London gets a Bitcoin exchange and the post-Silk Road black market wobbles on

One of the drug marketplaces set up to replace Silk Road closed, with its owner stealing users' money.

Two contrasting stories about the state of Bitcoin today. The first concerns the ongoing black market for drugs, which is undergoing a lot of churn post-Silk Road. New exchanges are popping up, vendors are dispersing onto them, and customers - or, at least, those brave enough to think that law enforcement agencies aren’t also on top of all this - are trying to figure out who to trust.

It’s all about trust on these sites. I’ve written before about how Silk Road’s success was in part down to its active culture of customer reviews, alerting people to bad quality merchandise and pointing people towards trustworthy vendors. That kind of culture takes a long time to build up, as those searching for a Silk Road replacement are discovering.

This morning, one of those sites - Black Flag - went down, with its owner apparently absconding with its users’ money. Calling themselves “Metta Dread Pirate Roberts” (Dread Pirate Roberts was the name Silk Road’s owner used, allegedly the now-in-custody Ross Ullbricht), they posted the following message on the site’s forum:

Well mates, I am saddened to say goodbye. When I created P: BF [Project: Black Flag], my intent was pure and I wanted to help the community. Several days ago I begin implementing code changes to freeze funds and dump them to myself. I was unable to cope with the stress and constant demand, so I panicked. I am sorry for my actions, but with the funds I gathered from the site, I will be able to keep myself from being homeless for the next several months. I will always remember those that made this possible.

The servers will shortly be turned off. Please make migrate to the new Silk Road forums.

Keyboard DPK and Ganja are not me. They did not know this happened, and were kept in the dark just like everyone else. Please do not hold my actions against them.

I have let a lot of people down, including myself. I put hundreds of hours into this site and forum, and never wanted to see it end up this way.
As of now, I will no longer be using the name MettaDPR, nor will I be signing into the forums or site. The forum servers will be going down in week or so; the market will be going down within the next few days.

Abandon ship.

-MettaDPR

We have no idea how many bitcoins MettaDPR has taken with them - the site wasn’t up for long, and is nowhere near one of the bigger Silk Road alternatives - but it shows the difficulties facing the drug black market community. Someone could set up a site for a while, wait for people to trust their money to it, and then skip town.

You can’t regulate against that because, y’know, the drugs thing. The impossibility of retreiving stolen bitcoins is built into the system, so the only thing you can do is try and stop thefts in the first place. And that leads us to the second bit of interesting Bitcoin news today, which is that London is (finally) getting what looks to be a serious, well-backed exchange - Coinfloor.

Considering its position as a world financial centre it is surprising that it took so long for something like Coinfloor to emerge, but then UK government’s lack of urgency in working out if it wants to regulate Bitcoin trading has kind of forced its hand. As Coindesk reports:

Coinfloor, which is backed for an undisclosed sum by VC firm Passion Capital, is the first firm to trade bitcoins for GBP on an order book for at least a year. There are scant other exchanges in the UK trading bitcoins for GBP. Bittylicious offers the chance to buy bitcoins for sterling, for example, although this appears to be a more rudimentary site, and doesn’t have the charting facilities offered by Coinfloor. London-based Intersango ran an order book and allowed GBP trades, although that site inherited hacked and now-defunct virtual currency exchange Bitcoinica. It was sued by customers, and is no longer taking registrations.

Getting backing like that means it feels it doesn’t have to wait for the Financial Services Authority to sort out what its policy towards Bitcoin will be. Talks have happened, but nothing concrete has emerged.

However, Coinfloor represents the other side of the Bitcoin world to the Black Flag closure - its increasing legitimacy, both as a payment method and as a commodity. Despite a still-volatile price - over the last couple of weeks there was an unexpected surge and ebb that is believed to have been caused by a Chinese exchange - the wobbles in the underground Bitcoin market are increasingly separated from the above-ground one, lending it legitimacy it needs to survive.

The post by Black Flag's owner announcing the closure. (Screenshot: @josephfcox)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Which companies are making driverless cars, and what are their competing visions for the future?

An increasing number of tech giants are populating the driverless car market. Where do each of them stand on ambition, innovation, and safety?

The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.

The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. A new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.

Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 300 countries worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential”, which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers, and hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.

Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far. If Uber has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson confirmed this, saying: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”

There are a number of issues at hand with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet – there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.

A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe: in comparison to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.

Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition, given its sheer dominance over the market, is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, Google seems to be well-equipped given its unrivalled mapping data.

First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, they say. Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system, one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.

Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.

A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones as opposed to tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.

Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car in May this year, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk explained that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130 million miles driven by its customers, whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles”.

When put into perspective, it’s clear to see how a paranoid hysteria surrounds the rolling out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key proponents for their use; by removing the risk of human error, we are able to create a safer road environment, as highlighted by Musk.

Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally, such as implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.

BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too and hopes that Volvo cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.

As we enter a market in which the top tech companies will be meeting at crossroads in their driverless cars, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars will be here to stay, our roads one day teeming with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm, but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.