Precisely what the so-called "Internet of Things" will look like five or ten years from now is difficult to say, but it's not out of the question that a block chain may be behind some of the next-generation technologies that companies like IBM are developing in order to build what may also be called the connected economy.
Regardless of the phrase or buzzword, the concept envisions a world in which all devices, places and people are interconnected networks, sharing data and information at lightning speeds among one another. Mobile devices, smart appliances, vehicles, even homes – the Internet of Things may come to be known as the Internet of everything in certain areas of the world decades from now.
How does the block chain – the underlying distributed ledger of the Bitcoin protocol – fit into the Internet of Things? Some see the block chain acting as the spine for a distributed network of devices, with each device acting as a miner of sorts to transmit data between all the points on the network. For IBM, which is developing its a proof-of-concept called Adept, the block chain holds the key to creating a feasible and functioning distributed network.
Paul Brody, IBM vice president and North American leader for mobile and Internet of Things, told CoinDesk in a new interview that there are companies and organizations all over the world that have a real need to be able to connect devices or appliances in order to gather data. He gave an example of a health organization that used sensors placed on faucets to track hand washing rates in order to develop future policies.
Yet the cost of maintaining this type of framework makes it expensive and impractical for broad deployment. Brody said that IBM began to look at other solutions that were both more cost-effective and secure. He cited security as a necessity, given the risks associated with large-scale central data control, particularly if that information is sensitive or financial-related.
Brody told CoinDesk:
"When we looked at those requirements and started talking to people and researching and looking at the marketplace, we saw the block chain as this potentially really powerful solution to this business problem."
The quest to create a distributed network of devices capable of communicating with each other reliably is decades old. The Byzantine generals problem, in which a spread-out army is unable to trust its corp of separate generals given the risk of sabotage, lies at the heart of why, for many years, computing has operated around centralized structures.
Brody said the block chain solves these problems by creating an environment in which only a majority (rather than all) of the nodes have to be trusted. He predicted that its ability to create large, low-cost networks will make the block chain in high demand as a technology backbone.
"I think that demand for the block chain technology, the programmable ledger, autonomous distributed systems is going to be colossal," he said.
Self-regulation and maintenance is another big draw of the block chain from IBM's perspective. Brody said the block chain can eliminate nearly all the costs of running a centralized device network structure:
"As devices become smarter and smarter, why shouldn't they be able to manage themselves? The block chain allows you to run a totally distributed platform. And by our calculation, if you use the block chain, you can cut the cost of managing a high volume device network by 99%."
Brody said that the secretive block chain project IBM is working on with Samsung is affording the two companies a deep look into exactly how this technology might work in a real-world setting. He declined to give further details, but told CoinDesk that the goal remains to have a demonstrable proof-of-concept sometime next year.
Welcome to the block chain house
Brody said that it's too early to say what the practical characteristics a block chain-powered network of devices might have, but he did give a glimpse into some of the conceptual ideas IBM is playing with.
He said that smart contracts or programmed transactions could be used to interact with home appliances or even to enter the residence in the first place. A smart watch may contain smart contract triggers that detect a beacon placed in the doorway that triggers the latch and opens it once the micro transaction from the watch is received on the home's block chain.
"My smartwatch has to have a transaction contract with my door to unlock it. That transaction has to be broadcast in the block chain so that all the devices in my block chain, that I own, recognize me and allow my watch to unlock any doors."
One problem, he continued, lies in the speed of transactions. A homeowner wouldn't want to wait five minutes in order to unlock their door or turn on a light every time they come and go. Brody said that one solution IBM could use involves programming a home's "family of devices" to remember the source of a smart contract.
Making the Internet smarter
Brody said repeatedly that the goal is to build a smarter network of devices that are capable of sharing energy and bandwidth, making decisions and squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of themselves during operation.
"Transaction processing is the foundational workload of all modern computing. Tweets, likes, airline reservations, utility bills -- they're all transactions. On the block foundation level, we can do more than just infrastructure, we can write applications."
From there, one can create autonomous systems that operate in tandem, capable of making collective decisions based on an operational need. Using a washing machine as an example, he said that smart appliances can receive data from an outside source and adjust their power consumption or change their settings in order to be more efficient.
Brody added that it's feasible that hundreds of billions of devices could one day be connected on a single block chain or network of block chains, all of which communicate with each other via automated transactions. He envisioned an ecosystem of both centralized and decentralized systems based on security needs, but ultimately, pushing automated system intelligence to new heights.