Taylor Gerring currently works with Ethereum Foundation, a Switzerland-based nonprofit focused on the development, education, and adoption of decentralizing technologies like blockchain.
As a founding member, he helped establish the infrastructure enabling for a globally-distrusted team to develop a common blockchain platform and is currently focusing his efforts on education as he tries to explain the many use cases for decentralized ledgers.
Why blockchain is the way forward
I spoke with Taylor Gerring, asking about the relevance of blockchain beyond digital payments and why IoT professionals should be taking note of the digital ledger technology.“One of the most exciting parts of working in the blockchain industry is that we're continually discovering new ways to apply this technology beyond simple value transfer,” Taylor begins.
“While cryptocurrency is a critical aspect of any public system due to ‘tragedy of the commons’, this core piece of technology turns out to be the least interesting to most people. Once you've made the mental leap that value can be natively transmitted over the internet without financial intermediaries, all sorts of new applications become possible.”
"If instead, devices were programmed to "speak blockchain", they could benefit from the uninterrupted service that blockchains have enjoyed since their inception." – Taylor Gerring, Ethereum Foundation
The Ethereum Foundation champions the cause of cryptocurrency – it will live or die based upon how successful blockchain ultimately is. I asked Taylor what’s so important about blockchain that makes it worth risking everything on.
"In the end, building advanced blockchain applications is about enabling better communication and coordination to the benefit of us humans,” he explains. “Some people see this as an opportunity to flex their creative muscles. Others see ways to streamline otherwise value-subtracting administrative overhead.
“More still see this as an intermediate step to enable improved governance and digital rights around the world. This is where a blockchain platform like Ethereum excels, since it provides a landscape for future developers to program whatever they feel passionate about.
“Those of us working on creating these new platforms have all the incentives to make these platforms easily usable by developers around the world, since the whole point of creating this technology was to use it ourselves.”
How blockchain benefits IoT
So what benefits can blockchains bring to the internet of things specifically? “Blockchains represent an entirely new layer of functionality atop the internet which simply wasn't possible before 2009,” Taylor says. “Up until Bitcoin was released by Satoshi Nakamoto, no one had solved the problem digital uniqueness without relying on a central authority.“If you're a manufacturer of IoT devices, it might seem like a ludicrous suggestion that you're not in authoritative control of all these devices, but the reality is more nuanced. Indeed, device manufacturers or owners can retain full and total control over device, but now, all these devices can use a shared protocol to talk to one another without being dependent on some licensing fee or standards body.
“And although some companies have been pushing integration solutions (such as IFTTT or Apple's HomeKit), we are actually presented with another single point of failure in a precarious chain of interoperability. If instead, devices were programmed to "speak blockchain", they could benefit from the uninterrupted service that blockchains have enjoyed since their inception.
“Since the ledger is distributed amongst thousands of peers across the internet, it requires only a single copy to be online. In this way, the mesh resilience of peer-to-peer networks becomes a huge benefit.”
He may be passionate about the positive aspects of using digital ledgers for online security, but Taylor Gerring isn’t blind to the disadvantages, nor does he deny them. We asked him words he had for the naysayers who criticise blockchain’s lack of anonymity and other weaknesses.
“I'd say that naysayers are right!” he says. “But that doesn't mean we can't accept this as a challenge to improve blockchain platforms so they better meet the needs of IoT.
“For example, there has long been great interest in keeping parts of this ‘distributed ledger’ limited to only the transacting parties. And while some of this work has focused specifically on the value transmission aspect, increasingly we're seeing research prove that we can do much better.
“One of the best examples of this is Zero Cash, which aims to integrate zero-knowledge proofs into the blockchain, allowing for the details of a transaction to remain private between the two parties transacting and no one else.”
And, of course, we’re in the very early days of blockchain application for online security, just as we’re in the early days for the IoT itself. Taylor has some advice for how we might be able to take things forward:“I don't think we're quite yet at the point of seeing blockchain create a more secure operating environment for IoT, however everything is being built at ‘internet scale’. That is, the protocols are being designed to exist in a fully open environment with the assumption that powerful adversaries may lurk around any corner to do something malicious.
“Today, we too often hide behind the veil of security through obscurity. Asking engineers to run their code in the open is a great way to build the bridges to a more secure operating environment, but there is no single silver bullet.”
“My favorite part about Ethereum specifically is how open and welcoming the community is to developers and non-developers alike,” Taylor concludes. “This is evidenced by watching the continual growth amongst real-world meetups across the entire world.
“Although computer clubs have existed for decades, since the advent of the internet, geeks have primarily flocked to online socialization as physical meet ups languished in obscurity. Today, there’s a huge renewed interest in face-to-face meetups like computer clubs of yore and already, there are more than 75,000 people registered to over 400 meetups across six continents.
“The coolest part? It feels like we're entering an age where the stigma of being a technologist is ending and instead it looks like blockchains may push developers to the forefront of geek chic.”