Whether transparent, decentralized database technologies like blockchain become a tool for the masses or the few is still yet to be decided. In fact, a UN paper that looks at what blockchain is and what it could do just went live last week.
But if you’re as excited as the tech giants are to start putting stuff like this to work, IBM has just announced it’s open-sourcing a whole load of code on GitHub.
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A blockchain is an online, public ledger where you can log just about any kind of transaction, rather than it being controlled by a central institution. Although much of the theory is yet to be tested, many believe it could transform everything from financial exchanges to legal contracts.
IBM is part of the Linux-based Hyperledger project, where the code will sit, whose founding members represent just about everyone who stands to lose if the whole world agrees to change the way it does interactions.
That’s unless they ensure they’re all front and centre of the technology’s development.
Addressing some key areas in the implementation of technology like this, IBM has shared with devs a ‘consensus algorithm’ to help with decision-making, crucial for a decentralized system like this, as well as a smart contracts template that can be coded in Java or Golang.
Smart contracts are the “cutting edge” of this technology, so says the independent researcher and consultant on alternative finance Brett Scott, writing for the UN.
Imagine a coded blockchain-based script that is activated when two parties send bitcoins to an escrow Bitcoin account that is controlled by the script, and which will release the bitcoins in the future to whoever wins a bet on the average level of rainfall over a certain period. This smart-contract is programmed to read data from weather agencies, and after a set amount of time releases the bitcoins from the escrow, sending it to a farmer who requires protection against low rainfall. This is a blockchain-based weather derivatives contract.
IBM’s clearly got a bit of a head start on this and is now also offering ‘blockchain as a service’ for developers to use within the IBM Cloud via a service called Bluemix, with API infrastructure for plugging in outside data.
It’ll also let you to plug IoT information into its blockchain suite, via the Watson platform, so you can include data from physical world activity communicated via something like RFID chips, barcode scans or mobile devices.
This could mean things like package locations or temperatures are automatically logged online in order to see whether a contract agreed on a distributed ledger has been fulfilled.
IBM will also be opening up ‘Garages’ in London, New York, Singapore and Tokyo where its staff can work with developers to design and implement new blockchain-based apps.
But in his paper, Scott also challenges the assumption that this technology is inherently a good thing.
“The deep question is how to get people who may be used to existing systems of institutionalized trust to start using another one,” he said. “How does a blockchain system gain legitimacy and stability, such that users will adopt it and grow to trust the safety of their position within it?”
Perhaps legitimacy starts with big brand technology companies getting involved, but ‘blockchain as a service’ doesn’t exactly fit with the potential that others see, as Scott explains, for “large-scale egalitarian self-organization.”