Seeing the “Network for the Nodes” in Blockchain Technology

forestfortreesI often use the term “can’t see the forest for the trees” when discussing the struggle to maintain perspective. The term serves an effective metaphor to describe any instance where one is so caught up in the minutia of a subject they fail to consider the “big picture”. (i.e. so focussed on a single tree you fail to see the entire forest). In our limited capacity as mere human-beings it is no surprise that this occurs quite frequently — our tendency to focus on the micro (near-term, observable, familiar) distracts us from the macro (long-term, possible, uncertain). I believe this tendency is a core contributor to the conditions that, for many, make appreciating the implications of blockchain technology so challenging. In blockchain terms — I would say that such individuals “can’t see the network for the nodes”.


The Scale of the Conversation

It is important to define the relative scale to which I am speaking — what are the trees versus the forest? One way of answering this question is to simply define the trees as the prevailing topics of the present day and the forest as the unbridled potential of blockchain technology. I find this a suitable scope for this conversation but would stress the importance of considering the entire history of human evolution when considering the “forest” (big picture) — to limit perspective to my own minute lifespan (30 years) would be vain.


The Trees — What Many are Talking About

It comes as no surprise that much of the current dialogue surrounding blockchain technology is focussed on the use-case of bitcoin and other blockchain-based tokens as digital currencies or assets. With this focus comes a host of justifiably meaty discussions relevant to the present day. Will cryptographic currencies survive and go mainstream? Are mining incentives sufficient? Are node incentives sufficient? Are blockchains secure? How do we regulate cryptocurrencies? Oh my… look at the price volatility! I consider such questions to be the “trees” of our metaphor and believe many of their answers to be foregone conclusions.

First, a world with blockchain-based currencies inevitable. It is clear that the value of a distributed open-source protocol and asset ledger (the blockchain) will take relatively little time to be exploited for its real-world utility. Furthermore, no sufficiently secure blockchain can exist without a cryptographic token (such as bitcoin) to back it. Native tokens are inherent features to blockchains — not optional external applications. As a car cannot run without an engine nor can a blockchain operate without a native token. Jonathan Levin was the first to truly address this issue head on — if you’d like to learn more read his post here.

What really gets interesting are the places this technology can take us once established. Once blockchain technology has been refined and is backed by a token of sufficient value to provide an unimaginably secure blockchain – what impact will this have on our world?


The Forest — What Few are Talking About

If you are passionate about bitcoin, blockchain technology and decentralization you’ve probably been in, or at the center of, a conversation where blockchain technology is touted as the solution to all of the worlds problems. This is often followed by waves of skepticism and even disregard by observers. Such criticisms are easy to make of an over-zealous speaker who is passionate about the potential.

The reality is that blockchain technology is disruptive. It allows ancient problems to be approached from an angle never-before possible (i.e. Distributed Consensus, Non-Hierchical Incentive Structures). I would argue that while it is difficult for the Lehman to grasp in a 10 minute conversation — those that understand blockchain technology and decentralization as ecosystems for voluntary participation, contribution, and reward can make some convincing arguments that blockchain technology provides a potential solution to many of the worlds problems. Is a new globally-distributed cryptocurrency disruptive? You better believe it — but it is the potential of the decentralized systems made possible by blockchain technology to usher in new constructs for societal progress never before possible in traditional hierarchical structures that gets my wheels turning. When looking beyond 5 years to 50 years from now it is hard to imagine blockchain technology and distributed systems only being recognized for their inherent tokens.

With all things ‘potential’ ones outlook is often rooted upon the tendency towards optimism or pessimism. In the case of blockchain technology the pessimists view simply means more of the same — an unfulfilled potential. The optimists view opens up an entire new realm of possibility across our global financial, political, and social infrastructure. I for one am pleased to be hanging out with the optimists on this one — the forest is vast and growing by the day.


If you want to “go deep” on the concept of perspective — you might enjoy this clip, one of my favorites, by the reverent Carl Sagan from his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot. If you’re feeling pretty important this might “bring you back down to earth”.

OneName: The Bridge Between Physical & Digital Identity

distributedidentity

Someday this service may be the most important form of identification you posses —  with the potential to combine and exceed the utility of your driver’s license, passport and social security card. It has the potential to be the disruptive bridge between physical identity and a truly secure & private digital identity — all thanks to the blockchain.

The service I am referring to is OneName — a blockchain-dependent business in its infancy that I believe is currently one of the most underrated startups in the space. You may find regard for a small startup bold — especially one launching amongst a class of rocket ships like Coinbase, BitPay, Blockchain and Ethereum. Maybe it is — but here’s why I believe recognizing such potential is just common sense.


