Prof Michael Huth, and Drs Claire Vishik and Ghassan Karame jointly edited a special collection of manuscripts in Royal Society Open Science to explore a range of aspects of ‘blockchain’ technology. They introduce the topic and the collection in this blog.
Blockchain: an emerging technology that quickly became prominent
A few years ago, powered by the success of Bitcoin, blockchain became one of the most popular emerging technologies. Its distributed nature as well as quick adoption in a field that, until then, was largely theoretical, captured the attention of the technology community and policymakers.
In the past, cryptocurrencies were perceived as belonging to research more than to practice. The viability of Bitcoin changed this view. Almost immediately, additional use cases for blockchain emerged, ranging from supply chain to privacy support, from regulatory responses and data protection to customer onboarding, from education to auditing and document management. Researchers, investors, and engineers were excited by the potential capabilities of blockchain in numerous use cases, and a large number of startups were funded all over the world, while established companies started to think about blockchain as a key technology of tomorrow, adding it to numerous roadmaps and strategic technology areas in countries all over the world.
Emergence of a blockchain ecosystem
With this level of interest, key elements of the blockchain ecosystem appeared almost overnight. Not only large scale Open Source initiatives, like Hyperledger, but industry sector-based alliances and consortia, like IOTA, as well as an international standards committee (ISO TC307) became operational very quickly. While it is not unusual for the technology community and other stakeholders to show great interest in a new technology, the breadth and level of global engagement that we saw with blockchain is almost unprecedented.
Why blockchain technology for this collection? Why now?
After several years, the blockchain community began to take stock of successes and failures the technology has experienced in different settings, and its applicability to different use cases. And this was when this collection was initiated. It was a good time to start working on a blockchain collection: the novelty of the technology and associated research topics has not worn off yet, but there was already a lot of original research and lessons learned to calibrate expectations.
What is the focus of the collection on blockchain technology?
Conceived at this point in time, with significant research on blockchain already in place, the issue focuses on cryptocurrencies, the best developed broad research area in blockchain, and examines a few problems that generated a lot of research questions. The collection aims at providing exposure to diverse research directions. The problems under consideration include behavior analysis in Bitcoin, approaches to define asset-based digital currencies, improve performance of exchanges, reduce transaction costs, or move funds in a manner resistant to quantum attacks, as described below.
Introducing the papers that form the collection
• The paper by McGinn et al. describes how data analytics and data visualization can help understand behaviours and trends on open, permissionless blockchain illustrated on Bitcoin.
• The paper by Péres-Solà et al. studies some of the most popular UTXO-based cryptocurrencies and identifies scope for improvement in the implementation of the UTXO technology.
• The paper by Burchert et al. proposes a layer between the blockchain and the payment channel to reduce transaction costs for channel-based micropayments.
• The paper by Stewart et al. develops an approach for moving funds securely from a blockchain to a quantum-resistant one even as a quantum attack is taking place on the former.
• The paper by Lipton et al. outlines a framework for digital currency that is asset-backed and therefore has the means of controlling the stability of this coin through financial mechanisms.
Looking into the future: what are other important topics in blockchain?
While cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin have already been covered in a large number of research papers, there is also continued interest in other use cases, such as the use of blockchain in supply chain, in document management, in automotive and in the Internet of Things (IoT), to support privacy, and a large number of other applications. These cases are studied by researchers and pursued in practice. In its short history, blockchain users have created an ecosystem, gaining support in software, hardware, network, as well as associated processes, performance trade-offs, and a lot more. In addition, legal frameworks, contractual, regulatory, and policy issues, including security and privacy, have been studied in different countries, resulting in innovative ideas and approaches. Looking forward, it would be interesting to address such topics thoroughly in future publications and we encourage our colleagues to submit these works to Royal Society Open Science.
Image credit: Pietro Jeng