Great, now digital kitten mills are a thing.
Image: Shutterstock. Composition: Author
The most popular use of Ethereum right now isn’t startup fundraising or anything even remotely useful. Instead, people are sucking up Ethereum’s resources to breed and trade digital cats called CryptoKitties. They’re basically Beanie Babies, except they don’t physically exist, and so far the Ethereum community has collectively spent over $2 million USD on them.
With so much money on the line, some CryptoKitty players are coding tools to automate parts of their digital kitten mills, mostly with apps that scan for high-value kitties. At least one tool on GitHub, an online repository for open source code, purports to be a trading bot. Organic CryptoKitty traffic is already clogging up the entire Ethereum network, and the specter of bots has made some manual users understandably frustrated.
CryptoKitties is an app by Canadian startup Axiom Zen, and it was introduced to the world at an Ethereum hackathon at the University of Waterloo in October. The game works like this: the CryptoKitty code continually generates new, basic cats (called gen0 kitties), which the community then “breeds” and trades. Breeding two kitties involves sending some ether, Ethereum’s in-house cryptocurrency, to smart contracts that use the two base values to create a new one: a brand new kitty! It’s all on the blockchain, in public view, which means that every CryptoKitty is provably unique. Some kitties have sold for as much as $75,000 USD.
One Reddit user, who posted that they (manually) buy cheap gen0 cats just to breed and sell, told me in a private message that they are considering canceling a vacation to the Grand Canyon because they stand to make so much money just by staying home and breeding digital cats.
Automating parts of the process for breeding and trading cats, then, is bound to be a money-maker even if it’s just in the short term. Searching GitHub, a site for coders to host their open-source projects, brings up numerous homebrew programs designed to work with CryptoKitties. The most common are “scanner” apps that automatically scour the blockchain for kitties that are likely to turn a handsome profit.
I reached out to the author of a Telegram bot that alerts users when a desirable cat appears on the Ethereum blockchain so they can snap it up. They told me they don’t believe their program breaks the CryptoKitty game, but that others might. Even so, “If they bothered to take the time and effort to utilize their skills to do it, then I don't see anything wrong with it,” they wrote me.
For example, one program on GitHub bills itself as an automated trading bot for CryptoKitties. Motherboard reached out to the author of this program over email, but did not receive an immediate response. Yet another program on GitHub is described as "tools to aid in the humane mass-production of CryptoKitties," and although it's not yet done, its creator Bo Henderson intends to use it to automate breeding.
"I started that project a couple days ago and intend to use it to automatically breed kittens but it's not ready yet," Henderson wrote me in an email. "At the moment, I'm focused on getting the data collection working." Once he has the data to make smart and fast trades himself, he'll automate the process, he added.
"Over the next couple weeks, automatic-breeders will pump out exponentially more kittens until eventually the demand is satisfied," Henderson added.
Automated trading or breeding programs for CryptoKitties could become a nuisance like Ticketmaster bots that snap up concert tickets as soon as they’re released, and in sufficient numbers could have similarly enraging (for genuine users) implications. For one, it kind of takes the fun out of the whole thing for nothing more than profit; it’s a real mood killer, basically. Lightning-speed trades could also drive up the price of kitties, or clog up the Ethereum network even more.
If CryptoKitties were ever a “nice thing,” it’s increasingly looking like they’re just one more that we can’t have. Thanks, humans (and your robots.)
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