So, What is OneName Again?

onenameSelf-described as your “digital passport around the web” OneName is an identity service that utilizes verification of multiple social-media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Github, etc.) to establish compounded trust in identity. Furthermore, established accounts provide integration with bitcoin wallets so that you can use this account in lieu of complex and seemingly unverified bitcoin wallet addresses — it makes sending bitcoins easier and seemingly less risky. Here’s a link to my account: (note the verification of multiple social media accounts, twitter-like profile page, and “Send Bitcoins” button)

https://onename.com/ryanwalker

On the back end, Onename utilizes the NameCoin blockchain. Namecoin is a fork of the bitcoin blockchain that has is its own alt coin — it is the first to have implemented merged mining and a promising decentralized DNS. Namecoin_Logo(It is worth noting here that OneName is a Y-Combinator graduate that has received over $1.5 million in venture funding.)


Why Should I Care?

OK Ryan — I get it. It’s a blockchain-based identity registry. Why should I care and how is this any different than the other accounts I register on the web?

Like all blossoming blockchain-related innovations the magic is in decentralization and the benefits associated with it. By utilizing blockchain technology OneName gives users the ability to establish their digital identity independently — that is without the required trust of a second party to safely manage their account information. While the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and LinkedIns of the world battle to be the primary login authorization for websites — OneName will quietly establish themselves as the most viable option for users to own secure and private authorization identities without the trust of big-social media. It is an option that empowers every user of the internet with the ability to operate as themselves while maintaining privacy and control of their data — users FTW!


Oh – Cool. What are the Implications?

This is where things get interesting — and where I will indulge myself a little and in the spirit of Conan O’Brian look ahead to what things will be like “In the Year 2000”.

First – I’d like to address the concern of having a ‘single point of failure’. Utilizing one single log-in to manage a host of personal information and accounts (an entire digital identity if you will) seems risky — that’s because traditionally IT IS risky. That being said – one immediate risk that is voided by using OneName is that of a trusted second-party. By owning your account information you immediately mitigate a large portion of risk and take accountability for your own information and access. Furthermore – authorization technologies and multi-signature technologies are advancing quickly. It will not be long before decentralized account access and login could be dependent on a variety of signatures. By multi-signature I mean the requirement of multiple access keys (like with nuclear bombs in old movies). Imagine a future where your login is not only dependent upon the weak password you’ve been using for all accounts since you were 12 years old (i.g. MadNugs1984) but a host of unique identifiers such as; 2-Factor Authentication, voice recognition, biological ID & markers, fingerprints, heartbeat, geotagged coordinates, etc. I’m a believer that the problem of compromised accounts will soon be solved. With that addressed… let’s move on….

The future implications of decentralized blockchain-based identity are significant as it will allow users heightened degrees of security and privacy while navigating the digital landscape. Complementary innovations abound (examples being cryptocurrencies, the internet of things, decentralized autonomous organizations, advanced reputation systems, etc.) that foreshadow synergies likely to emerge in which decentralized blockchain-based identity services (distributed identity services such as OneName) hold even greater utility.

While OneNames humble beginnings are tied to social media accounts – there is no reason a more mature platform couldn’t use more concrete credentials to establish identity. Here are some examples of these use-cases:

  • OneName linked to Social Security Number: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted social security information to a OneName account could eventually use their OneName account to verifiably vote on a blockchain-based election platform. Imagine voting in 2020 via the “blockchain option”.
  • OneName linked to Insurance Information: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted smart-insurance policy (maybe stored on the future Ethereum blockchain) could arrive for treatment at a hospital and automatically have all charges and costs verified against their policy before treatment in a single second — all by just swiping their phone and logging in.
  • OneName linked to Passport: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted passport information could be recognized as less of a risk than other travelers. They might received ‘fast-lane’ treatment as their physical passport would no longer need to be verified. Just confirm that you retina signature for your passport is in fact your with an eye-scan and move along please sir or madame.
  • OneName linked to Driver’s License: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted drivers license to their account could ensure that their car doesn’t start unless their OneName key is present in the car. No more stealing my car – unless you can pick it up.

Of course – this is just me riffing on some examples — and I’m more than 100% certain these aren’t even the best of what folks out there are already coming up with and experimenting with. Beyond the individual – OneName could also serve as the identifier for the Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (or devices) of the future — providing a verifiable and trusted reputation layer. I won’t even go into this here…

In conclusion — I foresee OneName or an equivalent becoming the single bridge between physical and digital identify. A host of trends in technology and society point towards civilization expanding further into the digital landscape, a place where secure, trusted and private identity will be essential. With that said — you might consider heading over to http://www.onename.com and claiming your name now — especially if your a Jonathan Smith or Sarah Johnson.

