Ted Nelson, the American academic who in 1963 coined the term hypertext, and is therefore viewed as one of the World Wide Web’s founding fathers, just released a 12-minute video with a big reveal at the end: The inventor of bitcoin, says Nelson, is probably Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki.
[Update: Nelson answered our request for comment. He says that he did not receive help from anyone in coming to his conclusions, and that his supposition was inspired by a recent feature on Mochizuki. After reading it, writes Nelson in an email to Quartz, “It was obvious, like a pie in the face.” He has not contacted Mochizuki directly. “I did this as fast as possible, hoping to be first with this realization. I wasn’t, as I found out later.”]
Nelson offers no direct evidence for his conclusion that Shinichi Mochizuki is behind the pseudonymous creator of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Instead, in his eccentric way, he offers plausible circumstantial evidence about his theory, outlined below. Internet surfers and the press are bound to investigate furiously. (We have reached out to Mochizuki for comment, but haven’t heard back.)
1. Mochizuki is the kind of genius who could create bitcoin. Whoever created Bitcoin has the intellectual might of Isaac Newton, says Nelson. Mochizuki’s work as a mathematician has cracked some of the simplest and toughest problems in his field, attracting global media coverage. “It’s not like I’m accusing him of a crime!” Nelson tells Quartz. “I’m accusing him of greatness.”
2. Mochizuki, like the creator of bitcoin, is fond of dropping brilliant works on the internet and stepping back. Bitcoin was released by a pseudonymous programmer (or programmers) under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, who then disappeared from the internet. Nelson compares this to Mochizuki’s style of delivering his work not through academic journals, but simply by dropping it on the internet and walking away. (Notably, this is one area where Nelson gets his bitcoin history wrong: Satoshi Nakamoto didn’t just drop bitcoin onto the internet and disappear. He, she or they, engaged with the community for some time over chat and email before disappearing.)
3. Mochizuki could easily have written all the correspondence associated with Satoshi Nakamoto. Despite being a Japanese professor at a Japanese university, Mochizuki’s English must be quite good, says Nelson, because he was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Princeton, and he completed his undergraduate education in only three years. (Nelson doesn’t note this, but it’s reasonable to expect that Mochizuki is actually a native English speaker; he moved to the US with his parents when he was only five years old.)
It’s worth noting that at least one expert in the cryptographic aspects of bitcoin doesn’t believe Nelson’s theory. Here’s Ryan Lackey, creator of Sealand, the world’s first data haven, refuting Nelson’s video:
I assess with extremely low confidence Ted Nelson's proposal that a Japanese mathematician with no dev/crypto experience developed Bitcoin.—
(@octal) May 19, 2013
Lackey went further in a comment on YouTube.
Does the proposed candidate have any documented experience as a software developer? He appears to just be a mathematician, which is very helpful but not sufficient to have built the first version of Bitcoin. Bitcoin has both some theoretical breakthroughs and extensions to existing protocols (Wei Day’s bmoney, Hal Finney’s RPOW, etc.), but is implemented fairly reasonably in code.
I see absolutely no reason to think this mathematician was Satoshi.
Mathematician Tyler Jarvis, who went to graduate school with Mochizuki, doesn’t believe Mochizuki has anything to do with bitcoin, either.
Others have attempted to identify the creator of bitcoin, and no one has succeeded conclusively. Writing for Fast Company, Adam Penenberg offered what is perhaps the most compelling case so far, that bitcoin was created by three men who intended to profit from it.
Update 2: Nelson tells Quartz that he is offering to donate to charity if Mochizuki denies being Satoshi Nakamoto. “If that person denies being Satoshi, I will humbly give one bitcoin (at this instant worth about $123) to any charity he selects. If he is Satoshi and denies it, at least he will feel guilty. (One month time limit on denial– bitcoins are going UP.)”
* * *
Join Quartz in New York on Wednesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. for a panel discussion on “Bitcoin and the Future of Money.” Panelists include Felix Salmon (columnist, Reuters), Charlie Shrem (CEO, Coinsetter), and Jaron Lukasiewicz (Cofounder, BitInstant).