Innovative ideas are in full bloom relative to blockchain commercial applications. They hold the potential to reinvent everything from investment trading platforms to medical record systems to land use titling management.
Many liken the world of blockchain to the early days of the Internet, which was full of hope and promise but also adversely impacted by rapid growth. Ultimately a series of incentives supporting the Internet’s stability and security allowed it to accelerate forward into what it is today.
Emin Gün Sirer an associate professor of computer science at Cornell University and co-director of the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contracts sees a similar trajectory for blockchain technology. He also offers a cautionary tale for those looking to commercialize it to remain vigilant of potentially problematic technical issues that could significantly retard momentum.
Gün Sirer’s deep research interests are in the areas of distributed systems, security, and operating systems, with a specific interest in digital currencies and self-organizing systems. He invented Karma, the first Proof of Work centric cryptocurrency that predated Bitcoin. Gün Sirer is also recognized for having co-discovered the biggest known protocol flaw in the Nakamoto Consensus, for having battled mining centralization, for creating security protocols to mitigate high-value digital asset thefts, and for anticipating the DAO hack. He also runs the popular blog Hacking Distributed.
At an April Business of Blockchain conference organized by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Media Lab, Gün Sirer noted his concerns. He outlined a number of potential problems relative to the design of blockchains, including the fact that all clients in most networks are tethered to the same code, a vulnerability that could bring down the entire system. He says that there are some critical scenarios where developers employ what referred to as “n-version programming,” a rewriting of an application so that myriad versions are not subjected to the same bugs.
Gün Sirer believes that the hype surrounding blockchain technologies sometimes gets a bit ahead of the reality. He has said that some of the ideas currently receiving millions of dollars of funding are akin to mediocre academic research projects.
Critique aside, he touts the committed effort among a number of financial and technical projects taking place to create blockchain systems that have multiple uses and sees a bright future ahead. For instance, the NEM blockchain was demonstrated to be one project relatively sharp with their code according to a key coordination team for China’s cybersecurity emergency response community, CERT. The NEM blockchain is beginning to demonstrate various use cases such as gaming and the supply chain.
Also, there is Stellar which has developed an international alliance as part of its FinTech ambitions and utilized its blockchain to help coffee farmers get paid on time and fairly for their produce as part of an AgriTech drive.
But Gün Sirer warned organizations that the cryptography behind Bitcoin is not foolproof and industry must plan for potential collapse, “Failures will happen… as long as you have thought it through, you’re okay.”