An Overlooked Development: Ethereum, IBM ADEPT and the Internet of Things (IoT)

IBMEther

It has certainly been an eventful start to 2015. The majority of headlines have dealt with bitcoin price volatility, regulated U.S.-based bitcoin exchanges, and… well… bitcoin price volatility. Amidst the flurry of headlines I believe the most significant development in decentralized systems has been wildly overlooked — that of the IBM ADEPT publication and the functional IBM / SAMSUNG demo from the 2015 CES Conference built with Ethereum’s beta protocol — the implications of which are significant. I’d like to briefly shine my humble little spotlight on these here.


First – some relevant links; If you’d like to really dig into what I’m about to address you can view both the IBM ADEPT paper (pre-publication), the IBM paper on “Device Democracy” and a video of the IBM / Samsung ADEPT demo from the 2015 CES Conference. Links below:

IBM ADEPT Pre-Publication — Cliffnotes version: IBM states their case that decentralized P2P solutions (blockchain technology) are the preferred approach to enabling the future “Internet of Things” (IoT). Claims centralized approaches are too costly, not scalable, and lack privacy. The ADEPT (Autonomous Decentralized Peer-To-Peer Telemetry) platform describes how this approach might address these issues and enable a more ideal IoT.

IBM on “Device Democracy” and the Internet of Things — Cliffnotes version: Gives context to the scale of the future IoT (billions of interconnected devices) and describes the shift from ‘special purpose computing’ to ‘general purpose’ computing with greater capability.

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Source: IBM Device Democracy Paper (2015)

IBM / SAMSUNG ADEPT Demo (CES 2015 – Las Vegas, NV) Cliffnotes version: IBM and Samsung have built a functional demo (based on the Ethereum Protocol beta-release) which demostrates the use of blockchain-based smart-contracts for appliance warranties. This is a big deal — one of the first working examples of such a use-case.


As described in the papers and demo above — the potential impact that blockchain technology may have on the Internet of Things (IoT) is significant. As a more cost-effective, scalable, and secure solution blockchain technology will enable millions (possibly billions) of interconnected devices to behave autonomously in very sophisticated ways that were never before possible.

What is most profound and game-changing is the ability for devices to behave autonomously and participate in not only the ‘Internet of Things’ but the ‘Economy of Things’. In the demo the presenter shares a use-case where a dishwasher detects that it is low on detergent and automatically proposes a new order of detergent. Such a capability foreshadows a host of future innovations for decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). Picture a self-driving Uber-equivalent refueling independently, getting an oil change, ordering new tires, paying tolls, renewing registration, etc. — all while paying for such services with it’s own earning from fares.

In the second use-case demonstration we see something with implications equally as significant — the ability of a device to diagnose a failed part and reference the blockchain-based warranty contract. In such scenarios a remarkable amount of work is removed from the process of verifying warranty claims and providing services for repair or replacement. Currently most warranty claims involve significant costs — phone calls to customer service, employee salaries for customer service reps, time for verifying contracts, storage and security for warranty contracts, capital and labor for repair or replacement… the list goes on.

In a world where devices operate autonomously — where warranties are completely secure and verifiable on a blockchain — such costs become almost non-existant. The device can sense a part failure, automatically verify the terms of the warranty contract, schedule the next necessary action (part replacement, repair, re-order, production, etc.), pay for the required actions, and even schedule a proposed replacement date based on the secure calendar of the owner. When you combine this with a future where 3D printing is common another such scenario might include the proactive delivery of a computer-aided design (CAD) spec — so owners have the option to print and replace the part themselves. When considering devices with enhanced self-diagnostic techniques the pre-order of parts in anticipation of failure could significantly reduce down-times or the over-production of replacement parts.


When discussing a future where the IoT is a reality many express fear that it will lead to a “1984-esque” scenario where privacy no longer exists and must be sacrificed to experience the benefits of interconnectedness. This is worth addressing here as the implications I’ve just discussed will most certainly raise the eyebrows of those sharing such concerns. Thanks to blockchain technology the benefits of a completely interconnected P2P world may be feasible with little-to-no sacrifice of personal privacy — blockchain technology is more likely to provide even more security and privacy then we currently experience in our less-connected existence — all the while reducing cost and enhancing experience. We may eventually have a world where we enjoy benefits we are only just beginning to imagine — where we get our cake and eat it too.

It is year 6 of the post-blockchain world and we are only beginning to see the implications of decentralized autonomy. These early demonstrations are humble — but like the first brief flight by the Wright Brothers — they chart an entirely new realm of future possibility.