Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are generating mega-buzz these days with accounts of fortunes won, and lost, on the many volatile digital exchanges. But according to Bina Ramamurthy, UB associate professor of computer science and engineering, the real story is blockchain, the technology that underlies these currencies. Ramamurthy taught a wildly popular course on the technology during the winter session and in April organized Buffalo’s first blockchain “buildathon,” in which hundreds of students and tech enthusiasts gathered to write new applications for the platform.
Blockchain is a trust model that enables entities that are not necessarily known to each other to interact directly, peer-to-peer. It does this via a distributed, immutable ledger that all of the peers on the blockchain have a copy of and validate. The individual items on the ledger—the blocks—are encrypted, so only people involved in the transaction can read it. All of this is automatically implemented using software algorithms, which makes it absolutely efficient and removes the need for intermediaries, like banks or governments. So, the three aspects of blockchain are decentralization, disintermediation and distributed, immutable ledger: D, D, D!
Blockchain was actually created by cryptocurrency folks, and it began with one particular cryptocurrency: bitcoin. Bitcoin is the currency, but blockchain is the underlying infrastructure. Bitcoin was released in January 2009 when everything was crumbling down on Wall Street. So you can see the benefits of peer-to-peer, decentralized transactions—no intermediaries like banks—and a distributed, open ledger.
Around 2013, a few other technical folks introduced what is called a smart contract. It piggybacked on bitcoin, essentially giving it a more useful spin by allowing for transactions around utilities and services to be recorded on the ledger in addition to cryptocurrency. That’s where we are right now. In the future, government services will be one of the prominent applications for blockchain. Because blockchain protocol is all about verification, validation and agreement on what goes on it, and it all takes place instantly, many operations of government—like going to the DMV—will be streamlined: ownership and management of assets, such as art, or authenticity of collections, land deeds. The foundation for this technology is in computer science, but the applications are in everything.
We are at the infancy of this technology. Blockchain has tremendous potential for inclusive applications, and you want to be included in them. Everyone on the planet will be peers who are interacting directly. Just like the smartphone leapfrogged so many societies into a new connected world, the hope is that blockchain will leapfrog everybody. Think about it: one identity for everybody in the world—global citizenship—with individuals united on the blockchain, contributing to and benefitting from being a part of the world. The focus is on taking everybody there.