How Theoretical Biology Impacts Product Design

How Theoretical Biology Impacts Product Design

Justin Litchfield
Justin Litchfield

November 15, 2023


Have you ever wondered how groundbreaking innovations like Bitcoin emerge? Was Satoshi uniquely brilliant, or just positioned perfectly to conceive Bitcoin? Had Satoshi not stepped up, would someone else have stumbled upon Bitcoin? How does innovation actually happen and how can we take advantage of the process to accelerate it?

In this post, we’ll answer those questions and see how we at Voltage apply knowledge from theoretical biology to design our products and accelerate innovation not only for our users but for the Lightning Network as a whole.

Stuart Kauffman: The Architect of Complexity and the Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman, a pioneering figure in the realm of complexity science and systems theory, provides us with invaluable insights into how the world around us operates. Far from subscribing to a purely Darwinian view of evolution as a random journey, Kauffman introduces the idea of self-organizing systems. These systems are composed of individual elements that interact with each other so that they give rise to complex structures, patterns, and functionalities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Imagine a flock of birds in flight, adhering to a few simple rules: stay close to your neighbors, but not too close, and head in the same general direction. While there is no "lead bird" dictating the route, the flock demonstrates complex patterns and maneuvers. These breathtaking formations, often seen in murmurations of starlings, are not commanded by any single entity but emerge naturally from the interactions of individual birds. Each bird serves as a component in a self-organizing system, acting according to basic rules. The resulting patterns and formations are not just a sum of individual actions but represent an emergent layer of organization and function.


Kauffman takes this idea further by introducing the concept of the "adjacent possible." This term refers to an ever-expanding set of future possibilities that open up with each new combination of elements in a complex system. Consider a vast landscape of dominoes: knocking over one domino doesn't just impact its immediate neighbors. Instead, it sets off a chain reaction, opening up new pathways and patterns. Over time, the variety of possible configurations proliferates exponentially, and the boundaries of what could come next continuously expand.

This constant evolution and interaction in systems make room for new possibilities at an accelerated rate. The more participants—or "components"—we have actively experimenting, innovating, and testing new ideas, the quicker we arrive at transformative breakthroughs. Just like dominoes falling in a coordinated cascade, the effects of innovation often depend on the right information landing in the right hands at the right time.

Interestingly, the romantic notion of the “lone genius” or the “great man” falls short when compared to Kauffman's theories. The true catalysts for major leaps in innovation are visibility and self-awareness within these complex systems. When we can observe and understand what's happening within a system, we're better positioned to see where the gaps, opportunities, and next possible advancements lie.

Debunking the “Great Man Theory”

The “Great Man Theory” postulates that groundbreaking advancements are primarily the work of singular, exceptional individuals who single-handedly drive change. While the narrative of the lone genius is appealing and easy to grasp, a closer inspection reveals a far more nuanced picture. These so-called "great men" are often not isolated figures but beneficiaries of a rich ecosystem of ideas, technologies, and pre-existing conditions.

Take Alexander Graham Bell, widely hailed as the father of the telephone. While Bell's contributions were undoubtedly significant, his invention didn't materialize in a vacuum. He was a teacher for the deaf who initially ventured into the idea of speech transmission to help his students. At the same time, foundational work in electrical theory and communication technologies had already been laid down by scientists like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

Bell wasn't the only one tinkering with the concept of a telephone either. Elisha Gray, an American electrical engineer, was working on a similar project. Remarkably, both filed their patents on the exact same day—February 14, 1876. The U.S. Patent Office granted the patent to Bell, a decision that triggered a series of legal battles and remains a topic of debate.

The essential takeaway is that the elements needed for the invention of the telephone—scientific principles, existing technologies like the telegraph, and a ripe intellectual environment—were already in place. Had Bell not received the patent, it's entirely plausible that Gray, or some other inventor within the same ecosystem, would have brought the telephone to life.

What this story illustrates is that innovations are not so much the product of isolated genius as they are an inevitable outcome arising from a confluence of favorable conditions and collective efforts. In this light, the adjacent possible expands dramatically. The best innovations often emerge from an intricate marriage of visibility and self-awareness within a particular system or field. When we're aware of the existing landscape and its potentialities, the game changes; new opportunities arise that were not apparent or feasible before.

