HSSMI and Blockchain- Not just for cryptocurrencies

As we near the end of 2017 Bitcoin is on the verge of hitting $10,000 for one unit, with a market cap higher than IBM, McDonald’s or Disney, and a mining network that requires more power to run each year than the whole of Ireland. (The Guardian, 2017)
Such startling figures underscore the truly meteoric rise of Bitcoin from its introduction in 2009, but behind the headlines, there is a rapidly growing industry based around the distributed blockchain application used to implement it, and one in which HSSMI is hoping to play an integral part.

Understanding the potential
One of the greatest challenges faced by those attempting to encourage the uptake of blockchain applications is the global market’s lack of understanding as to both what the technology is, and the advantages it presents. Remembering that blockchain applications are used predominantly as distributed ledgers, the following summary does a good job of defining them:
“A distributed ledger is essentially an asset database that can be shared across a network of multiple sites, geographies or institutions. All participants within a network can have their own identical copy of the ledger. Any changes to the ledger are reflected in all copies in minutes, or in some cases, seconds. The assets can be financial, legal, physical or electronic. The security and accuracy of the assets stored in the ledger are maintained cryptographically through the use of ‘keys’ and signatures to control who can do what within the shared ledger. Entries can also be updated by one, some or all of the participants, according to rules agreed by the network.” (UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, 2016)
It is this security and accuracy that makes blockchain applications so attractive outside of the finance and banking sectors, with uses in the Internet of Things, supply-chain management, manufacturing traceability, identity protection and healthcare records to name a few.

Open for business
When blockchains are not used in cryptocurrencies, the monetary incentive to mine and add new blocks to the chain is lost and hence encouraging their adoption becomes more difficult. As such to support the collaborative development of blockchain-based distributed ledgers, open-source platforms such as 2015’s Hyperledger umbrella project and Ethereum project are required to reduce the costs of adoption.
It is the former project from the Linux Foundation that has initially lead the way, specifically with IBM’s Hyperledger Fabric variant, which is already being used for to track food contamination with Walmart in China and manage the paper trail of ocean-bound shipping containers with Maersk. (IBM, 2016/2017) Ethereum, however, arguably shows more promise with its unique smart contract (i.e. autonomously executing script) functionality. This promise in Ethereum is reinforced by the fact that over 56% of the 400 Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) researched by the ICO Watch List in 2017 were based on its platform.

Get smart
So why is HSSMI interested in this technology? As you will be aware if you have read previous entries on this blog we have a vested interest in promoting digital engineering as a whole, but in particular Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) network that underscores it. One valid concern regarding IoT connected devices is that at present they are vulnerable to attacks from malicious actors, whom not only can use them as backdoors to the networks which they are a part of, but even use them to conduct large DDoS cyberattacks on other servers. Such a vulnerability is inherent in such a centralised server/client network and will damage confidence in Industry 4.0’s likelihood of widescale adoption.
As the IEEE and others have recognised blockchain technology with smart contract functionality (Ethereum, for example) becomes very attractive considering the above. The blockchain itself could keep an unalterable record of all interactions between machines on an IoT network; machines that could also communicate and operate with each other autonomously by completing smart contracts with set conditions. When one then considers how this could tie-in with the operation of collaborative robots (cobots) as part of a larger smart factory, the opportunities for use appear endless.

Sustaining progress
Even considering the potential of combining these digital technologies it’s important as an industry we don’t rest on our laurels. Such potential will only be unlocked by the innovators and organisations such as HSSMI, who must be willing to dedicate the time and effort to developing these systems to a point where they are commercially and economically viable, and hence widely adopted by others.

If you enjoyed this blog post and/or wanted to discuss the matter further, please contact the author, Fergal Harrington-Beatty at fergal.harrington@hssmi.org