etc. Each protocol and codebase has its own sub-community of developers, making it more difficult to keep a common culture that is necessary for solving future cross-layer issues.

Another challenge is finding an equilibrium between all the Bitcoin ecosystem stakeholders. As Bitcoin-focused entities grow and more actors come into the space, building consensus for large-scale technical changes is going to become increasingly harder. This creates risk for early technical ossification that may make the infrastructure far too frail in the face of future high-impact technical and economic factors. My hope is that we’ll succeed in the long-term challenges of maintaining communication channels and reduce our odds of another “civil war” like with the block size contention in 2017.  

The necessity of diversity and inclusion

The diversity and inclusivity question is a thorny one, and remains contentious in Bitcoin as well as in the wider tech industry. In the same way that a diversity of hardware wallets helps mitigate supply chain risks, it’s important to improve the geographical, cultural, and social diversity of Bitcoin FOSS contributors to strengthen the process of technical development. Given the regulatory interest for cryptocurrencies in traditional jurisdictions where Bitcoin talents and capital is currently concentrated, geographical and cultural diversity will matter in the long-term. I think it’s great to see initiatives like Vinteum and Qala fostering Bitcoin developer communities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Moreover, there’s a deep, cultural component for designing financial tools in many regions.

If we want to see increased adoption of Bitcoin tools and products in underserved financial regions, we need local Bitcoin builders who understand the cultural roots as well as the technical and economic constraints of their environment.

What would you say to a newcomer getting into Bitcoin development?

If you want a career in Bitcoin development, I recommend finding the problems that interest you and challenge you at the same time. There are a multitude of interesting Bitcoin systems and tools to build in the upcoming decades, so take the time to explore projects and find one you love. 

“Build your own proof-of-work.”

Most of all, remember that your personal proof-of-work is vital — don’t try to take shortcuts, and learn to ignore the noise. Since Bitcoin is a uniquely fast-changing environment, projects can grow quickly and stakes can become very real, very fast. While it’s easy to get lost in the routine of daily tasks and drama, it’s important to remember the long-term goal that we’re all here for — Bitcoin for all. Don’t forget to maintain respectful relationships with other developers, since we win as a team. I’ve been lucky enough to receive constant feedback and support from many people in my development career. I’m grateful to all of them and I wish the same for you.

Learn how to use the Lightning Network with Okcoin for faster and cheaper Bitcoin transactions. To see what Okcoin is doing to support Bitcoin development, learn about our open source grant program.

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