Beyond Bitcoin: Evolving Blockchain Use Cases

By Elizabeth Leake

March 26, 2018

The blockchain topic is gaining momentum, but it’s grossly misunderstood. The term, erroneously, has become synonymous with cryptocurrencies. However, that’s only one of many applications for blockchain. Contributor Elizabeth Leake looks at the real potential for blockchain to make a difference, in fighting fraud, securing personal data and improving agricultural systems.

I’ve become blockchain-curious given the many, ubiquitous non-financial applications that have cropped up ever since cryptocurrencies gave it a controversial reputation. I’m especially interested in use cases that improve value chains in agricultural food systems in low and middle-income countries. Because more people there earn a living from agriculture, blockchain stands to alleviate poverty while improving food security prospects for everyone.

According to analysts who work for International Business Machines (IBM), blockchain—or distributed ledger technology—is “a shared, unalterable ledger for recording the history of transactions. It increases trust, accountability and transparency across business networks.” By enabling smart contracts between individuals anywhere around the world, there is no need for centralized support or oversight (legal, banking, title companies, broker, or other steps that add cost and opportunities for fraud). A decentralized ledger can still be tampered with, but with blockchain’s transparency, it’s easier to detect if something has been altered. As for efficiency, IBM Global Financing reported saving as much as 75 percent of the time required to mediate transaction disputes among 4,000 partners and suppliers using a blockchain distribution management solution.

To economists and business managers, 75 percent savings is nontrivial; this explains why there’s a Consumer Goods Blockchain Forum with representation from such commercial giants as Nestle, Walmart, Proctor and Gamble, McDonalds and others. These companies employ a large percentage of the global workforce, so they’re interested in relevant training. That’s STEM-Trek’s cue to pay attention.

As STEM-Trek’s facilitator, I keep a finger on the pulse of social networks which foster more than 15,000 global contacts; for the most part, they’re students, computational and data scientists and high performance computing industry stakeholders. While many have buzzed with enthusiasm about blockchain’s potential for 18 months or more, and a wealth of blockchain content was published in 2017 via the Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library, I haven’t noticed new grant opportunities to support related research, or that many universities have incorporated related instruction into curricula. That will change as more jump on the blockchain bandwagon, and issues that I will explain here are rectified.

Most blockchain experience has been with first (Bitcoin) and second (Ethereum) generation cryptocurrencies. In crypto production environments, computational systems are decommissioned after one or two years since the applications are so resource-intensive that components fail quicker than the prescribed five-year warranty average. I looked into the prospect of recycling, and was told it’s not worth it. By the time the hardware is decommissioned, it’s useless. Mining is also energy-intensive, and the cost to mine varies with the price of energy, which differs by state in the U.S. For example, when a single Bitcoin reached $17,652.30 in value, it cost $9,483 to mine in Hawaii, but only $3,224 in Louisiana (according to Market Watch on December 17, 2017). It’s neither sustainable nor environmentally responsible.

As far as engaging in related research, such costs would be prohibitive for colleges and universities that struggle to keep the lights on. At the same time, criminally-clueless (or careless) students have exploited free electricity to mine for cryptocurrency from dorm rooms. Apparently nobody notices or cares that there are racks of blinking lights in some student closets. But astronomical energy bills trigger audits, expulsion and widespread embarrassment; especially if it follows an unwelcome visit by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigators who watch mining activity closely. Unexplained energy consumption has become a red flag for suspected criminal activity.

Beyond Bitcoin, Ethereum and more than 1,000 other initial coin offerings (ICO) in circulation, third-generation cryptocurrency development is tackling known issues of sustainability (power/efficiency), interoperability (policies & compliance), scalability, and security (quantum computing poses a threat). Progress in each of these areas is likely to be made through a combination of diplomacy, intelligent data management and artificial intelligence.

