Journeys in Blockchain: Leemon Baird of Hedera Hashgraph

“There’s a lot of tuning we can do to make this thing faster. Right now, we’ve slowed it down to a mere 10,000 TPS but that’s so far beyond what people are using, it’s not urgent."

by Darren Kleine 11 min April 24, 2020
Journeys in Blockchain with Leemon Baird of Hedera Hashgraph
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Leemon Baird’s love for mathematics is baked into his DNA. His mother and father were both math professors, he tells me, “So, I probably was warped at birth.”

The co-founder and CTO of Hedera Hashgraph and Swirlds says he has always enjoyed math, games, puzzles, and problem-solving. Even as most kids were finger-painting and coloring outside the lines, he was looking for algorithms to succeed in games and puzzles. “I remember doing that in first grade.”

One game, he says, starts with a number. The players work their way down to the value of one by choosing to subtract by three, two, or one. Whoever succeeds in arriving at a difference of one, wins. So say you start at seven. Subtract three and you’d have four… then subtracting three again would win the game.

Baird figured out the winning strategy. “I realized, ahhh, the pattern started at the bottom and worked its way up. It’s called dynamic programming, but I didn’t know that in first grade.”

Pattern recognition: seeing repetition, extrapolating from data, and dynamic programming — these were playful activities in his mind. “Which is, oddly, what I got my PhD in.”

Baird attended a public school — but with intellectual parents specializing in advanced mathematics and physics, he says, “I learned more at home”. Solving puzzles, talking about books, learning about history and economics, and reading the Bible were all part of his daily routine — and he loved it.

He remembers sitting in a fourth grade class and contemplating how he would teach what he was learning to someone from the Middle Ages, with no frame of reference to the modern world. He loved analyzing the cyclical process; moving from learning and understanding to teaching and creating.

Computers are like magic

Eventually Baird got his first computer, opening up a world of possibilities for his mathematical mind to delve into the realm of programming. “Getting a computer in junior high really changed my life. I really got into this stuff.”

In high school, Baird would create his own algorithms, “just for fun.” Math, he explains, is the perfect combination of art and creation. To him, it’s all about the beauty and complexity of the universe. “I do research for fun. I have math problems that I have worked on for years… Sometimes I solve them, and then I build things with them, because it’s fun to build things.”

“There’s a real beauty in creating an elegant proof of math theorem or creating a painting or three-dimensional things. There’s a real joy in understanding how things work at a deep level and then being able to create, based on that.”

Going to college, Baird discovered that computer science was deeper and more interesting than he had ever imagined. “There were really cool algorithms” he had never thought of, he says, with ways to mathematically prove they work. Baird explored the power of such algorithms and proofs in his research, examining artificial intelligence, neural networks, and machine learning. “That really caught my attention,” he says, and led him to major in the subject.

Computers, he believes, are like magic.

Just the act of imagining something in enough detail means it now exists. That’s what a program is. It’s just describing an algorithm in extreme detail. By the time you finish describing it, now the program is done and now it can run on its own and do things on its own. It can even learn on its own. That’s just amazing.

Beyond geek

After high school, Baird attended the Air Force Academy, but never really did “Air Force-y” things, he says. He continued his studies in computer sciences, but also was able to enjoy a broader education by attending the Academy.

One of his favorite topics of study outside mathematics and computers was survival training. He loved it enough to become a survival training instructor, teaching others how to tie knots, build shelters and forage for plants to eat, but also participating in activities like flying gliders and “all sorts of crazy things.”

“It was good that I broadened somewhat there. The rest of my life, I’m just a geek.”

Baird loved the Air Force Academy, working there as a professor and scientist for 24 years before retiring. During his time at the Academy, he started a number of companies, which “you’re allowed to do if your boss gives you permission.”

During much of his time at the academy, Baird worked with Mance Harmon, the current CEO of Hedera and Swirlds. The two researched and built businesses together, publishing papers and starting a number of companies. Much of their research focused on reinforcement learning, neural networks and computer learning.

The pair’s first company used AI to recognize handwriting, allowing users to log in to PDAs like the Palm Pilot with signature authentication. The technology could even be used, Baird explains, to detect if a user was intoxicated, thus preventing them from driving under the influence by requiring signature authentication before starting a car. The company was eventually acquired by a Fortune 500 company.

The two collaborated on other ideas like WiFi-enabled electronic door lock security, which was, in Baird’s words, a crazy idea at the time in the antiquated lock industry. It was also snapped up in a private equity deal.

The math problem

“Then I had a math problem, one of those I just work on for fun.” Baird contemplated the idea of creating a “distributed object store,” where users could collaborate over the internet and “carve out a piece of cyberspace.” It would operate without servers in a peer-to-peer environment, without any central agent. Rules would be enforced upon all users, so no one person would have control over the network.

The trickiest part was that Baird wanted this to operate quickly with the capacity to handle hundreds of thousands of interactions per second. The problem he identified was not only whether this could be secure, a network which nobody could shut down or corrupt, but whether it could also be fast.

The idea was to create shared worlds that were interconnected. Information sources like Wikipedia, along with merchants and money managers could interoperate.

Baird was fascinated by the idea and contemplated it over a few years. “I’ll take a problem off the shelf, play with it a while, and put it back. Some math problems just latch on to me and I just can’t get away from them.”

