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Bitcoin first makeover in four years

The first bitcoin upgrade in four years has just been approved by miners around the world. It is a rare moment of consensus among stakeholders, and crypto experts tell CNBC it’s a pretty big deal for the world’s most popular cryptocurrency.

The upgrade is called Taproot, and it’s due to take effect in November. When it does, it will mean greater transaction privacy and efficiency – and crucially, it will unlock the potential for smart contracts, a key feature of its blockchain technology that eliminates middlemen from even the most complex transactions.

“Taproot matters, because it opens a breadth of opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in expanding bitcoin’s utility,” said Alyse Killeen, founder and managing partner of bitcoin-focused venture firm Stillmark. Unlike bitcoin’s 2017 upgrade – referred to as the “last civil war” because of the contentious ideological divide separating adherents – Taproot has near-universal support, in part because these changes are fairly incremental improvements to the code.

What’s changing

Bitcoin’s makeover has to do with digital signatures, which you can think of as the fingerprint individual leaves on every transaction they make. Right now, the cryptocurrency uses something called the “Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm,” which is created from the private key which controls a bitcoin wallet and ensures that bitcoin can only be spent by the rightful owner. Taproot will switch over to something known as Schnorr signatures, which essentially makes multi-signature transactions unreadable, according to Alejandro De La Torre, vice president at Hong Kong-headquartered major mining pool Poolin.

In practice, that means greater privacy, because your keys won’t have as much exposure on the chain. “You can kind of hide who you are a little bit better, which is good,” said Brandon Arvanaghi, previously a security engineer at crypto exchange Gemini.

It won’t translate to greater anonymity for your individual bitcoin address on the public blockchain, but it will make simple transactions indistinguishable from those that are more complex and comprised of multiple signatures. These souped-up signatures are also a game-changer for smart contracts, which are self-executing agreements that live on the blockchain. Smart contracts can theoretically be used for practically any kind of transaction, from paying your rent each month to registering your vehicle.

Taproot makes smart contracts cheaper and smaller, in terms of the space they take up on the blockchain. Killeen says that this enhanced functionality and efficiency presents “mind-blowing potential.”

Currently, smart contracts can be created both on bitcoin’s core protocol layer and on the Lightning Network, a payments platform built on bitcoin, which enables instant transactions. Smart contracts executed on the Lightning Network typically lead to faster and less costly transactions.

“Lightning transactions can be fractions of a penny...while a bitcoin transaction at the core protocol layer can be much more expensive than that,” explained Killeen. Developers have already begun to build on Lightning, in anticipation of the upgrade, which will allow for highly specific contracts. “The most important thing for Taproot is...smart contracts,” said Fred Thiel, CEO of cryptocurrency mining specialist Marathon Digital Holdings. “It’s already the primary driver of innovation on the ethereum network. Smart contracts essentially give you the opportunity to really build applications and businesses on the blockchain.”

As more programmers build smart contracts on top of bitcoin’s blockchain, there is also the potential for bitcoin to become more of a player in the world of DeFi, or decentralized finance, a term used to describe financial applications designed to cut out the middleman. Today, ethereum dominates as the blockchain of choice for these apps also referred to as “dapps.”

Why the wait

Though the bitcoin community has agreed to the upgrade, the rollout itself won’t happen until probably November. A lot of testing ahead of time will reduce the likelihood of something going wrong during an upgrade. “Upgrades allow the – extremely remote – possibility of a bug entering the system, which would destroy confidence in the whole cryptocurrency system, effectively wiping it out – a ‘self-inflicted wound’ if you like,” said Jason Deane, an analyst at Quantum Economics.

Deane says this is why upgrade processes are so carefully tested, retested, and vetted, again and again, over very long periods of time, prior to being deployed. Many also remember the disastrous migration of 2013, when an upgrade has gone wrong resulted in bitcoin temporarily splitting in half. “You don’t want different clients or miners in the protocol out of sync. That’s how catastrophic stuff happens,” Nic Carter, founding partner at Castle Island Ventures, told CNBC. “Because we don’t want a repeat of 2013, we have these extremely long lead times.”

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Bitcoin, NFTs the Top Assets for Millennial Millionaires

Almost half of the millennial millionaires have at least one-fourth of their wealth in cryptocurrencies, a new survey shows. It comes at a time when virtual currencies have seen a boom like never before, creating wealth for the young as well as those who trusted the likes of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others and adopted them early on. The study revealed that nearly 47 percent of the 750 millennial millionaires surveyed had over 25 percent of their wealth in crypto. Not just that, nearly 33 percent of those surveyed with at least $1 million (roughly Rs. 7.31 crore) in investible assets had half of their wealth in digital currencies, reveals the survey.

What the study also shows is the generational divide in wealth creation among the younger and older millionaires. For instance, the survey showed that fully 83 percent of American millionaires have zero wealth in virtual currencies and only about 10 percent of them had more than 10 percent investment in crypto assets.

George Walper, president of Spectrem Group, which conducted the online millionaire survey with CNBC in April and May, said that the younger generation jumped on to cryptocurrencies early on when little was known about them. “The younger investors were more intellectually engaged with the idea even though it was new. Older investors and the boomers were largely saying ‘Is this legit?'” CNBC quoted him as saying.

And much on the lines of cryptocurrency, the NFT (non-fungible token) mania has also taken the world, particularly the younger generation by storm. The same survey makes it clear that the generational divide is starker, especially when it comes to NFTs. While most of the American millionaires had no idea what an NFT is, almost two-thirds of millennial millionaires say they are going to be the "next big thing." Over one-third of the total say the NFTs are “overhyped fad.”

Almost half of the 750 millennial millionaires said that they owned NFTs, while 40 percent said they don't have them now but have considered it. A whopping 98 percent of another category of millionaires, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), didn't own NFTs and weren't considering it either. The reason, Walper said, was that NFTs have only recently started to be a part of the media coverage. “So, the older generations are further behind on the understanding.”

Speaking of Bitcoin, the oldest and the most popular cryptocurrency being traded in the world, the Bitcoin price in India and the world saw a meteoric rise in its value over the past six months despite experts, critics, and skeptics issuing regular warnings and expressing their doubts about its sustenance.

In April, the virtual currency had touched an all-time high of nearly $65,000 (roughly Rs. 47.3 lakh), a massive spike of over 450 percent in just six months. Since then, Bitcoin prices have taken a tumble, losing more than half of their value. Massive fluctuations have been a hallmark of cryptocurrency trading in 2021.