In this post-industrial age, society’s attitude towards technological development and innovation is somewhat paradoxical. However, it is undeniable that we perceive technologies as an indispensable attribute of a modern life, business success and scientific achievement. Tech entrepreneurs continue to top the Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires; this encourages young people to begin their own “unicorn” hunt and start their own companies around supposedly disruptive tech idea.
Nevertheless, this obsession with technological breakthroughs has also led us to this era of “hype”. New technologies are so over-hyped, often on purpose, that the word about them gets around faster than actual applications are studied and developed. This gap between expectation and reality is one of the reasons for the vast number of misconceptions and myths surrounding new technologies, including Blockchain, IoT, AI, VR and many others.
For this reason, we decided that was time to change the narrative and dispel the myth of the so-called “Blockchain Revolution”. Instead we have chosen to start debating “The Blockchain Evolution” by engaging in productive and, more importantly, informative discussions with the brains behind blockchain research and development.
At Genesis Moscow Conference, we had the chance to speak to Patrick McCorry, a Research Associate at University College London. Patrick’s research focus on cryptocurrencies from a computer security and cryptography perspective. He will soon become the UK's only PhD graduate in this field.
Patrick McCorry: “Blockchain is really important to talk about because of all the misconceptions. People see blockchain as this global truth or global cloud, that can do anything. And, as I like to show, blockchain is the most inefficient database in the world. So we can’t actually do that much with it, and a lot of the things that people want to do today just aren’t feasible. So, it’s our job as educators to say, “today -- this is sort of what’s feasible; and in the future - this is what we’re going towards. Maybe someday we’ll be able to support your application but right now, it’s just not really appropriate for it”. So, for me, it’s to remove the misconceptions about blockchain and really point out why this is useful.”
BDJ: What myth about blockchains annoys you the most?
PM: “This actually goes back to the very early days. When I first started looking at Bitcoin, it was described as the most anonymous currency possible, that’s why we had all these silk road and dark markets. Then we found out, that it’s actually the most traceable currency in the world. So that’s one of the biggest myths that these currencies are anonymous, and they’re not -- we can trace everything. You have better improvements now, you have like Zcash and somewhat Monero. And that’s much more improved now than it used to be. So we are getting towards that anonymous currency world, but I don’t think we’re really there yet. But that was like a huge myth four or five years ago.”
BDJ: What blockchain applications will we see in the near future?
PM: “That’s really hard to predict. What’s been beautiful is that I’ve been looking at this now for four years, and if you told me four years ago that there’d be ICOs and people sending a thousand dollars on a token, I would have said no, that’s impossible. I mean, just a random token, you know like there are tokens for some application. So, the fact that you can't really predict what blockchain is going to be used for. Right now, the main use cases are one, trading, speculative trading, and two, ICOs for investing money. There’s a bunch of other use cases but those two seem to be most popular. So what’s the third one? I have no idea at the moment.”
BDJ: Is Internet of Things combined with blockchains going to be one big solution?
PM: “So for that there, I’m not really convinced. So, as I said, blockchain is not very efficient and for IoT, I’m still not convinced why they need a blockchain. I mean, why does my toaster need to send tokens to my fridge? So, there’s a lot of hype around there but I haven’t really seen anything that convinces me that it’s useful yet, but being an academic, I’m openminded. If someone had said to me we can do this with IoT and blockchain, and it’s a really good idea -- then I’ll be sold on it. So far, I haven’t really found anything that I find meaningful.”
BDJ: Are there going to be loads of blockchains in the future?
PM: “I think maybe, yeah. Right now we have over 900 currencies and what’s interesting is that they’re all like penny stock, so that’s where the trading comes in. I mean, if you have a bunch of blockchains, you can now trade the coins here for this coin and this coin. There’ll be plenty of blockchains and there’s a lot of research into that already. So there’s this concept called side chains where you can transfer Bitcoin, so you have this private chain amongst people who are interested, you can transfer your Bitcoins onto it, do some trading there, and then transfer your Bitcoins back onto the Bitcoin. So I know RSK are going in that direction as well, there’ll be a smart contract enabled side chain. So, yeah, there are going to be lots of side chains, and what they’re going to do -- I don’t know yet.”
BDJ: What is the driving force behind blockchain development?
PM: “I think it’s still the community. I think that there are some companies who do invest in developers and allow their developers to contribute towards the open source code. I do think that Ethereum is a little bit better for that than Bitcoin. Bitcoin developers are still mostly voluntary, there are one or two exceptions, of course, to that but...yeah, I think that more companies should invest in open source development to really get the protocol out there.”
BDJ: What’s next for you in terms of blockchain research?
PM: “So for the past year, I’ve been looking at cryptographic protocols and smart contracts. So how can we combine real cryptographic protocols and really make use of the blockchain? What you find is that this blockchain is sort of like a trusted third party, where you can maintain public state. So if you can design a protocol around that, then you can do really cool things. And that’s what I tried this year with the voting example. So now my future is that we’ve learnt that doing these cryptographical protocols is really expensive to do on these blockchains, so how can I make that cheaper? How can we get around and outsource the cost somehow? So that’s my future direction.”
Riddle me this: what’s everywhere but nowhere at the same time? If you said ‘blockchain’, you wouldn’t be wrong. Despite being lauded as one of the most revolutionary technological innovations since the internet, we really can’t really do much with it -- yet. That’s why we’ve invited Patrick McCorry to speak about how blockchain can genuinely benefit society.
Making sure not to fly too close to the proverbial sun, researcher and academic Patrick makes a great (and realistic!) case for how we can use cryptographic protocols and blockchain technology with voting systems. To join us on the 16th January 2018, register here.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]