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A Bitcoin Wallet for the Masses – IEEE Spectrum

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Square simplified credit-card transactions. Now it wants to build cryptocurrency hardware
A wallet to hold bitcoins—or other cryptocurrencies—is not at all a new idea. Basically a souped-up flash drive, these gadgets hold a private key, protected by a pin or passcode, that allows a user to securely access cryptocurrency data; the data itself lives in the blockchain. Some of these “wallets” have their own displays, some require use with a computer or phone.
Most wallets support a variety of cryptocurrencies—indeed, they are targeted at people who trade in multiple currencies and manage multiple keys. They make doing so a little easier, but they don’t make cryptocurrencies useful for the rest of us.
Enter Square, the company that developed a little white dongle for smartphones that lets anyone easily accept credit-card payments.
“We’re making a hardware wallet for the next 100M bitcoin users,” the company wrote in a recent recruitment posting. “Our goal is economic empowerment, starting with bringing easy-to-use, reliable self-custody to a global audience.”
Square first unveiled its hardware wallet plans in a series of tweets in June, the first coming from Square CEO Jack Dorsey. “Square is considering making a hardware wallet for bitcoin. If we do it, we would build it entirely in the open, from software to hardware design, and in collaboration with the community,” he said in the tweet. (The company declined to comment further for this article.)
Since then, Square has listed jobs for the project on multiple recruitment sites; the company has been on the hunt for project managers, engineers, supply chain managers, software developers, security experts, and other professionals to work on the wallet. And in December, the company changed its corporate name to “Block.”
This isn’t Square’s—Block’s—first foray into cryptocurrency. In late 2018, the company expanded its mobile payments platform, Cash App, to include the ability to buy and sell bitcoins, as well as to send them to other Cash App users. Square initially charged a fee for these transactions, but it recently dropped the fee and now makes a profit by acting as its own exchange, with slightly different pricing for buy and sell transactions.
An app is not a hardware wallet, however. Apps leave users’ private keys in the cloud—and there have been a number of incidents in which hackers managed to get into such online cryptocurrency accounts. Storing private keys offline, in a hardware wallet, significantly increases security but raises complexity for the user. Square CEO Dorsey indicated that Square’s hardware wallet will use what he calls “assisted self-custody” to have the best of both worlds, security and simplicity.
Dorsey has been an unabashed fan of Bitcoin since its earliest days. “Bitcoin changes absolutely everything,” he told attendees of the Bitcoin 2021 Conference. “I don’t think there is anything more important in my lifetime to work on.”
He is all-in on bitcoins versus other cryptocurrency, because, he tweeted in 2019, “Bitcoin is resilient. Bitcoin is principled. Bitcoin is native to internet ideals.”
So unlike existing hardware wallets like the Ledger Nano X, the Trezor Model T, and the KeepKey, Square’s wallet won’t support multiple cryptocurrencies, only bitcoins. Dorsey wants Bitcoin to become the standard cryptocurrency, leaving Tether, Ethereum, Binance, Ripple, and dozens of other popular alternatives in the dust. His hardware-wallet move just might be the accelerant Bitcoin needs to do that.
When will all this happen? Look for this crypto gadget in the second half of the year, says Dan Dolev, managing director and senior analyst for fintech equity research at Mizuho, a global banking and financial services company.
And it won’t just be another memory stick, says Dolev. He likened Square’s announcement to Apple’s entry into the smartphone market. “Before the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, there were a bunch of smartphones out there that connected to the Internet, like the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry. And they worked fine. But there wasn’t a sense of an ecosystem. Same thing with hardware wallets.”
With Square’s involvement, he says, “we know it’s not just going to be a key that stores bitcoin passwords; it’s going to be something people can use for more. Maybe it will be like a debit card, maybe something else. Square’s end goal is to create a global network of decentralized finance on top of the Bitcoin blockchain.”
It isn’t going to be easy. People will want it to purchase things in the real world, not just to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies. As it was with the development of near-field-communication (NFC) payments, the hardware is not the problem. Rather, Dolev says, the challenge will involve working with merchants to accept the currency and figuring out how to bring down transaction costs.
And while nobody knows exactly what this gadget will look like, its basic shape will probably be a square, of course. Or, says Dolev, “even more likely, a block.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate Square’s ability to succeed here,” he says. “Everything they’ve touched, historically, has turned into gold.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she’s been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University.
Porter, a Nobel Prize winner, was also a popular BBC TV host
Allison Marsh is a professor at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university’s Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society. She combines her interests in engineering, history, and museum objects to write the Past Forward column, which tells the story of technology through historical artifacts.
