Maidsafe is one of those rare projects which aims to fundamentally redefine how we interact with each other, and their goal to create a new decentralized Internet is almost unrivaled in ambition and potential impact. If done correctly, it could herald a new era of truly private connected living, where each user has total control over their own data.
It's personally been something that I've kept my eye on for some time now and I was lucky enough to speak to Nick Lambert, one of the team members working on the project. He was kind enough to answer my questions about Maidsafe's goals, their reasoning behind various decisions and much more. You can learn more about Maidsafe at [http://Maidsafe.net]
[N-] You started Maidsafe in 2006, way before Bitcoin and the Snowden revelations influenced most peoples thinking on the subjects of internet privacy and digital money. What were the original aims and goals for the project?
[NL] David Irvine (the inventor and CEO) has been working in and around small business severs for a number of years and recognised how difficult they were to configure and how expensive they were. Over a period of a number of years, he recognised that rather than try to improve these servers, the answer was to remove them. David identified that the existing client - server model was inefficient and, taking inspiration from nature, observed the lack of intermediaries that existed through millions of years of evolution. David focussed specifically on harvester ant colonies (even visiting Debra Gordon @ Stanford) realising that a peer to peer architecture was far more efficient. David also realised that not only were servers inefficient, expensive and hard to use, they were also centralised points of weakness and were robbing users of the security and privacy that they deserved. At that point he set out to start to decentralise everything and MaidSafe was incorporated in Feb 2006. The goals or the organisation at that time were Privacy Security Freedom.
[N-] Have those aims and goals changed as the company has progressed?
[NL] They haven't, MaidSafe has not moved away from these goals at any point, I guess you could say that it is a vision, one that the company have remained laser focused on ever since.
[N-] Where is Maidsafe in the development cycle? How far away are we from mainstream users being able to use the network?
[NL] This page of our website tells this story pretty well [http://maidsafe.net/roadmap]. It is hard to say specifically when it will be publicly available. That may sound like a bit of a cop out, however, to predict how long it will take to complete all the tasks that remain on the roadmap requires you to estimate how long it will take to fix the problems you don't know you have yet. We have typically struggled to predict with any accuracy how long it will take, but I suppose the easy answer is "As soon as it's ready". It would be easy to take a few short cuts and try and launch more quickly, but short term decisions like that only lead to problems later on.
[N-] What do you think the promise is for a system like Maidsafe?
[NL] I think the promise for the network is enormous, and it has the potential to replace and decentralise all web services. I think when we make these statements some people like the thought of what we are saying but probably think we're crazy, maybe they are right! However, we are implementing and are close to launching a decentralised data and communications network which has security and privacy (arguably the same thing) inherent within the design, that is able to scale rapidly without infrastructure costs or network provisioning. It is an understatement to suggest that it is a pretty powerful combination. I think if we get the incentivisation mechanisms implemented correctly (safecoin) then the sky is the limit.
[N-] I agree :). What have the biggest challenges been in realizing this potential?
[NL] There have been a number of challenges as you might expect, many of them as a result of our location. Being based in South West Scotland (not exactly the centre of the tech industry) funding has been a challenge with no large VCs nearby. Despite this we have been able to raise around $5m investment from local individuals, friends and family, with a further $8M coming via the crowd sale. We have also struggled finding sufficiently qualified C++ engineers and while the guys we have are amazing we need plenty more of them. We have mitigated this by working with remote developers and we currently work with 4 guys based in Ireland, Denmark, Slovakia and the US.
[N-] Why did you introduce SafeCoin instead of using Bitcoin itself? What was the reasoning behind that?
[NL] Bitcoin is amazing technology, a real game changer, but it has well known limitations. As the block chain must be agreed upon and shared between all nodes there are implications for scaling and it is a centralising feature of an otherwise decentralised network. Furthermore, a published central ledger also makes it possible to identify users and transactions in some cases. So MaidSafe wanted to introduce an incentivisation mechanism that enabled complete decentralisation while facilitating anonymous transactions. The answer that we came up with was to not have a block chain, instead using a consensus of close groups to confirm transactions [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txvKSeCaEP0], with only the current and previous owner of each safecoin being known.
We also have plans to initiate micro payments on the network, so users could pay content providers for every frame of a film that they watch, for example, only paying for what they use, or pay a blogger per article read. The confirmation transaction speed of Bitcoin would not make this feasible. Also, the bitcoin mining process is quite wasteful, while the SAFE Network proof of resource model leaves no waste as farmers are only rewarded for providing a valuable resource to the network. This enables us to lower or actually remove transaction fees entirely, a feature that lends itself well to micro payments.
[N-] One thing that sets you apart from other distributed projects is that you guys have a company with patents on your technology. Do you see that as a help or hindrance to an open source project like yours?
[NL] I think is potentially a hindrance from a perception perspective and there have been a couple of adverse comments in this area. However, we always point out that MaidSafe doesn't actually own the patents, they are assigned to the company from the MaidSafe Foundation, with the remit of the charity not allowing MaidSafe to start using the patents irresponsibly. The patents exist for defensive purposes. We believe that we offer significant competitive advantages to developers making applications on the SAFE Network, such as no infrastructure cost, no API keys, built in revenue stream…etc…and this will potentially upset a number of large incumbents. History has shown that in the technology industry, patents can be used by these incumbents in order to stifle competition and to bully smaller start ups. So, the MaidSafe Foundation patents will aid the defence of SAFE application developers, giving them something to fight back with.
I don't think there is much doubt that the existing patent system is broken in some areas and in many cases really hinders innovation. But you can't ignore that the system exists or that it is used and manipulated by others. We have taken the view that we would rather have some protection, so that we are not taking a knife to a gun fight should the worst happen.
[N-] Other than what you're working on, what P2P projects are catching your attention and why?
[NL] It is not strictly speaking a P2P project, but I really like Monetas [http://monetas.net]. I think they have some very innovative ideas, a great team and are very well organised, I would expect them to do well. They are very aware of the power of decentralisation and have an impressive CEO in the guise of Johann Gevers [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oeiOeDq_Nc].
[N-] What does the future hold for Maidsafe?
[NL] I have very high hopes for the network and if we can do a good job of transitioning the mass market across then the future looks very bright! In terms of MaidSafe the company, our initial focus is on the network, but that's just the beginning. We have many ideas for uses of the network, such as global voting systems and medical applications, however, we also have notions of using the network beyond applications. David is very passionate about robotics and I think this is an area that would be considered very closely.
[N-] Thanks for taking the time Nick, I personally am very excited to see how your project progresses.