August 12, 2015

The Potential of the Blockchain: LinuxCon Keynote Preview

bitcoinFor the past few years I have been fascinated by the rise of Bitcoin and the technology that underpins it: the blockchain. Like Linux, the blockchain is an example of the continued march towards distributed systems and technology. Trust is a central element of these types of systems and the blockchain can enable this through its unique technology. If we have unique person-to-person trusted transactions without the need for a centralized institution all types of innovation and efficiency can be unlocked, especially for those in the developing world. Decentralized and federated systems of larger and larger parts is the way our civilization is heading and the blockchain can be a core enabler of that progression.  

There are many similarities between Linux and the blockchain and so I was thrilled that Greg Maxwell, one of the core Bitcoin maintainers and a long term open source and cryptogrophy developer, accepted my invitation to keynote LinuxCon this year. I recently caught up with him to talk about his speech and the potential he sees for the Blockchain. 

Tell us about your work at Blockstream and the potential of the blockchain in areas outside Bitcoin? I am really intrigued by many of the potential applications, especially for the developing world. Can you give us a glimpse into a future powered by distributed open technology? 

Bitcoin presented a solution to a previously thought to be unsolvable problem: How can machines securely come to an agreement about the state of a shared ledger without resorting to trusted third parties. The obvious first application was creating a world wide digital money that doesn't depend on centralized authorities. But creating a new kind of money is just a first step in building a new system for financial transactions--by leveraging this technology we can build new ways for people and machines to transact with each other where fraud and cheating are made impossible by design. Doing so lowers the cost of these interactions and improves the availability of justice world wide, especially in places without extensive traditional infrastructure. These tools that don't depend on trusted parties for security also improve privacy and equality, because they don't depend on continually identifying yourself or only interacting with "known good" parties.
 
At Blockstream we're working on building tools and infrastructure to further enhance the capabilities of the initial Bitcoin system and applying insights from Bitcoin to a broader spectrum of applications. For example, in Elements Alpha the first sidechain test network, we have features to enable improved privacy, security, and transaction flexibility above and beyond what Bitcoin itself provides. 
 
Can you give us a preview on your talk at Linuxcon next week? 
 
I'll be talking about some of the underlying technical innovation that powers the Bitcoin system as well as new work being done in this space, and it's potential to contribute to the wider world.
 
You have a lot of experience with open source communities. How is the Bitcoin open source community similar and different to others like Linux or those at Mozilla?
 
Because Bitcoin is a system that enables the exchange of value, Bitcoin also attracts people who have interest in the economic aspects of the system including things like monetary policy. This additional diversity provides new perspectives but also new challenges, as we must work to bridge the cultural gaps between the traditional technical community that is the bread and butter of most open source efforts with a new audience which is less familiar with different organizational models. Because the systems we build are ones without a higher recourse if something goes wrong, their security is utterly critical in a way that few other projects experience. 
 
 
What about the technical governance of Bitcoin and the Blockchain? 
 
Since one of the security properties of the Bitcoin system is that is designed to be largely beyond influence governance is an especially tricky issue.  In the case of an OS kernel each person (or, at least, each device) could use its own fork, sharing a common codebase is merely important for development efficiency and compatibility. In the case of blockchain systems compatibility takes on a new dimension, because every participating system must agree exactly on the state of the shared ledger.
 
One potential solution to this is to enable forking without disrupting compatibility by building loosely coupled extensions, this is the sidechains work that I'm working on at Blockstream.
 
How can developers get involved with bitcoin and what you're doing at Blockstream with sidechains? 
 
Bitcoin and our (much more recent) sidechains work is developed in the open: We have public mailing lists (hosted by the Linux foundation) at:
https://lists.linuxfoundation.org/mailman/listinfo/bitcoin-dev and http://lists.linuxfoundation.org/mailman/listinfo/sidechains-dev

And public git repositories:
https://github.com/bitcoin/bitcoin/
and
https://github.com/ElementsProject/elements

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