By moving beyond the simplistic “Great Man Theory”, we can appreciate that groundbreaking innovation is usually the result of a complex interplay between individuals, ideas, and environments. Recognizing this opens up a more dynamic and realistic framework for understanding how progress occurs, how the adjacent possible continuously expands, and how each of us can contribute to the cascade of innovations shaping our world.

In simpler terms, innovation and change don't happen in a vacuum; they're part of a vast, interconnected web of possibilities, each branching off from what already exists. Instead of viewing the universe as a random number generator or seeing groundbreaking innovations like Bitcoin as isolated phenomena, progress and change are far more systemic. They stem from a complex network of existing conditions and potentialities. With each small step we take, whether it's a newly developed feature that streamlines workflows or a freshly minted idea that someone decides to pursue, the realm of what's possible expands ever so slightly.

Applying Complexity Science in Voltage

As we move from theory to practice, let's explore how Voltage integrates the insights from complexity science and the adjacent possible into its product development. Specifically, we focus on our work with the Lightning Network, aiming to provide solutions that extend beyond mere technological offerings to create value for end-users.

Flow 2.0: Simplifying the 'Cold Start' Problem

One of the most pressing issues for newcomers to the Lightning Network is the "cold start" problem. Many get excited about the technology after hearing about it from a friend, a podcast, or social media, and decide to run a node. They come to Voltage, sign up, set up their node within minutes, and then wonder, "Now what?" Unfortunately, many never return, discouraged by the initial complexities.

To address this issue, we've developed a product called Flow 2.0. While we at Voltage might not have all the end-user solutions, our partners and customers are continually innovating to make the network more accessible. They are streamlining wallet creation, enhancing user experience with features like zaps and music streaming, and more. The goal is to facilitate users' interaction with the network.

Take, for example, a user named Alice who wants to receive a payment but has no existing channels. Alice informs her wallet software that she wants to receive 100k satoshis. The software then communicates with our server, generating an invoice for the payment. We wrap this invoice in a way that anonymizes Alice's information while pointing to a Voltage node public key as the destination.

Notably, we at Voltage never actually receive or hold the funds; Alice retains full control. The secret (or "preimage") to unlock the payment is known only to her. Once we receive the payment, we immediately redirect it to Alice, who then unlocks the funds.


Here's where we add a layer of innovation. Alice starts with no channels but receives her payment thanks to a process we initiate while the transaction is in flight: opening a zero-confirmation channel directly to her. While some may have reservations about the risks associated with zero-confirmation channels, it's a risk we are willing to bear given the overall benefit to the network. This allows Alice to get started instantly, embodying a true "cold start" solution.

Our Flow 2.0 product has proven its efficacy and is now being used at scale by partners like Mutinynet, further proving the point that solutions often come from the collective, interconnected efforts of an ecosystem rather than isolated individual endeavors.


Surge: Unlocking the "Adjacent Possible" for Lightning Network Operators

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In our ongoing journey to harness the principles of complexity science, let's dive into Surge, another core product at Voltage. Surge is not merely an informational dashboard for Lightning Network node operators; it’s a comprehensive narrative tool that brings situational awareness to a whole new level.

While traditional tools might give you a static picture of your node’s current state, Surge takes it further by painting a vivid storyline of your node's journey. From channel openings and closures to the intricate details of payments sent, received, and forwarded, Surge offers a dynamic timeline. This helps operators understand how their nodes interact within the Lightning Network, giving context to the raw data.

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We live in a rapidly evolving digital landscape where unexpected events can drastically change the status quo. Whether it's an influx of transactions spurred by the sudden popularity NFTs on Bitcoin’s blockchain, or other network anomalies, Surge equips you with the tools to answer key questions like, "What happened to this channel, and why?" Instead of merely showing where your money is, Surge forecasts its likely movements, adding another layer of assurance and confidence.

Our primary aim is to instill node operators with complete confidence in understanding their own localized 'complex systems'—their Lightning Nodes. Just as Stuart Kauffman’s ideas offer a framework for understanding complexity at a macro level, Surge provides the micro-level tools you need for an intimate understanding of your own operations. It's a window into the 'adjacent possible' for your individual setup, broadening your awareness of what could be the next actionable steps.

