Earlier this year, Ordinals — a unique inscription on the smallest unit of a Bitcoin, called a Satoshi — emerged as a controversial new development. Dismissed by some as spam and embraced by others as a way to bring BRC-20 tokens and NFTs to Bitcoin, the technology stimulated a flurry of developments.
Now there is excitement around “recursive inscriptions,” which is a very confusing yet potentially much more powerful development. Recursive Inscriptions essentially promise to allow more complex functionality to be built on Bitcoin’s blockchain, akin to smart contracts on Ethereum.
Some believe recursive inscriptions could see Ordinals develop from NFTs and “digital artifacts” to underpin a full-blown DeFi ecosystem on Bitcoin very soon. Others are confident it will enable Bitcoin to take on decentralized storage provider IFPS. One person Magazine spoke to believes it will eventually lead to an interconnected supercomputer being built on-chain.
Danny Yang, a Stanford PhD, creator of OCM Dimensions and Bitcoiner since 2013, says recursive inscriptions unlock the next evolution of Bitcoin:
“People won’t believe it when it’s presented to them now. It’s not going to operate exactly like Uniswap, but other high-value digital assets will emerge on Bitcoin. That’s what Ordinals and recursive inscriptions will evolve into. They will become a new form of programmable assets and code.”
These tech developments — while at a very early and speculative stage — are making Bitcoin interesting again. A Bitcoin maxi friend complained to me that I never write about Bitcoin. In truth, there’s been very little new to write about until recently.
“That’s pretty true,” Yang agrees.
Recursive support switched on in June
Yang has worked on recursive inscriptions since February in the form of Bitcoin generative NFT collections OCM Dimensions and OCM Genesis. He inscribed both of those innovative collections on Bitcoin in February (along with compression and 3D programming libraries) before anyone understood the significance of what he had done.
Yet OCM Dimensions was only publicly launched on June 15, the day that recursive inscription support was turned on for Ordinals.com. Yang explains to Magazine:
“You have to show something before people start listening, and finally, after months of beating the drums about the significance of recursive inscriptions on Bitcoin, people are starting to get it after we showed what was possible with OCM Dimensions — the first 3D, high resolution, animated and interactive work on Bitcoin.”
For now, the smart contract-enabled Ethereum blockchain is the home of more developer activity than anywhere else, and it dominates the DeFi sector. Until this year, the idea of building a genuine smart contract — the self-executing code used as building blocks for programmable money ecosystems — was not possible on Bitcoin.
But some now say Ordinals and recursive inscriptions could see a DeFi ecosystem emerge on Bitcoin fairly soon. It’s not going to be easy, though.
What are Ordinals and recursive inscriptions?
Ordinals allow you to uniquely identify a satoshi or a sat. A satoshi is 100 millionth of a Bitcoin. Identifying a fractionalized part of a Bitcoin means creating NFTs on Bitcoin or creating a provenance certificate on-chain is now possible. The idea of NFTs on Bitcoin, the most decentralized OG chain, is tantalizing for some.
In January 2023, developer Casey Rodarmor released the Ordinals protocol, creating Bitcoin NFTs on the Bitcoin blockchain. Rodarmor found an unintended loophole in the taproot scripts that command lines of Bitcoin code.
The Ordinals’ protocol creator argues that such NFTs are now “complete,” as the token and related images are stored on the Bitcoin blockchain rather than side chains or using off-chain storage systems like most Ethereum NFTs. Digital artifacts on Bitcoin are truly immutable.
“Now you can own the actual art, not just a contract that points at a piece of art stored on centralized databases,” says Carlo Fox, an “Ordinals OG” since February who created the Nakamoto Whales series. NFTs, as we know them on Ethereum and on other chains, are more like digital ownership certificates than actual on-chain art, and Ordinals change that.
“I got super excited for Ordinals for a few reasons: for one, we now can create and own on-chain art that is truly immutable. When you understand the ramifications of this, it’s huge. Half the time, NFTs as we know them are stored on AWS, centralized, and controlled by creators who can turn your art into pictures of turds at any time.”
Ordinals allow you to store any type of data on the most decentralized blockchain, and no one can modify it. “Ordinal artifacts may be most likely of any on-chain data to exist 2,000 years from now. That’s meaningful, and I think it is particularly relevant when in the context of important works of art, literature and science. I believe that Ordinals will become the premiere destination for the most coveted and important on-chain art. It’s akin to carving a statue out of gold,” says Fox.
So the business case for high-value NFTs minted on Bitcoin makes sense. Using the new tech to create cool 3D art for OCM Dimensions helped Yang’s company Metagood sell the idea of launching tokens on Bitcoin Ordinals to Asprey Studios and the Italian car company Bugatti recently.
But OG Ordinals could only hold 4MB of data, and that is one reason why recursive inscriptions have emerged.
Recursive inscriptions = Bitcoin cloud computing
At its most basic recursive inscriptions let you record stuff associated with a particular Bitcoin and enable smart contract-type functionality — Yang says they could have been called programmable inscriptions. By interlinking data through a series of calls (a contract for a sell order, for example), it’s possible to extract that data to run more complex processes anchored on Bitcoin blocks.
This enables recursive inscriptions to function like a distributed data repository, like putting AWS cloud on Bitcoin.
Composability — getting disparate projects and protocols to work together seamlessly — is an important part of crypto and one of the main reasons behind the exponential growth of the Ethereum DApp ecosystem.
Recursive inscriptions mean that even the most complex data sets, like video files and audio files, could now technically be hosted on Bitcoin. With a one-time cost to inscribe, data could be hosted forever on the most immutable and decentralized network in the world.
