Head of ZeroSync venture and Bitcoin developer Robin Linus proposed a new way to bring expressive off-chain smart contracts to Bitcoin without requiring a soft fork. His vision was revealed in a white paper titled “BitVM: Compute Anything on Bitcoin,” which aims to push Bitcoin’s limitations without altering its consensus mechanism.
BitVM is a computing paradigm to express Turing-complete Bitcoin contracts, whose architecture is based on fraud proofs and a challenge-response model. In this model, a “prover” can make claims and a “verifier” can perform a fraud-proof to punish the prover when false claims are made.
BitVM itself is enabled by the Taproot soft fork, which happened in November 2021. By laying the foundation for accelerating decentralized financial services through the Bitcoin network, it enables efficient validation of multi-signature scripts. This addresses privacy issues, improves block storage and reduces the size of complex transactions occurring on the network.
Furthermore, rather than executing complex computations on Bitcoin’s blockchain, Linus suggested that they merely be “verified” on Bitcoin while the computations themselves are done off-chain.
Linus likened the logic to optimistic rollups, which is an Ethereum scaling solution that processes numerous transactions off-chain before sending them to the main chain in batches. The developer cited Ethereum research into optimistic rollups and a study on Merkle trees as inspirations in writing the eight-page white paper.
He explained that Bitcoin is currently limited to basic operations such as signatures, timelocks and hashlocks. This can be improved with BitVM, saying, “Potential applications include games like Chess, Go, or Poker, and particularly, verification of validity proofs in Bitcoin contracts.”
“Additionally, it might be possible to bridge BTC to foreign chains, build a prediction market, or emulate novel opcodes,” said Linus.
He explained that the next “milestone” after implementing the BitVM would be to move on to Tree++, a high-level programming language to write and debug Bitcoin contracts.
Earlier this year, the community also debated the implementation of a “Drivechains” upgrade, which would create a system for trustless bridges and blind merge mining on Bitcoin to make transactions more private, programmable and efficient. However, the risks of changing Bitcoin’s consensus rules made many users skeptical.
According to Drivechains developer Paul Sztorc, the upgrade may be viable via BitVM, though it will be “very inefficient” compared to his own proposal.
The community is divided in its reaction to the proposal, with many Bitcoin owners reacting favorably and some developers warning users not to be too excited about it.
Swedish researcher and investor Eric Wall wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the concepts outlined in the BitVM white paper “check out.” He added that he was “cautiously excited” to see what real-world experiments stem from it. Dylan LeClair, a Bitcoin analyst, said he was also impressed with Linus’ BitVM white paper.
Meanwhile, Blockstream CEO Adam Back suggested that a different version of Linus’s proposal had existed since 2016. Back referred to Greg Maxwell’s Zero-Knowledge Contingent Payment (ZKCP) system, to which Linus responded that BitVM is “strictly superior” to ZKCP.
“You couldn’t play chess in a single ZKCP,” he said.
Though BitVM has potential, several limitations remain. Linus mentioned that the main drawback is that “it is limited to the two-party setting with a prover and a verifier.”
He added that it also requires “significant amounts of off-chain computation and communication to execute programs.”
Despite that, some analysts believe BitVM could strengthen Bitcoin’s price in the incoming bull market.
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