Blockchain for the masses: A peek into the not-so-distant, decentralized future

Image Credits: Max Pixel

“A computer on every desk and in every home.”
– Bill Gates, 1980

A few decades ago, Bill Gates envisioned a computer in every home. As we look back, we have come a long way and now, on an average, we have more than one computer in many homes. In addition to the computer, in most of these homes, we have smart phones, tablets, smart appliances, etc. and, technically, we have a (small) computer in each of these devices. Hence, more than a computer in (almost) every home.

Most of the time, these devices are inter-connected and also connected to the internet. With network attached storage and/or cloud storage these devices can communicate and share data with each other. We are already seeing trends with people (read power users) adding routers and network storage drives to connect all devices in the home.

Then there are the AI and speech recognition based smart home assistants helping us with various everyday things. For example, each morning alexa[tries to] wake me up, plays me music, updates me on weather, traffic and cricket matches around the world.

All these technologies — computers, the internet, AI, human computer interaction, etc. started as research, then became popular in enterprises and finally reached the masses in form of the devices mentioned above. Similarly, blockchain, today is mostly being used (or should I say tried?) by academic institutions and small and big enterprises. It is yet to reach the masses.

Here’s an excerpt from Andrew Keys’ (ConsenSys) interview where he talks about the current state of blockchain technology,

My thesis is that we’re in ’93 of ’96 — of the next generation of the internet — where in 1996, you were able to work in a permissionless setting. Until then, it was all intranets. — Andrew Keys, ConsenSys

As Andrew rightly examines, we still need a few years for blockchain to be ready for widespread usage. I believe, that’s when the enterprises will start relying on blockchain. We will see some real world problems being solved by blockchain without the need of centralized backup (plan B) systems. This first wave of production deployment of blockchain could be more of a B2B setting. After that, I think, we may need a few more years when blockchain will be used for a B2C setting and will directly reach the masses.

Apart from the readiness in terms of scale, performance and stability, there is another dimension to technology readiness for it to reach the masses — usability. Today blockchain looks like a complicated technology with all the math and cryptography coming into picture and making it look like rocket science to a layman. But this was exactly the case with computers, internet and AI when they were in their infancy. For example, back in the 80’s, to connect to a different computer on a network we had to manually save it’s address into a file on our computer. Today, well, as we know, things a way more simpler and different. When a computer connects to the network, it has to go through a whole process to get an identity (IP address) on the network. Talking about cryptography, today when we connect to any website over https, the same concepts of cryptography come into play which are used in blockchain. It’s just that the advanced web browsers and servers of today have abstracted away the details. Similarly, in a few years time, blockchain will start looking simpler and easy because we would have built the tools to abstract away the complicated details.

Now that we’ve looked at how some of the prominent technologies have advanced in the past and the current state of blockchain, I will try to paint a picture of the near future when blockchain will start reaching the masses.

To paint this picture of the future, let’s start with the present. Today, as mentioned above, we have several devices at our home and they are all connected. Generally, we have a router which connects all these devices to each other and to the internet using WiFi (or LAN). Now, let’s bring in a blockchain node in the picture. Let’s also connect this node to the router.

Image Credits: HelpNetSecurity

Just like we have other devices and appliances directly connecting to the router and hence the network, soon we should see blockchain nodes, packaged as ready-to-use, plug and play devices. There will not be a need of setting up a node yourself but there will be pre-packaged, pre-configured nodes, ready to connect to a chain and a network.

Let’s also look at how this pre-packaged node might look like. Today when we need to setup an Ethereum node, we need to download one of the Ethereum clients on a computer, setup our wallets and accounts and then run the client with a command line or a basic GUI. To interact with this node we need to connect it with one or more dApps. Tomorrow, in the near future, here’s how the process might look like —

  1. Go to an electronics store (physically or online)
  2. Browse the pre-packaged blockchain nodes available in different configurations.
  3. Purchase one and bring/get it home.
  4. Unpack and connect it to power and network.
  5. Set your identities and configure you network parameters.
  6. Connect this node with dApps on your phone and laptop (just like your phone connects to a network, it will pair/connect with this node)

After reading these steps, if you are also getting a feeling of deja-vu, then that’s natural. Because this is how we get new smart phones, smart TVs, and other smart appliances today. Why not blockchain nodes, tomorrow?

