Our computing power lies in the hands of a few elite companies. One Polish startup is trying to change this

Can Poland’s ‘AirBnb for computers’ change the internet as we know it?

19 March 2019
Illustrations: Alexandra Kalenskaya

Our computers are becoming more powerful. Smartphones with as much punch as your average 1990s PC now slip into your back pocket and ordinary people are devouring computing power like never before. Machines are used to create digital art, manipulate high-res video, or play online shooters in sparkling HD. A powerful computer is now a must — and what do we do when our laptops and desktops can’t cope anymore? The most popular solutions have always been to buy a new computer, or outsource the work. But what if there was another option?

Polish startup Golem describes itself as the Airbnb for computers. Just as you might rent out a spare room, the Warsaw-based startup lets users rent out their spare computing power. A complex mathematic calculation, for example, which might take an hour using a single PC, can be split into smaller pieces and sent to other computers all over the world. When each computer has finished their part of the puzzle, they send it back to the original user to be pieced back to together again — all in a matter of seconds. But Golem believes it’s not just quicker processing times that are important, rather that one of the modern world’s most precious resources — computing power — remains in the hands of the many.

“A decentralised computing power marketplace is our way to prove that there is a better way of coordinating computing resources,” says Maria Paula Fernandez, Golem’s Head of External Relations. “The current centralised systems have failed to protect the people. Uneven wealth distribution, lack of banking access, precarisation of work, and data misuse are some of the consequences of centralisation.”

While it is not short of ambition, and attracted huge initial investor interest, it remains to be seen whether Golem can overcome the significant technical challenges it faces. Like cryptocurrencies, Golem uses blockchain, a technology that employs a network of computers to create a database that cannot be altered retrospectively. In Golem’s case, this will be the Ethereum blockchain, which allows other companies to build their projects on an already established network. Golem will use blockchain to pay users in its own cryptocurrency — Golem tokens, or GNT — in return for their computing power.

Read more
Startup cities 2019: the 5 hubs vying to become the world’s next Silicon Valley

Golem sees itself as at the cutting edge of a wider push towards an internet free from the control of a few giant players, an idea known as Web 3.0. More and more people — particularly those in the tech industry — do not want to see the internet controlled by governments or by a handful of major companies. “It is definitely an idealistic movement,” says Ola Kohut, a research associate at Berlin’s Status Incubate. “People working on Web 3.0 products are very talented, motivated and passionate. Usually you don’t end up working on those projects if you don’t care. It’s not just a job,” she says.

All eyes are now trained on whether Golem can live up to its lofty goals and deliver its utopian vision of a decentralised internet. The Warsaw-based team attracted huge attention with a Initial Coin Offering (ICO) in 2016 when investors bought a record-breaking $8.6 million worth of tokens in under 30 minutes, but it has been a bumpy road since then.

“Golem’s launch in 2016 grabbed so much attention because it was one of the few [blockchain] projects aiming to do something other than just copy Bitcoin,” says Greg Thomson, a journalist who covers blockchain. “If you can place yourself in the shoes of crypto-investors around that time, you’d find yourself sick to the back teeth of hearing the same old empty buzzwords accompanying every coin launch. In that kind of environment it’s no surprise that something as unique and clearly defined as Golem managed to stand out.”

“It’s no surprise that something as unique and clearly defined as Golem managed to stand out”

What followed, however, was months of delays, with the platform only opening to its first, select group of users last year. Since January 2018, GNT’s value has sunk 94 percent.

While some of this can be linked to investor dissatisfaction, it also reflects the broader collapse in value of cryptocurrencies. But it isn’t all bad news. “What we’re seeing right now is a kind of cleansing process,” says Thomson. “The casual speculators seeking easy gains are gone, and now projects are drawing closer to their true dollar value. Many GNT holders are still around from 2016… Golem raised $8 million via its ICO, and is now worth over $60 million — so you have to put these declines in perspective.”

While Golem’s Head of External Relations Fernandez is keen to stress the company’s ambitions, she admits they struggled initially. Now, most of the team’s efforts are focused on improving user experience: making Golem intuitive and easy to use, even for those without a tech background. This work is vital to make sure the new technology can reach enough clients and continue to grow.

Golem is currently seeking to attract the users of Blender — an open-source platform for creating 3D models, animation, and renderings — who need of significant computing power. But in the future, it hopes to move on to other client groups, for example scientists working on complex equations. In its final incarnation, users will be able to use Golem’s power for anything they want. But the company still needs to solve basic issues such as security. How will the system cope as the number of users expands? How will information be kept safe? And who will stop users acting in bad faith?

Read more
The majority of Armenians live in the diaspora. A new startups programme is finally bringing them home
The majority of Armenians live in the diaspora. A new startups programme is finally bringing them home

Most of the time, these questions simply don’t have answers. “Very often you have to invent the wheel to solve your problems. Not reinventing the wheel, but actually inventing the wheel,” Golem CEO and founder Julian Zawistowski said in a recent interview.

“In general, there’s no such thing as a mainstream blockchain product, except Bitcoin, perhaps,” says Fernandez. “We need to still figure out a lot. Bear in mind that everything we built on [the Ethereum blockchain] is in the beta phase. We cannot estimate seriously when will we go mainstream, but it’s not gonna happen very soon.”

With more and more people throwing their weight behind Web 3.0, most are confident that companies such as Golem will overcome their problems. But in a competitive digital marketplace, other companies — particularly the centralised internet giants that activists so desperately want to displace — could try to race into the breach. “Golem’s direct competitors will continue to drop costs in the coming years,” says Thomson. “If Golem doesn’t address the major criticism that it’s taking too long to materialise, then it could easily be muscled out.”

Whether or not Golem achieves the success it craves, experts believe that the ideas that lie at its core are here for good.

“The Ethereum community is very strong, collaborative and working tirelessly to move the project forward. They are passionate about the bigger picture, bringing Web 3.0 to life, to the end users (who are not even aware it exists yet),” says Kohut. “It’s a tough challenge, but I believe that once you start working on Web 3.0 [and] open source there’s no going back.”

Read more

Our computing power lies in the hands of a few elite companies. One Polish startup is trying to change this

Startup cities 2019: the 5 hubs vying to become the world’s next Silicon Valley

Our computing power lies in the hands of a few elite companies. One Polish startup is trying to change this

The tech sector has a big problem with women. Bulgaria has the answer

Our computing power lies in the hands of a few elite companies. One Polish startup is trying to change this

These Moscow apartments are replacing keys with face recognition tech