There’s no shortage of news about mega digital commerce players controlling the algorithms that guide our daily actions and thoughts. See Amazon Changed Search Algorithms in Ways to Boost its Own Products and Google under antitrust investigation by 50 attorneys general
Thankfully, there is also plenty of ‘antidote’ news – albeit more esoteric — that shows notable progress in blockchain technology that will take us to Web 3.0 a/k/a the ‘Decentralized Web’ where users control their own data and their own algorithms.
But lots needs to happen first.
For blockchain to become mainstream, users shouldn’t have to worry about picking the right platform, the right smart contract language, the right system interfaces, and the right consensus algorithms. They also shouldn’t have to concern themselves over how they will interoperate with partners that use different blockchain platforms for their projects.
In sum, the blockchain back end shouldn’t matter to users – just like the Internet’s DNS or TCP/IP protocols don’t matter to web users. All web users care about is their web-based applications. All Blockchain users need to care about is their decentralized applications.
Make no mistake: The days of seamless blockchain interoperability at the ‘atomic’ level are not here yet. Nor are the days of cross chain functionality where a single smart contract can update multiple blockchain platforms using a single process. We won’t see these needed functions go mainstream for at least two years.
But the good news is we are seeing some very promising developments that will help move us closer to this end state, as highlighted in our recently published Hype Cycle for Blockchain Technology 2019.
Some noteworthy innovations of late that we are watching:
- Hyperledger Besu
This fairly significant announcement was of a Java-based Ethereum client originally called Pantheon as the first blockchain project accepted by Hyperledger that can operate on a public blockchain, Ethereum. See Announcing Hyperledger Besu
For now, this announcement brings together developers and researchers which will help pave the way towards future integration of Hyperledger and Ethereum codebases and standardization on smart contract languages.
- Polkadot and Cosmos
These two ‘blockchain of blockchains’ initiatives support blockchain interoperability and are primarily focused on the cryptocurrency public blockchain space. Polkadot just announced the Kusama network where developers can soon start testing their applications. The system is scheduled to go live next year. Cosmos has limited functionality in production with some crypto exchanges.
Opaque Execution Environments
Smart contracts should be simple to develop, understand and execute across multiple environments. But when it comes to permissioned blockchains, smart contracts seem to live in a black hole.
Typically, only a vendor or network sponsor that wrote the smart contract understands what it is actually doing and has the tools and expertise to monitor it. Most other participants have no visibility into their smart contracts’ development and execution environments – not because anyone is keeping it hidden from them – but because they don’t have the tools and interfaces to monitor their actions. These tools are starting to develop for mainstream users.
Smart contracts developed for one blockchain platform typically can’t compile to run on another one and are written using different languages.
But we are starting to see that change with several smart contract solution sets including; Truffle that runs on Ethereum or Hyperledger, and DAML (code that was open sourced by Digital Asset Holdings) that works across Hyperledger Sawtooth, Hyperledger Fabric, VMWare, Amazon Aurora, R3’s Corda, and AWS’ QLDB. See Truffle and DAML
Zero Knowledge Proofs are on the verge of getting notable adoption by permissioned blockchain participants. VMWare partners with Qed-it to make this happen in a lab today, where several prospects and customers are checking it out.
Chainlink just announced Mixicles which functions as ‘private smart contracts’ using its decentralized Oracle technology that is part on and off chain. The on-chain components don’t reveal anything about the smart contract, keeping its logic and content private. See Mixicles; Simple Private Decentralized Finance For now, Mixicles works with derivatives and other financial instruments .
Blockchain key management practices are critical since loss of a user’s private key represents a single point of failure. Most of us have heard the nightmare stories of a user losing their private key and consequently all of their crypto-assets, never to be recovered.
This problem exists both with cryptocurrency assets and any other asset or information stored on a blockchain. Hackers are successfully gaining access to centrally maintained private user keys using age-old techniques that work successfully to gain unauthorized access to bank accounts and other organizational assets. Current implementations of key management – where private keys are centrally maintained — almost negate the benefits of secure cryptographic access that they enable.
Secure Multiparty Computation (SMPC) addresses this significant problem using clever math and algorithms that ensures a private key is never exposed in its entirety in the clear, and that multiple parties are required to execute a private key cryptographic operation. A few vendors are working hard in this area to bring their solutions to the mainstream blockchain market. They include Curv Unbound and Sepior (who is in a partnership with VMware). Stay tuned for an upcoming Gartner report on this subject.
All together, these developments in blockchain interoperability, smart contract portability and cross chain functionality, data privacy, and key management are taking us closer to mainstream blockchain and Web 3.0. As a technology user, I can hardly wait.