Just like the PCs of today are pre-configured with software licenses and OEM specific drivers, these pre-packaged blockchain nodes will come with built in hardware wallets and network configurations. Imagining a step further, these blockchain nodes will also have support for cloud subscriptions so that only the required state of blockchain stays on the hardware at home and rest of it is backed up on the cloud — hence saving bandwidth and electricity.

Today, we can install and run multiple blockchain clients side-by-side on the same hardware. Similarly, in these pre-packaged blockchain nodes, there will be options to connect to multiple networks. Some of the obvious/pre-configured choices might be connecting to your preferred payments network, your preferred identity network, decentralized social networks, decentralized market places, etc.

Usage Scenarios

Now that we have a blockchain node at home, connected and syncing with one or more networks, let’s look at how it will be used.

In the tweet embedded above, Trent mentions two phases of the blockchain movement and the later phase is about optimization (of civilization). A contributor to this optimization phase can be the setup of the household node which can help us optimize almost everything related to households — services, utilities, payments, communications, etc.

Payments and services

All payments to all utilities will be done using this blockchain node at home. We will not have to connect to several websites and apps to make payments for electricity, internet, water, heating, etc. etc. This will spare us from entering sensitive information at several centralized systems and middlemen (payment gateways).

The electricity provider will simply provide an address and a subscription id which will be used to send payments. In the next level, the smart electricity meter at home will be directly connected to this blockchain node to make automated yet secure payments. Similarly the smart router will be able to pay for the internet subscription. The work on tracking usage and payment for utilities using blockchain has already begun in many countries.

Communications

All important public communications will be done by broadcasting on or using the blockchain networks. The blockchain node will be replacing the radio and TVs by making communications more secure and authentic, putting a lid on fake news.

To generalize, a lot of conflict resolution will happen on the blockchain or I should say conflict resolution will not be needed because of blockchain. The household node will be instrumental in making sure all payments and communications are tamper proof right from the origin.

Identity and Authentication

Because this blockchain node is connected to the local router (remember), it is also connected to other devices at home — tablets, phones, etc. Using multi-party compute the signing keys for the blockchain node will be shared on one of these devices and as soon as you will do a transaction using the blockchain node, you will also get a notification on your phone to approve the transaction.

IoT and Smart Appliances

Through the router, the blockchain node will also be connected to all smart appliances at home. The awesome IoT scenario of coffee machine ordering coffee and milk will finally become much more secure because the identity of the coffee machine will be registered on the blockchain along with your identity and you both (you and your coffee machine) will be multi-signing transactions for overall integrity. Washing machines will be able to pay for detergents.

Network of blockchains

To serve all these use-cases one network might not be sufficient. There will be a network of blockchains just like internet is a network of networks. To make sure that different chains serving various use-cases are able to communicate with each other, there will be new standards developed to support inter-chain communications. The household blockchain node will be able to support these standards and clients for multiple chains and all the complicated details will be abstracted away from us using the node. This will be exactly like how we use the internet today and we have standards like HTTP, TCP/IP, WWW, JSON, etc. to make the networks and services communicate with each other.

Challenges

To make all of the above and much more happen, we need to solve the current challenges of decentralized systems. A technology becomes mature when its interfaces become seamless and it’s usage become easy. Today, as we know, the blockchain interfaces are complex and hence the usability is low. Apart from these, there are challenges with scalability and privacy. These challenges are very well known to the community and to the torch-bearers and there is plenty of work going on to solve them.

Conclusion

This was just a stream of imagination about how the blockchain future might look like for the common people. There can a thousand different variations of this depending on how mature our knowledge about blockchain is and what we want to solve with it. Some crypto experts, after reading this, might raise questions about the feasibility of some of the things mentioned above. The more important thing, I believe, is that it’s very important for us, working in the blockchain industry, to make this technology usable by the masses — just like our seniors made the computers, the internet, and AI usable for all of us and our non-technical family members.

Blockchain, Opinion, Future Tech
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