Blockchain Beyond the Hype

IEEE blockchain

Brace yourself for the hype cycle around blockchain. Instead of indulging in the hype, I suggest we focus on the technology’s characteristics and how it might be applied to specific use cases. Meanwhile, broad-ranging discussion of governance issues and standards development must proceed apace.

I make these statements as an avid participant in exploring this technology’s capabilities and potential, through my involvement with the IEEE Special Interest Group on Blockchain. As a novel approach to traditional security challenges on the internet, blockchain likely will have many useful applications that benefit ordinary people. But the excitement it is generating needs to be tempered with a sober discussion of how its characteristics may be applied in the real world and the limits of its applications.

That said, it’s certainly safe to also say that blockchain possesses some fantastic characteristics, which have never been seen before. These characteristics, if properly understood, will indeed bring value to all users of the internet.

There are a multitude of discussions about blockchain’s characteristics and potential use cases, and I urge readers to search for these sources themselves. The IEEE Special Interest Group on Blockchain involves a range of interested stakeholders, from technical experts to keen experimenters. We aim to help provide a technical audience with some idea of this technology’s potential, sans the hype.

Describing Blockchain

Blockchain is a technology that originated in the financial services area, most famously as the underlying mechanism for the digital known as bitcoin. Blockchain allows identical information to be presented or stored at multiple locations without a single point of control. It therefore provides confidence that identical information sits in multiple places without oversight by a third party to ensure the integrity of that information.

An important point here is that this is a very simple component that is capable of producing enormously complex systems. Another is that when we talk about cooperation between untrusting parties, blockchain replaces trust with mathematically proven identical information. Trust is still required at a macro level (such as trust in initiatives), but not at the transaction level.

The initial use of blockchain in support of Bitcoin is an effective way to distribute information that doesn't have to be secret but must not be changed, which is referred to in information security circles as “integrity.” So if you don't know all the parties participating in an activity requiring trust, blockchain provides a methodology. Conversely, if you do know the participating parties, but they are independent of you and your ability to enforce rules and govern outcomes, blockchain can serve as well. Historically, the formation of the internet and the world wide web both excluded security in their fundamental designs. The creation of blockchain became the first time that somebody's actually figured out a way to use the power of the decentralized internet to provide assurance around the security of data on the internet.  

IEEE’s Role

The IEEE Internet Initiative’s fundamental approach is to help foster an internet that is safe, secure, broadly trusted and universally available. Relative to blockchain, that means providing security in a way that's integral to internet architecture. On a very high level, that’s how IEEE fulfills its mission of advancing technology “for the benefit of humanity.”

At a more specific level, blockchain has the potential to enable anyone with a bright idea to develop an approach to globally-distributed information in a particular sector or along a particular supply chain, if they can get the key stakeholders on board, in a far simpler manner than globally negotiated contracts or treaties. So blockchain has the potential to enable people to build distributed databases for, say, the management and/or identification of records or assets, even the development of ideas.

I suggested earlier that readers explore blockchain discussions according to their particular interests. I’ll close this blog post by suggesting that IEEE’s specific interest — improving technology for the benefit of humanity — might add another angle to the global discussion of blockchain. We see blockchain as providing enormous opportunities to decentralized initiatives, among many other possibilities. For instance, the United Nation’s sustainable development goals have sub-goals, which have sub-goals relevant to and ripe for local action. Using blockchain, an individual can kick off an initiative to address a sub-goal of sustainable development and see if interest arises around the world.

On a more concrete level, formal, technical discussions around blockchain now focus on governance issues: How will we proceed if something goes wrong? Right now there’s not much consensus on such issues and that has to be worked out prior to standards development for blockchain.

The IEEE Special Interest Group on Blockchain is currently calling for volunteers to work in these and other related areas. The IEEE is but one of many organizations around the world looking at blockchain standards; the level of global cooperation is very high because nobody really knows which approach is going to be successful. Everyone is talking to everyone else at this stage and exploring opportunities for cooperation.

Greg Adamson serves as president of IEEE’s Society on Social Implications of Technology (IEEE-SSIT) and is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also an IEEE Senior Member and chairs the IEEE Special Interest Group on Blockchain.