Today, 6th of December, TU Delft hosted the Blockchangers Tech Deep Dive
, an event for software developers interested in meeting developers from leading blockchain platforms: Mattereum, Bitcoin, BigchainDB, Hyperledger, IBM, Microsoft, IOTA and Parity.
Most of us heard of Bitcoin and probably of blockchain. What is the difference?
Blockchain is a technology that seems to be a leap change in the business models of the “digital relationship” as we’re witnessing now. But it is much more than an optimisation of the online interactions in the context of new technologies. It is a proof of evolution of our society, from a centralised system thinking towards a distributed one and the benefits of the change can go beyond imagination. The Next Web explains that the businesses or institutions will keep a role in the constitution of the distributed system, but the system itself is autonomous by definition and powered by its own members .
Bitcoin is a digital currency that exists (only) on a specialised blockchain. It is not the only one. See in Business Insider a comparison between todays important cryptocurrencies .
Concept & implications
The online interaction let aside, this is not a new concept: it was discovered in remote places, applied locally, in small isolated communities (see video below – ), being in place for hundreds of years. The concept is about authority belonging to an entire community instead of its concentration into one entity (a person, a company, an institution – as we know it now).
Because of this, there are consequences
– at the level of trust, as we don’t have to look for credentials of only one person or institution. We reach a zone of comfort with trusting an entire community and, the greater the community, the more secure will be any transaction inside that community, the higher the trust.
– on the freedom of information: the knowledge becomes available to everyone in community, at the same time, in a public community/network ledger.
Read more details about the technology at the end of the article.
There are already many applications. If you’ll search online, you’ll get already businesses specialised in data storage like MaidSafe or Filecoin, hubs like Blockchain Hub, social platforms Akasha, search engines BitClave that operate on the blockchain technology, as well as applications or experiments of universities, like Blockcerts, from MIT.
Why is blockchain interesting for academia?
For more reasons! First, as the Blockchain for Science
– a think tank and hub – puts it in their mission statement: because it will “Open up Science and knowledge creation by means of the blockchain (r)evolution”. The flow of knowledge will obviously change in a decentralised system, everyone will benefit from free and reproducible data, the innovation power of such a friction-free information system can increase many-fold.
Lambert Heller from TIB  makes the case of the”crucial advantages” of the use by education and research institutions of the new business model of blockchain technology with “smart contracts” for scientific archiving. He envisions the possibility for the universities to participate in networks with blockchain technology by contributing with server capacity or by winning, buying/selling cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, the funding agencies or governmental institutions – as stakeholders – could provide a crypto-currency for the specific network. He sees the possibility for research institutions to make their own blockchain network and discusses the extent to which these networks can be open or closed to the public and why.
In the actual context of the accountability of the institutions to the society, the exposure of the “smart contracts” to the public scrutiny weights as an advantage for the institution success.
Another idea, coming from the director of the Knowledge Media Institute from UK’s Open University, specialised in distance learning, is to make a public ledger of validated academic qualifications with high impact on the recruitment of the graduates. But the biggest impact would be the “cut out of the middleman in distance learning: the university”. That would be, in his words, “the university of one”. This is already happening – he says, but the added value of the technology to this model would be in the added trust. Times Higher Education cites: “Everyone in the system can check what a student has learned – which certificates they have accumulated – rather than having to rely on a particular institution to store these data” . This model implies, in my understanding, self-made curricula to get a self-made specialisation, while the technology provides all the necessary certifications for everyone to see.
Early adopters of the technology, the MIT’s Media Lab, introduced Blockcerts, a standard for creating, issuing, viewing and verifying blockchain-based certificates. This year, in July, they started issuing “tamper-proof” Digital Diploma’s that are registered in the bitcoin network.
One last thought: beginning October, an “archeology coin” named Kapu was launched for Archeology. It has great impact on archiving and in the cultural heritage protection . Does this mean that we could expect for every field and type of data a new digital currency to be invented? How will this be adopted by the universities?
Who knows? The future will tell.
In any case, brace for impact: there is no escape from this technology!
There are in fact three technologies that made the blockchain possible. None of them are new, but their combination is . These technologies are:
- the private/public key cryptography,
- a P2P network with a shared ledger and
- a protocol (that requires the existence of an incentive “to service the network’s transactions, record-keeping and security“).
The key cryptography takes care of the identification of an individual with a private and a public key.
Any transactions made between two persons is recorded in a data block containing the digital signature, the time and the information related to the transaction. A chain of transactions recorded at different times is at the origin of the name of this technology: a blockchain (see figures below).
The transactions range from simple to complex, like contracts that execute themselves – known as “smart contracts”. “Smart contracts help you exchange money, property, shares, or anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of a middleman.” .
These transactions are recorded by the entire network at the same time, so every node in the network receives the same reliable information.
The reliability comes from the network protocol, that takes care of the authorisation of a transaction. That happens by the execution of a mathematical problem that is called “proof of work” . This proof of work is a code that runs simultaneously on more computers, doing what it’s known as “mining” a new block. The one computer that solves first the problem, authorises a new block in the chain and gets an incentive: a bitcoin (BTC – in the bitcoin network) or an ethereum (ETH – in the Ethereum network) or any other coin in any other network where such a technology functions.
For a better understanding, follow this 17 minutes demo
of MIT experts on how blockchain works.
 How blockchain can build communities completely free of hierarchy,
, published on Sep. 2017, accessed on Nov. 2017
 Bitcoin, blockchain, and the future of money,
, Quartz, published on Oct. 2017, accessed on Oct. 2017