George Porter used this ruby laser, and its nanosecond pulses, to improve his measurements of fast chemical reactions.
When the future Nobel-winning chemist George Porter arrived as a Ph.D. student in chemistry at the University of Cambridge in 1945, he found the equipment there “remarkably primitive,” as he told an interviewer in later life. “One made one’s own oscilloscopes.”
Porter’s adviser, Ronald G.W. Norrish, ran a lab within the Cavendish Laboratory that had its share of jerry-rigged equipment, and he assigned Porter a problem: Establish a technique for detecting the short-lived molecules known as free radicals. Porter already knew a fair amount about not just chemistry but also physics and electronics. He’d spent most of the war with the British navy working on applying pulse techniques to radar.
Porter began by investigating the methylene (CH2) radical, using the lab’s surplus army searchlight. It ran on 110 volts DC supplied by a large army diesel engine that sat on the back of a truck parked outside. One of Porter’s jobs was to hand start the engine on cold winter mornings.
Detecting free radicals was no mean feat, as they typically exist for milliseconds or less. At the time, chemists barely used the word millisecond. At a science conference in September 1947, the prominent chemist Harry Melville stated that specimens with lifetimes of less than a millisecond were far beyond direct physical measurement. Porter and Norrish were about to prove him wrong.
On a trip to collect a mercury arc lamp for the searchlight, Porter saw flash lamps being made at a Siemens factory. The figurative lightbulb turned on. He realized that combining flash lamps with pulse techniques he’d learned as a wartime radar officer could be applied to his current problem. In the lab, they had been using a continuous light source without much success. Porter reasoned that they could use a more intense pulse of light to excite the sample and create the free radicals, and then use further flashes to record the decay. He began experimenting and soon developed the technique he dubbed flash photolysis. It reset the time scale for chemistry and revolutionized the field.
After completing his thesis, “The Study of Free Radicals Produced by Photochemical Means” in 1949, Porter stayed on at Cambridge, first as a demonstrator and then as the assistant director of research in the Department of Physical Chemistry. In 1954 he left Cambridge to become assistant director of the British Rayon Research Association, but he soon realized he was better suited to academia than industry. The following year he became the first professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sheffield.
A man studies a rounded glass object containing a translucent cube. The glass object is resting on a cylindrical metallic base. After Theodore Maiman [shown here] invented the ruby laser in 1960, George Porter immediately realized this laser would be ideal for his research and set about acquiring one.Bettmann/Getty Images
Porter’s research into ever-faster chemical reactions easily progressed from milliseconds to microseconds, but then things stalled. He needed a faster light source. When Theodore Maiman demonstrated a laser at Hughes Research Laboratories, in California, in 1960, Porter immediately realized it was the light source he’d been waiting for. Britain was behind the United States when it came to laser research, and it took time to acquire such an expensive piece of equipment.
Once Porter had his ruby laser [pictured at top and now on exhibit at the Royal Institution], he lost no time in pushing his research into the nanosecond and picosecond region. In 1967, Porter and Norrish along with the German chemist Manfred Eigen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for their studies of “extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy.”
A middle-aged man in a tuxedo shakes hands with a white-haired man while a well-dressed crowd looks on. George Porter accepts the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 12 December 1967. Keystone Press/Alamy
Later in his career, Porter moved to Imperial College London, where he had access to more advanced lasers and was eventually able to capture events in the femtosecond range—12 orders of magnitude faster than during his doctoral studies at Cambridge. Flash photolysis is still used to study semiconductors, nanoparticles, and photosynthesis, among other things.
Porter viewed his contributions to photochemistry as essential to the future of the planet. As he told an interviewer in 1975, “Our future, both from a food and an energy point of view, may well have to depend largely on photochemistry applied to solar energy. The only alternative is nuclear energy, which certainly has its problems, and it would be wise to have something else up our sleeves.”
Porter wasn’t just interested in pushing the boundaries of science. In 1960, he began giving the occasional public lecture at the Royal Institution, in London, filling in for speakers at the last minute. This eventually led to his appointment as a professor of chemistry at the RI, a part-time post with a tenure of three years that consisted of giving a public lecture and a few school lectures each year. This arrangement allowed Porter to develop a relationship with the institution while keeping his position at Sheffield.
In 1966 Porter became director of the RI’s Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory, otherwise known as the DFRL, and permanently moved his research from Sheffield to the institution. He was also named the Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and the overall director of the Royal Institution. The Science Research Council provided Porter with funds to support a research group of approximately 20 people, and he spent the next two decades at the RI as an active researcher, as well as a popularizer of science. He excelled in both roles.
