Urbit: The Bold Pitch to Re-Decentralize the Internet, on Top of the Internet
Urbit, the computing platform described as a “city in the cloud” by its inventors, raised more than $200,000 in four hours through a crowdsale last week. While the crypto-space has seen many spectacular crowd-sales, some more dodgy than others, Urbit has been able to excite leading venture capitalists and executives in the space, including BitGo's Ben Davenport, 21 Inc.'s Balaji Srinivasan and Chaincode Labs' Alex Morcos.
The platform, a product by U.S. startup Tlon, sparks curiosity, even though few outside the VC tech elite seem to have a good grasp on exactly what it proposes.
According to Tlon CTO and Urbit inventor Curtis Yarvin: “If bitcoin is digital money, Urbit is digital land.”
The main problem Urbit intends to solve is the reliance of internet users on servers they do not control. Back in the ‘80s, the internet was designed as a peer-to-peer network but most people now just use it to connect to Facebook, Gmail, Reddit and other centralized services. This means that users are not in full control of their own data, software or identity, instead handing this over to corporate tech giants.
Tlon, instead, envisions a future where users own their own general-purpose cloud computers and socialize by connecting directly to each other. A sort of remake of the internet’s original peer-to-peer vision.
Speaking to Bitcoin Magazine, Tlon CEO Galen Wolfe-Pauly explained:
“The internet has collapsed into this client-server structure ‒ basically a digital modem. Attempts to fix this have generally been focused on a re-decentralization of the whole internet itself. But we don't think the internet can be fixed this way. The internet is here; it can’t change and it’s not going away. So instead, we want to build a new internet on top of the existing internet.”
Urbit is designed to give users their own interconnected, personal cloud-servers. An Urbit server can store data, run software, connect to other users or just about anything else a cloud-computer would allow. In practice, Urbit runs on top of the Unix operating system typically offered by existing cloud-servers, such as Amazon Web Services. But as opposed to Unix, Urbit promises to one day actually be human-usable. It will not be just for geeks, but for about anyone able to operate an iPhone.
Urbit doesn’t get rid of the complexity of the decades-old Unix-Internet platform, which requires a professional sysadmin, by removing it. Rather, Urbit installs a new platform, redesigned from scratch, on top of the old platform.
As explained by Yarvin:
The Urbit stack is a virtual machine, “Nock,” which is a page of code; “Hoon,” which is a typed functional language; and “Arvo,” a functional network OS, which is also a database. The only thing Urbit has in common with 20th-century programming is Unicode and some crypto algorithms.”
Yarvin himself indicated that reinventing all these wheels strikes many programmers as daunting and perhaps unnecessary.
“But if inherited complexity is the reason ordinary people can't control their own general-purpose computing, the easiest path to human simplicity is technical simplicity. The whole Urbit stack, including apps, is only 30,000 lines of code,” he said. “And all of it is as dumb as possible.”
An important part of Urbit’s architecture is the hierarchical structure of routable address spaces also used for routing. These addresses ‒ which Urbit calls “ships” ‒ are perhaps best described as a fusion of IP-addresses, domain names and personal pseudonyms.
Ships are divided into tiers named for astronomical bodies. 8-bit galaxies are top-level network infrastructure, and have a network-governance role. 16-bit stars are also network infrastructure but have a less direct governance role. 32-bit planets are the individual level: They’re designed as human identities. And 64-bit moons are designed as clients, bots or connected devices.
“Urbit is initially centralized to its 256 galaxies but decentralizes itself. Each tier of ships signs the initial key for the tier below it. Then each key signs its own updates, creating a certificate chain. Like bitcoin, a ship is a transferable cryptographic asset. Unlike bitcoin, it isn’t fungible, so it can’t be sold on present-day exchanges. Like actual real estate, Urbit is highly illiquid and probably not for the short-term trader.”
This structure also creates digital scarcity. Scarcity is needed, the inventors believe, to give the “name spaces” value at all, which, in turn, counters spam and other abuse: No one would want to have their valuable address blocked by other Urbit users as the specific address could decrease in value.
Of course, the scarcity of address space allows Tlon to raise the money needed to fund development of the platform. In the open crowdsale last week, 1.6 percent of all stars were sold, netting Tlon more than $200,000 to continue development.
“Suppose you're creating the internet,” Yarvin explained. “But it's 2016 and DARPA isn't funding you. How do you fund yourself? You sell off giant blocks of IP address space, defining them as cryptographic titles. And a network in which addresses are a limited resource, but treated as cryptographic property, actually works much better in a lot of ways.”
While Urbit currently is still centralized, it's managed and developed by Tlon and all galaxies are basically “pre-mined” (though there is no actual mining in Urbit) – the galaxies and stars are designed to become independent and self-governing. Ship owners will be able to vote through a sort of proof-of-stake system to determine the policy and future of their “digital cities.”
The vision, prospects and promises are big. But as the founders admit, Urbit is a work in progress. Making it an actual useful system for human beings will take many man-hours and lots of experimentation. And, like many projects in the crypto-space, the outcome may very well turn out to be binary: a huge success or a hopelessly failed experiment.