"Interested in designing and implementing a new cryptocurrency for use in a very special environment? Contact Telegram user @100generations"
That was already the whole Reddit message. It must have been years since the last similar one to me, probably since 2018 or so when new cryptocurrencies were announced almost daily and people able to program and develop them further in high demand. This fact and the mysterious "special environment" mentioned made it impossible for me as a curious person to just delete the message, and shortly afterwards I had my first chat on Telegram with "100generations":
"We guess from your short stories that you must be interested in science fiction, and so you are probably already familiar with the concept of 'generation ships', right? Well, maybe you won't believe us, but we are in the process of building one. It will leave Earth in about two years."
Generation ships are indeed a fascinating concept. The basic idea: Current human technology does not allow to build a starship that can reach other stars with habitable planets in any "reasonable" time. Forget "warp drives", "hyperspace travel" and similar things invented by science fiction authors to conveniently write that pesky problem away: A few percent of the speed of light is all we can currently hope for, with travel times to even the nearest stars measuring not in years, but in decades or even centuries.
So, what to do? In principle, very simple: You build a ship that is something like a miniature Earth, containing a complete and fully independent ecosystem, were hundreds of people can live their lives, rise children, that later will have children again, over many generations, all while the ship slowly makes its way towards the stars. With so many people having interesting and fulfilling lifes on board, what does it matter that the travel takes half a millennium? Eventually you will arrive.
After all, nobody is complaining that Earth isn't going anywhere!
But build such a ship, like right now, with a departure in two years? And even manage to keep everything secret because I certainly had never heard about such a project actually running? No way. But hey, nice story in any case, let's see where this leads. I decided to play along:
"Yes, and yes. Yes, I know about generation ships. And yes, I don't believe you. But never mind. A first question: What do you need the cryptocurrency for? I hope you don't want to issue new coins to finance the project. I tell you right away that I am not interested in ICOs."
"No. The ship costs billions, no way to get in such an amount with a coin offering. We need an on-board currency for the 5000 passengers. We are on the lookout for about 5 capable and innovative people that design a cryptocurrency for us that may serve well in such an environment. We will then pick a winner who gets a lucrative contract to implement it."
Surprisingly that made some sense, and it took me half a minute of thinking it through to come up with my next question: "Why don't you just issue 5000 credit cards? Why a cryptocurrency?"
"Good question. Quite in general we want to minimize the chance that the on-board society degenerates into something bad over time, like a dictatorship. Any centralized money-issuing agency would be dangerous and a tempting target for power-hungry people. Better distribute power as much as possible. A cryptocurrency comes in handy here: Let all people be their own bank."
"Right. I think in the meantime I also understand your user name: You expect to be on the way for 100 generations?" "Maybe, yes. The ship is expected to reach the first destination star after 400 years or so, but without any guarantee for a good planet to settle there. Thus it may have to continue its travel. Anyway, '100 generations' sounds a lot cooler than '20 generations' ..."
I must confess that I was already hooked. Never mind that with a very high probability this backstory was completely made-up, but designing such a currency was an interesting task in any case. Now just don't sell yourself under value I thought, and after some hesitation wrote: "Interesting. I'm in. Under one condition: I get paid for the design already, whether winning the contest or not". "No problem. Tell us your address, we will pay half the XMR for the design in advance."
Well, what can I say, that was reassuring because scammers rarely pay in advance for anything, and for a good job I take money even from completely crazy people. So I went to work to design an interstellar cryptocurrency!
Quite early it was clear to me that a fully private cryptocurrency like Monero was a good starting point. A ship for 5000 passengers must be rather big of course, but people would be in close contact with each other for their whole life nevertheless. Like close-knitted rural communities in earlier times where people came to learn almost everything about each other.
All the more important to empower them to keep at least some things private, like personal financial matters. No "Bitcoin Interstellar" then: I certainly don't want to broadcast the amount of my current private wealth to all 4999 fellow passengers each time I pay something.
With a new cryptocurrency there is always the question how it gets into the hands of people after launch. In the frantic bubble years of 2017 and 2018 many bad things had happened in this regard, with teams of programmers alloting large amounts of coins for themselves before the broad public had any chance to mine or buy them, a process that became known as "premine".
Many people saw this as a sort of scam, a blatant attempt of cryptocurrency devs to become rich quickly, and the Monero community was somewhat proud that their currency had been launched fairly in 2014 without such machinations.
This would not work here however: You can't launch 5000 people into space with empty hands; some sort of initial distribution of funds is a must. I designed an additional feature where every passenger can have as many wallets as they want, just like with original Monero, but exactly one of them would be their "primary personal wallet", tied to a single private key handed to them before take-off, and they receive their initial coin allotment into this special wallet.
What to do if something destroys the balance of the system? Much can happen in centuries. Somebody could find a bug in the software or a loophole in the cryptography behind Monero, make millions of coins for themselves out of thin air and cause so much inflation that the currency becomes basically useless.
So I came up with a voting mechanism, with one vote per person through their primary personal wallet, that was able to easily reset and restart the whole currency at initial distribution state after a majority vote. Somebody had of course to correct the inflation bug beforehand, but this was not my problem as a designer!
After thinking through how I would modify the Monero codebase to support those additional features, and estimating how long it would take me to program them, I submitted my design under the name of "Monero Eterna" to 100generations. Guess what, I won and got the building contract.
After final code delivery a good year later I never heard from them again, and no coin based on it ever made a public appearance. Nobody had started to build a generation ship either, as expected all along. Somehow it felt to me like the whole episode had never happened, with my interstellar Monero fork being nothing more than a funny dream.
Until that day when a fellow Monero dev contacted me on IRC: "Do you want to hear the latest Monero-related rumor?" "Sure, anytime." "A large group of the world's wealthiest people builds a top-secret refugium deep underground. Completely autonomous. They have their own atomic power plant down there, with enough fuel for centuries. And even room and light enough to farm and produce all the food they need."
"Wow. Thinking big! I wonder where they put all the excavated material? If you bring that up to the surface nothing is secret anymore. And think about all the excess heat produced that they must get rid of somehow. Does that even work?"
"Rumor says they build near the sea, at a place where the continental shelf is almost vertical, and use a tunnel to simply throw all the rubble into the deep, and take in sea water to cool."
"Hmmm. I have heard stories that were a lot stupider than this. But why should billionaires want to hide there?" "Because they are afraid that sooner or later current civilization will blow up, and they want to simply sit it out in safety. They prepare to stay there for freaking centuries. The project name seems to be '100 generations'."
Needless to say that reading this struck me like lightning, and I waited so long to type anything more that my colleague finally asked "Are you still there?"
I guessed the answer to my next question already, but of course I had to be sure: "Yep. And all very interesting. But where is the Monero angle in this?"
"Easy. That underground community even has its own currency. Aaaaand ... imagine! It's a fork called 'Monero Eterna'."