The Cardano Project is focused on these issues, and they’re exploring the use of Recursive Internetwork Architecture, or RINA. RINA was developed by John Day (Boston University) who wrote the 2008 book, Patterns in Network Architecture; A Return to Fundamentals. Since RINA addresses the issues described above, I asked Day to describe what makes it a better Internet Protocol than Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), for example.

“The original insight for networking (that was lost in the late 1970s) was Interprocess Communication which had more in common with operating systems than with telecom. As we have built upon that, we’ve discovered that there aren’t five or seven layers, but a single layer that repeats (at different scopes) for different ranges of bandwidth, quality of service and scale,” said Day.

“A major difference with RINA is that it separates mechanism from policy,” he said. “Mechanisms are the invariants, while policies are the variants for specific environments. For example, the mechanism for sending acknowledgements is the same across all protocols, but when they are sent (the policy) differs. By separating the two, there is a major collapse in complexity and the resulting layers complement each other. This makes the network more efficient, less costly and much easier to manage.”  Since a RINA layer is a securable container, there is no need for firewalls.  In the current Internet, each protocol is secured independently, which leads to considerable duplication.

I asked Day if TCP/IP would be replaced by RINA, or if the Internet would require architectural changes before it could be used. “RINA can work alongside, over and/or under TCP/IP on existing infrastructure. I recommend employing RINA when appropriate, and use TCP/IP where it is beneficial, such as for testing malware, spam, phishing, etc.,” he said with a wink and a smile.

While the Cardano Project involves financial data, medical and pharmaceutical industries are embracing blockchain to secure public health and personal information, and to safeguard consumers against counterfeit drugs. There are also blockchain enthusiasts in agricultural and related industries who are concerned with global food security. While most of us have become wise to counterfeit software, telephony and designer handbags, few realize the same deceptive practices affect food, feed, seed and agricultural supplies. A compromised herbicide or pesticide, for example, might not be identified until after a crop fails. It could take years and declining health before some realize they aren’t receiving promised fortifications.

Blockchain effectively tracks the provenance of raw materials and commodities. In the case of cocoa, for example, if GPS coordinates are captured when and where it’s harvested, the information could be used to verify that the producer exercises best practices relating to sustainability (which prevents irresponsible deforestation). It can also be used to track how rare earths used in electronics are mined to ensure that forced or child labor weren’t involved.

With blockchain’s ability to offer immediate traceability, bad actors can still dump junk into the market, but they will be discovered quicker, issues will be resolved faster and they’re less likely to do it again. In essence, it would cost more for criminals to cheat a blockchain system than it’s worth; associated risks and penalties are much higher. International policing agencies also use blockchain to combat fraud. Mitigating disputes and crime robs time and money from the value chain.

Virtual end-points are easy to trace computationally, but crossing from the virtual to physical realms will require a “follow the product solution,” and that’s what Netherlands-based FOCAFET Foundation is developing. Designed with the moonshot expectation of becoming 100 times more efficient and 1,000 times more secure than current methods, FOCAFET’s “virtual Internet of entities” employs a bar code that can’t be copied. Unique product attributes are recorded in blockchain ledgers. For example, it might record a seed’s genetic makeup or a product’s exact chemistry, and then follow it through each step of the supply chain until delivery, including where and how it was produced. It could also be used to track energy, or any other quantifiable commodity. Using a mobile device, the end-user scans the bar code, and the product’s authenticity and integrity are immediately verified before it’s used. The mobile app is light at the end-point, will accommodate a broad range of devices (considering that some in poorer regions use older hardware) and is interoperable with about 80 spoken languages. Additionally, it will seek community feedback in an interest of continuous improvement, and will rely on a free and open use Internet protocol.

The state of global blockchain culture is a theme for STEM-Trek’s proposed July workshop called DIGI-FI@PEARC18. Funds and final approval are pending, but we hope it will take place during the Practice & Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC18) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 22-25.  Watch the STEM-Trek site for updates!

Feature image: Photo by Malcolm Carlaw (Summer Wheat beginning to ripen in the Palouse region; used with the photographer’s permission)

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