Hosted by Will Hayes Principal engineer at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI), Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a podcast was aired last month about Blockchain research at the CMU, governance, and applications of blockchain beyond finance. The participants of the discussion were Dr. Eliezer Kanal from SEI, CMU and Eugene Leventhal a Masters degree student from Heinz college in CMU.
What is the discussion about?
The main discussion is around these points:
- Is blockchain actually better than the currently existing solutions? If it is, what are the costs?
- Are there things that we can take from it to make existing solutions better?
- About some central blockchain governance even though it is a distributed system.
Blockchain at CMU
There is a lot of interest for Blockchain at CMU, they even have a Blockchain Group. Blockchain was discussed for digital currency even before it was called blockchain. Aside from all the digital currency and infinite coin offerings, the underlying technology in blockchain is a distributed ledger. Ledgers are present in various businesses record keeping, health data, licenses etc. The power of blockchain comes from its distributed nature where nothing is deleted and there is a lot of visibility in what is going on.
At the Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, research is going on in two major aspects:
- Ensuring blockchain is a secure environment that people can operate, it is difficult to do.
- Advising government, there is confusion on what a use case in blockchain is about. They are trying to play the role of a trusted advisor.
Blockchain and open source
Blockchain can be somewhat compared to open source. In version control systems, users can go to a specific version and use it if the current version does not work for them, so the changes are publicly visible.
Blockchain beyond finance
Blockchain is democratized banking, there is no need for a central entity that clears the transactions. But this is the sole application that has thrived in the market. The application of Blockchain as a distributed computer has not really picked up. There is a general reluctance in the industry to pick up Blockchain for other applications. It will be interesting to see some research on the potential applications where it is pure research, not some time constrained goal to make money. The hype to make quick money on blockchain has started to die out, and interesting research is upcoming. For example, proof-of-stake versus proof-of-work model.
There has been a lot of discussion on using blockchain for name servers, DNS servers etc that underlie the entire Internet and for public key infrastructure (PKI).
“How can I both have the benefits that I could gain, and simultaneously enable technology, or enable a policy that requires me to not have something, which is fundamental to the technology.” For this question, there is no good answer yet. This is part of what makes blockchain such a fascinating field.
Central control of blockchain, blockchain governance?
Git is now offered by Microsoft, Hayes says that this is how government organizations are getting access to it. Are there things happening in the blockchain world where the decision of some influential authority is opening up the ecosystem for a wider array of audience? Even though the idea of blockchain is to be decentralized, it can benefit from some level of centralization. An example is Hyperledger, it has some blockchain concepts but most of Hyperledger is towards centralization.
Public visibility is good for audit purposes but not if some personal information is attached to a transaction. GDPR comes into the picture as it includes the right to be forgotten; this is a clash. One of the older papers where Dr. Kanal is researching the legal aspects of blockchain argues that blockchain is the most vulnerable way to structure any kind of organization. There is maximum exposure and fraud protection is not present.
Blockchain as a truly decentralized platform has a challenge – where does the governance come from? If someone plays around with it, people from the outside are likely to be drawn away from using it pointing out the flaws. Blockchain governance is a serious issue and challenge to work on a for the technology to be accepted by a wider audience.
Blockchain would make a lot of sense in areas where you can’t trust your government, where you don’t have access to a bank but have access to a mobile phone. Blockchain can be of help in such an environment. They also talk about Zk-SNARKS where the proof exists but there is zero knowledge of the transaction and no interaction is required between the transaction provider and verifier. There is greater privacy is such a system but no visible verifiability other than the set rules it may have.
These were the highlights of the main concepts of the podcast, for more discussion you can view the podcast on YouTube.