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When armed with tools like Surge that provide heightened visibility and understanding, individual nodes become significantly more powerful. But the true magic happens in the interaction between these empowered nodes. The collective capabilities of a network of well-equipped nodes exponentially increase the overall system's complexity and potential for groundbreaking innovations.

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In the end, Surge is more than just a product; it's a manifestation of our broader vision at Voltage. A vision where technology is not just about providing utility but about enriching the ecosystem as a whole, thereby accelerating our journey toward realizing the untapped potentials of complex systems.

Why Ecosystems Matters

In the complex tapestry of the Lightning Network, every node acts as a vital "building block," contributing to the robustness and capabilities of the entire system. When these individual nodes are supercharged with advanced features and tools, they don't just benefit themselves; they elevate the network at large.

This is more than just a technological advancement; it's the evolution of an entire ecosystem. Each empowered node not only serves its own interests but also broadens the scope of what's possible for everyone involved. In this way, the network grows not just quantitatively, but qualitatively—each node adds a layer of complexity, exponentially amplifying the potential for innovation and functionality.

Lightning Terminal

This brings us to Lightning Terminal, an all-in-one suite that significantly boosts the capabilities of individual nodes. Unlike other standalone tools, Lightning Terminal is an entire toolkit that enhances your existing toolkit, offering an unparalleled depth of functionality.

At Voltage, we've always been committed to enhancing the user experience. While our customers have been pleased with our traditional LND offering, and some have enjoyed our Flow tool wrapped around the POOL service, we realized that there was room for improvement. That's why we were thrilled when Lightning Labs packaged LOOP, POOL, and Faraday into the comprehensive Lightning Terminal stack.

We're excited to provide this complete package to our customers at no extra charge. With Lightning Terminal, users gain full access to LOOP and POOL, along with the ability to use Faraday for detailed channel reporting. It's a quantum leap in the level of power and control we can offerScreenshot 2023-08-31 at 11.29.10 PM.png

This isn't just a step forward; it's a leap into a new paradigm. By integrating Lightning Terminal into our offerings, we're enhancing each individual node’s capacities manifold. And when individual nodes become more powerful and versatile, the entire Lightning Network ecosystem takes a giant stride forward.

Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the integrated and enhanced capabilities brought on by Lightning Terminal ripple through the network, contributing to a more dynamic, capable, and efficient ecosystem.

And that, ultimately, is what Voltage is all about—leveraging the principles of complex systems to build a more efficient, capable, and robust Lightning Network for everyone.

The Collective Gain

Let's take a moment to zoom out and appreciate the collective impact of these advancements. By integrating the full Lightning Terminal stack into our offerings at Voltage, we're not merely sprucing up individual nodes. We're adding exponentially to the complexity and capability of the entire Lightning Network. In essence, we're not just building stronger blocks; we're fortifying the entire structure of the network.

In terms of Stuart Kauffman's theories on complex systems, each enhanced node can be likened to an individual agent in a complex adaptive system. The more robust each node becomes, the more intricate the entire network grows, paving the way for emergent behaviors and new layers of complexity. Each node becomes a hotspot of potential, waiting to engage in unique interactions that contribute to the system's collective brilliance.

But let's face it—these networks are not easy to navigate or model. They're dynamic, ever-changing, and full of unpredictable behaviors. Whether it's someone "sat-o-gramming" the entire network or probing your node's channels, the engineering challenges are real. So, what can we do to make the developer's life easier?

That's where tools like Doppler come into play. Designed with the nuances of complex systems in mind, Doppler addresses these challenges head-on. Doppler is a domain specific language created to facilitate the test of lightning applications. It allows to setup a variety of scenarios of multiple node implementations and test behaviour that was previously difficult to replicate in a controlled environment. It simplifies the intricacies, offers greater visibility into network behavior, and lowers the barriers that often keep individual contributors from adding significant value. It's another layer of empowerment, both for node operators and for the Lightning Network at large.

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So here's the closing question we all need to ponder: What's the most efficient way to move as many developers as possible to the forefront of this technology? How can we encourage them to ask market-relevant questions, test out their most daring ideas, and explore new territories? The answer lies in reducing friction in the engineering process and providing them with the tools they need to explore—and expand—the "adjacent possible."

The journey to realizing the full potential of the Lightning Network is long, but with each empowered node and each integrated tool, we come one step closer to a future of limitless possibilities.

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