Inscriptions are like data legos, enabling data to be taken from somewhere else and built upon. In computer science, that’s where the phrase recursive comes from, as recursive inscriptions are a mechanism that extracts data from existing inscriptions and utilizes that data within new inscriptions.
Recursion is a fully on-chain process that uses scripts to combine various other on-chain data sources. These can include image layers, audio, code or other data sources. Individual scripts of code merge these layers together through recursion.
Recursive inscriptions use data inscribed elsewhere on new inscriptions, cutting down on storage requirements.
Fox uses the example of PFP art. Instead of uploading thousands of unique images (which can be prohibitively expensive), you can upload 200 and use scripts to combine them via the fully on-chain recursion process. The possibilities this offers are only just being explored.
This is powerful because recursive inscriptions enable new types of applications that were not possible before it. Applications like on-chain AI couldn’t be done on the base layer of Ethereum, but NewBitcoinCity builder Punk 3700 believes they could now be done on Bitcoin. He’s been playing around with “Perceptrons,” an early on-chain AI experiment on Bitcoin.
He explains that “it wasn’t possible to store the AI neural net models on-chain together with the artworks. So we split the AI models into different inscriptions and compose them at runtime.”
Inscriptions an important development for human freedom?
One of the most fascinating elements of recursive inscriptions is that once the data is on the blockchain once, you can simply refer to it again and again, vastly cutting down storage costs and block space utilization.
“Inscriptions are now reusable,” explains Punk 3700, “You can inscribe a very large code library like p5.js once, and other developers can reference that p5.js library at run time without inscribing it again.”
“This is super exciting because we start seeing a community-driven public infrastructure being built out.” This means more complex inscriptions are being created at a fraction of the cost.
“Essentially, any type of data can be an inscription. The most rudimentary use case combines multiple data sources together, and every piece of it can live on-chain. On-chain data might be able to communicate with each other, and data could be realized over time.”
Fox explains further: “The best way to think of it is anything you can do locally on a computer and have all little pieces live together in different files and work together.”
The public hasn’t grasped the significance of these developments, says Fox.
Let’s start with DeFi and AWS first
Long before the supercomputer cranks up, we’re likely to see Bitcoin DeFi and the chain emerge as a data storage competitor.
Toby Lewis co-founded OrdinalsBot, which automates inscriptions to help expedite development on Ordinals. He thinks that, for now, competing with the Web3 data storage provider IPFS is the best use case for recursive inscriptions. In the short term, both high-end and low-end NFTs can now be more affordably held on-chain.
“The end point of storing data onto Bitcoin will get people excited. That’s because Bitcoin has better name recognition than IPFS […] Bitcoin becomes the ultimate store of truth.”
Decentralized data storage on Bitcoin could disrupt NFT culture by allowing images, text files and audio files to be stored directly with tokens.
Lewis also thinks DeFi on Bitcoin is just becoming a realistic prospect now and that Bitcoin-native DeFi products are inevitable, even if they will be rudimentary for a while.
There is likely a large segment of users who will want to build and do something on Bitcoin, especially if the end state is a multichain ecosystem, posits Lewis. That is, use Bitcoin’s blockchain as the layer-1 base, and use Ordinals and recursive inscriptions to connect to other applications.
DEXs and automated market makers are starting to emerge. Lewis notes that Bitcoin can link up to other layer-2 applications as another way for smart contracts to emerge on Bitcoin.
This is the kind of DeFi that Punk 3700 has been building on Bitcoin. He launched a new protocol called Trustless Computer that enables writing smart contracts and building DApps on Bitcoin.
“If Ethereum and Bitcoin have a baby, that’s Trustless Computer.”
One of the first DeFi protocols it deployed was a Uniswap fork.
“Now that you could write smart contracts on Bitcoin, it turned out that building an AMM DEX was very simple. It took us just a couple of days.” A month after deploying Uniswap on Bitcoin, Punk 3700 connected it to Ethereum layer-2 network Optimism and says it can trade with two-second latency and low transaction fees.
“We now have a scalable infrastructure for DeFi to thrive on Bitcoin.”
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Bitcoin maximalists aren’t going to like the use of Ethereum protocols in conjunction with Bitcoin, but Punk 3700 says it’s the future.
“This is the power of having a general-purpose programming language (Solidity) and a general-purpose virtual machine on Bitcoin. Developers can build any kinds of applications they want for Bitcoin.”
“Bitcoin is now no longer just a currency. It is becoming a DApp store.”
New generation of Bitcoin maxis?
At present, these use cases for recursive inscriptions and smart contracts on Bitcoin are highly speculative, and many Bitcoiners would no doubt argue abstracting it away on layer 2s means it’s no longer really Bitcoin at all.
But Leonidas, the founder of Ordinals marketplace Ord.io, is very excited about the new Web3 experiments on the Bitcoin layer 1 as well. He believes that “the release of the Ordinals protocol earlier this year ended a long period of stagnation” for the chain. He’s seeing a whole new wave of developers flood into the Bitcoin ecosystem, who are “eager to build everything from NFT marketplaces to DeFi protocols.”
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised with how much you can actually do on Bitcoin layer 1,” he says.
“The issue was never that Bitcoin as a technology wasn’t capable of handling Web3 use cases; it’s that a culture of toxic maximalism had driven the most talented developers to other ecosystems where they would be celebrated for their innovations rather than harassed.”
Leonidas firmly believes that through Ordinals, Bitcoin has “entered a new era where developers rather than idealists will dictate its future,” and he is optimistic that Bitcoin’s brightest days lay ahead.
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