When Thousands Filled a Hilton Ballroom to Ponder the Future of Bitcoin

Nibbles, chafing dishes and lanyards were in abundance at the conference, which was put on by CoinDesk, a news and data site.

Seth Kaye has hot pink hair and Pokémon stuffed animals on his shoulder. He mines Litecoin, a cryptocurrency. He’s a designer. And he is trying to start a solar farm in Washington where he lives.

Mr. Kaye was one of the more than 8,400 people in New York this week for Consensus 2018, a blockchain-themed conference where people pitched ideas, mingled and reveled in the possibility of disrupting health care or real estate or how government works.

While Consensus attracted many people like Mr. Kaye, the gathering, which was held at Hilton in Midtown Manhattan, had all the typical trappings of a modern American business conference: hotel-catered lunch wraps, networking mixers and schwag.One needed to only look at some of the event’s exhibitors, like Deloitte, Microsoft, KPMG and IBM, to recognize that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin — once the province of a small group of outsiders — had entered the mainstream.

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Baffled by Bitcoin? How Cryptocurrency Works

From Bitcoin to Litecoin to Ethereum, we explain how cryptocurrency transactions work.

There’s Bitcoin. There’s Litecoin. There’s Ethereum. So just what is cryptocurrency, and how does it work? Essentially, it’s digital money that’s bought and sold online. There’s no bills or coins. It’s not based on another asset like gold. And it doesn’t go through traditional financial institutions like banks. Instead, these currencies operate in a completely decentralized system that uses so-called blockchain technology to track transactions. To see how this works, let’s look at how you’d buy something with cryptocurrency. Say that Alice wants to buy a bike from Dan using Bitcoin, her cryptocurrency of choice. Alice begins by logging into her Bitcoin wallet with a private key, a unique combination of letters and numbers. With a traditional financial transaction, the exchanges get sent to banks on each side who record the money being subtracted from one account and added to another. But remember, in this scenario, there are no banks or middlemen. Instead, Alice’s transaction is shared with everyone in the Bitcoin network. These networked computers add Alice’s transaction to a shared list of recent transactions, known as a block. Every 10 minutes, the newest block of transactions is added on, or chained, to all the previous blocks. That’s how you get a blockchain. To ensure that each block of transactions on the chain is verified, a subset of Bitcoin’s network joins a race to solve a difficult math puzzle. And if they solve it first, their record of the block of transactions becomes the official record. They’re rewarded with Bitcoins of their own, and the network gets a new block on the chain. This entire process is known as mining. But instead of chipping away at rock, you’re solving complex puzzles. The fact that many computers are competing to verify a block ensures that no single computer can monopolize the Bitcoin market. To ensure the competition stays fair and evenly timed, the puzzle becomes harder when more computers join in. The Bitcoin protocol says mining will continue until there are 21 million Bitcoins in existence. That’s set to happen around 2140 — if Bitcoin lasts that long.

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From Bitcoin to Litecoin to Ethereum, we explain how cryptocurrency transactions work.

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