Guest post By Ben Butchart on May 25, 2016
A briefly trending item on Hacker News this week caught my attention: “Announcing Akasha - a next generation social network.” Yep. Know what you’re thinking. Yawn, but what actually came next blew me away, “Powered by the Ethereum World Computer, embedded into the InterPlanetary File System.” That was enough for me. I’m in. Where do I sign?
"But what’s the Ethereum World Computer, and what the heck is the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS)?" I hear you ask. Well, who cares what they actually are? It all just sounds so Douglas Adams that it has to be right. In fact, anyone with even a passing interest in Internet of Things should care greatly, as Ethereum and IPFS will define the IoT in the same way that HTTP/IP has defined the current web.
The web as we know it today is simply not capable of handling the demands that the Internet of Things is going to generate. As it evolves, the IoT will generate quantities of data that will make the current history of the universe look like a small shopping list. Every turn of a wheel, every lock unlocked, every beat of a heart. Data. A lot of data.
The problem is the centralised nature of the web. The underlying protocol relies on IP addresses that map to an actual server in a real place, typically a large datacentre, owned by one of a dozen or so global corporations.
The IoT can’t breathe in this centralised, big-pipe, big-hub infrastructure. The IoT has to work offline; it has to work with low bandwidth, low power and local ad-hoc networks. It cannot tolerate being unable to retrieve data because someone turning off a computer in a datacentre broke a hyperlink. It needs an infrastructure that is decentralised, robust and permanent.
And it is not just a problem for the Internet of Things. The centralised web threatens to stall the progress humanity has made in asserting the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.
The Snowdon leaks came as shock to some people who had thought that the web was a distributed, peer network with which governments couldn’t interfere, whereas in fact governments could exploit the web’s centralised topology to direct an entire nation’s data through a single pipe, and even worse, from an engineering point of view, it’s just very inefficient.
So how are the Ethereum World Computer and IPFS going to fix the web? Well, what they both have in common is the blockchain technology that underpins the Bitcoin network.
A blockchain provides an incontestable record of an event that occurred in the network, such as a financial transaction, the creation of a document or execution of some code. Each node in a blockchain network maintains a record of the ledger, and because each event is ‘chained’ to the next using a clever algorithm, it becomes next to impossible to tamper with the record of events. You would need to unpick every event that came after the one you want to change and replay history on every device that ever participated in the network up to that point. For the first time, history can now be recorded by everyone, not just the victors.
This is the focus of Akasha, which has a goal to create a network dedicated to protecting free speech and privacy. The InterPlanetary File System, also called the “Permanent Web” is an effort to replace the internet protocol (IP) that underpins today’s web architecture (as in IP Address) with a distributed design that uses the content of a document to create an internet address, rather than the location of a server.
The addresses are created by cryptographic hashing of the content, with updates to the document entered into a blockchain to prevent tampering. The Ethereum framework uses blockchains for executing code, including so called “Smart Contracts”, where every node in the network agrees on the outcome of the computation, making it possible to verify parties who have honoured their obligations in an incontestable way.
The entirely 21st century company Slockit.io are blazing a trail in exploiting the potential of Ethereum, by linking smart contracts to the ability to unlock a physical lock. This is just one of many potential applications of Ethereum to the IoT.
Last week the mainstream media started paying attention when it was announced that the DAO, a fully autonomous organisation based on voting rights derived from tokens generated by the Ethereum network, became the second largest crowdfunded project in history, with the equivalent of $150m in assets. Slockit is at the centre of this slightly mysterious organisation, with a popular proposal to create a generic platform for a sharing economy.
For the rest of us, it’s good to know a new web is coming - a web for the Internet of Things, and for the victors, well I guess they had better find something else to write about.
Ben Butchart is currently a Workgroup Leader Software Engineering at The University of Edinburgh. If you'd like to find out more about Ben, or would like to read further posts written by him, head over to Techneuk.
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