The late 1950s and early 1960s saw intense public and academic discussions about science education and science literacy. In a series of provocative newspaper articles and a 1959 lecture at Cambridge entitled “The Two Cultures,” the novelist and physical chemist C.P. Snow argued that the British educational system favored the humanities over science and engineering. He stoked outrage by asking educated individuals if they could describe the second law of thermodynamics, which he believed was the equivalent of being able to quote Shakespeare. Academics and public intellectuals from both the humanities and the sciences took up the debate, some earnestly, others with derision.
Porter deftly threaded the needle of this debate by slightly reframing the analogy. Instead of Shakespeare, Porter used Beethoven. He argued that anyone could appreciate the music, but only a musician who had studied intensively could fully interpret it. Similarly, to understand the second law of thermodynamics, it might take years of specialized study to derive intellectual satisfaction from it, but people needed only a few building blocks to get the gist of the physics. Porter chose to bridge the cultural divide with a commitment to explain science to nonspecialists.
As if to prove his point about thermodynamics, Porter wrote and presented a 10-part TV series called “The Laws of Disorder” for the BBC. (He had already established himself as an excellent science communicator in an episode of the BBC’s “Eye on Research.”) In this episode, he tackled the second law head on:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics – Entropy
According to historian Rupert Cole in his 2015 article “The Importance of Picking Porter,” managers at the Royal Institution recognized Porter’s ability to engage with the “Two Cultures” discourse and to explain basic science in an accessible manner when they selected him as director.
One of the RI’s great traditions was to explain science to the public. Porter regarded the institution’s theater as the London repertory theater of science. Under his leadership, the institution welcomed school children and laypeople to learn about the latest developments in science. He also insisted that speakers use demonstrations to help explain their work. At the end of his tenure there, he recorded a number of famous experiments. He also worked with BBC television to broadcast the Christmas Lectures. In this clip, Porter demonstrates how to make nylon:
How Nylon Was Discovered – Christmas Lectures with George Porter
The Christmas Lectures, which continue to this day, had been started by Michael Faraday in 1825. Porter firmly believed that Faraday would have appeared on television regularly if the technology had existed during his time.
I like to think that George Porter would approve of my Past Forward columns and my attempt to bring museum objects, history, and technology to an interested public. Porter was a firm proponent of scientists communicating their work to nonspecialists. He also thought that the scientific community should appreciate efforts to popularize their work. I suspect that Porter, who died in 2002, would have loved social media and the public debates it can inspire. I have no doubt he would be trending with his own hashtag.
Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.
An abridged version of this article appears in the March 2022 print issue as “The Nobelist’s First Laser.”
Mentor kids, help students design future cities, and participate in fun activities
Participants of the Future City competition, where middle-schoolers to imagine, research, design, and build model cities.
From green energy to efficient transportation to artificial intelligence, engineers develop technologies that change our everyday lives. DiscoverE Engineers Week, being held this year in the United States from 20 to 26 February, celebrates engineers and the way they change the world. It also encourages students to pursue an engineering career and spreads the word about the field.
This year’s EWeek theme is Reimagining the Possible. Activities are happening all week long, with the goal of bringing engineering to the minds of children, their parents, and their educators.
One of the highlights of the week, the Future City competition, draws more than 45,000 students from the United States and abroad. The competition challenges middle-schoolers to imagine, research, design, and build model cities. The top teams from local and regional competitions advance to the finals, which will be held virtually this year. Students compete for a number of coveted awards, which are to be presented during an online event on 23 March.
IEEE-USA sponsors the award for the Most Advanced Smart Grid.
People who are interested in volunteering for Future City can sign up on the event’s website.
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, also known as Girl Day, is to be held on 24 February. The worldwide campaign aims to help girls build confidence and to envision STEM careers. Thousands of volunteers act as mentors, facilitate engineering activities, and help empower girls to pursue engineering as a career. Consider signing up to visit a virtual or in-person classroom.
You also can hold your own event, which can be as small as having coffee with a few colleagues, or as big as an organization-wide celebration.
Getting involved can be as simple as joining the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use #Eweek2022 and #WhatEngineersDo to share why you value engineering, post photos of your colleagues and research team, and talk about past engineering projects that make you proud.
Posters and graphics from DiscoverE are available as part of the promotional resources at the EWeek website.
You also can advocate for the engineering field by asking your mayor, governor, or congressional representative to issue a proclamation recognizing the contributions of engineers. Another way to get involved is to work with your company to post a message from leadership about the importance of EWeek. Or simply tell a friend what EWeek is and why it’s worth celebrating.
No matter what you do during EWeek, be proud of what you and your colleagues have achieved and what you continue to do to advance technology for humanity.
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