Baird was convinced it was an impossible problem, but it continued to grip his interest. This went on for years, he says, until he experienced a ‘Eureka!’ moment in 2015.

The solution finally dawned on Baird. “When we talk to each other, if I just told you the last message… and told you the last received message… just those two things… then when you collect all the messages from everybody, you’d see a complete history of how we talk to each other.”

Using a set of calculations that can be done in your head without any communication, he says, one could “take advantage of super secure algorithms and suddenly, it’s as fast as the internet. That’s Hashgraph.” This is when he realized, “Wow, I could actually create shared worlds with this!”

“I had never started off thinking of making another Bitcoin or Ethereum, but we realized this is the best way to do it.” Baird explains that one could achieve incredible speed with no bottleneck, there would be no-one to be shut down with attacks, no proof of work. Instead, he says, just use mathematical proofs.

Swirlds: shared worlds

Harmon and Baird began Swirlds, distributing private ledgers to clients and building on the technology. In 2016, they undertook the inception of a public ledger, using Proof of Stake consensus with a governing council to bootstrap the network.

But they faced a chicken-and-egg problem, Baird says: it’s not trustworthy until it’s built, but it can’t be built unless it’s trusted. To get around this problem, the network begins with a trusted governing council that is dispersed around the planet. Participants keep tabs on each other and bootstrap the system to begin. Eventually, the network evolves to become distributed to anonymous and decentralized nodes. Over the past few years, the Hedera network has launched with tokens for Proof of Stake consensus and is now open to the world.

Galileo once said “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.

“Not only do I love that quote; my mom, for years, was a college professor and her homepage had that quote pinned on the top of the page.”

The universe, Baird says, appears to be a weird combination of the simple and the complicated. If it were too complicated, we would never even begin to learn. If it was really simple, we wouldn’t need to explore formal detailed descriptions. It’s the combination: the sun rises and falls, but planetary orbit around it is elliptical. (Incidentally, a concept that Galileo himself ignored.)

One can move from the simplest notions to quadratic relationships, concepts of relativity, and even further down the line, to deeply weird ideas like quantum mechanics. “You can get there step by step. I love it.”

Baird relates this to his spirituality. He suggests that we live in a universe that was designed so that it is graspable, but complicated enough that it’s fun to figure it out. We’re built, he says, so we enjoy seeing beauty in the universe, which can be understood through math. “The Bible is just really deep. I’ve read it many times throughout my life. I enjoy teaching that stuff.”

It’s all about the people

Baird first gives full credit to his business partner, Harmon. “There’s no way we’d have a Hedera or a Swirlds without Mance.” Harmon turned down a great position to work on Swirlds, Baird says. Convinced of Harmon’s passion for the project, the CEO whose offer had just been rejected turned around and invested in Swirlds.

No company is successful just because they have a good idea, Baird says. What makes a company successful is the people it has working for it. A mediocre idea with really good people has a chance at finding success, but if you have the greatest idea in the universe but no good people, someone else will turn your idea into reality. “It’s all about the people. I am just really grateful for the people we have.”

Now, Baird spends much of his day walking, talking, and crunching algorithms mentally. “All day long I am on the phone. Occasionally I get to program and work on algorithms… but I do an awful lot of meetings… and I walk while I’m in meetings.” Even when he has to work at a computer, Baird walks on a treadmill, five to ten miles a day.

The biggest threat is to spend your time on things that are useful, but not the most useful. The real trick is figuring out, what is the most useful thing for the next five minutes, the next five hours?

Baird is constantly creating new little algorithms for the company, analyzing them and proving their functionality. He says he learned to work on math problems mentally at a horrible job where he was forced to sit in meetings that were a complete waste of time. “I had to sit in a meeting for over an hour where absolutely no useful information was presented… I had to be there every morning.” So, he started playing with math in his head, just visualizing the equations and pictures. During these otherwise-boring meetings, he mentally proved “a whole bunch of theorems.”

Hedera Hashgraph for centuries

Now, much of Baird’s time is focused on rolling out the Hedera Consensus Service (HCS), adding features, optimizations, and a “long list of odds and ends” to the platform on a regular basis. The commitment, he says, is to publicly release all source code to developers where it will be open for review.

“There’s a lot of tuning we can do to make this thing faster. Right now, we’ve slowed it down to a mere 10,000 TPS but that’s so far beyond what people are using, it’s not urgent. But we have so many ways to tune this, I just can’t wait to try all the different algorithm permutations.”

Baird explains they are building Hedera from the ground up to serve the planet for centuries. “We want this to last.” He expects to be deeply involved in Hedera and Swirlds for the foreseeable future. “I want to keep going. There’s just so much to do with this.”

Baird offers his advice for success: find a way to be passionate. Not necessarily, he says, to do what you’re passionate about, but instead to find a way to be passionate about what you are already doing. Find a way to get excited about what you’re doing, he says, and you will be successful.

“It is a real blessing that I can do for a living something that brings such joy to me. Teaching and research are what bring me joy.”

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Darren Kleine at Cointelegraph Magazine

Darren Kleine

Based in Canada, Darren Kleine is fascinated with distributed ledger technology and its implications for societal change. He had written the Cointelegraph Journeys in Blockchain feature since day one.