Anyone who hasn’t spent the last few months on Mars is probably aware of the growing hype around linking blockchains and the internet of things (IoT). See also: what is Blockchain?
In January 2015 a group within IBM wrote a position paper arguing that blockchains were the best way forward for the IoT and the only way that some of the important constraints on its evolution could be addressed. Then, together with Samsung IBM developed a proof-of-concept technology called the Autonomous Decentralised Peer-to-Peer Telemetry (ADEPT), to show that it could work in practice . See also: 12 best uses of IoT in the enterprise.
Lately there has been speculation online about Dell’s exploration of the Ethereum platform, which uses a version of the technology different from that implemented in Bitcoin , and emphasises ‘smart contracts’ rather than transaction recording.
There are conferences devoted to this subject , including some events that appear to have been modelled on the most recent Bond film. There are startups dedicated to applying blockchain principles or elements to the IoT, including Filament, Slock.It, Swerl, ChimeraIoT, and Reply, which has established a ‘Blockchain Competence Centre’ in Europe and proposes: “Blockchain Revolution? Could be the next internet!”
The success that some of these have had in raising VC funds and investments from mainstream technology companies including Verizon and Samsung appears to suggest that the application of blockchain technology to the IoT is an idea whose time is about to arrive.
What’s behind this? Some of it is undoubtedly just the bashing together of two hot topics to create an even hotter one, but there is also some substance. As we have argued elsewhere, the IoT is still really a series of sub-nets of things, built and maintained in relatively isolated siloes, and with limited inter-operability and exchange of data.
For a real IoT we’d need to allow sharing between devices and data sources of different ownership and provenance. As things stand now, the value that is inherent or implicit in data produced by connected objects can’t be realised, because they belong to different entities and either can’t or won’t play nicely together.
And, as IBM also points out, the client-server model on which most applications are built is demanding of network resource: the “network wasn’t designed for this amount of chatter. A blockchain may be a way to quiet this chatter and optimise the internet of things.”
So the business model which has worked for subnets of things doesn’t scale to an IoT with large numbers of devices, heterogeneous device types, fragmented ownership and multiple connectivity modes.
IoT startup Filament takes this one stage further in its “Declaration of Device Independence”, imagining a “truly distributed system of billions of devices?—?each independently interacting and transacting value with each other?—?will create such a massive opportunity of new business models, it will dwarf the giants of today.”
Autonomous devices, acting independently, transacting value with each other? That sounds fun – like the door in Philip K Dick’s “Ubik” which wants to charge the apartment owner a per-opening fee.
Or consider a smart washing machine. It is orders detergent refills as it needs them, or when it becomes ‘aware’ that a particularly good price is available. Uninterested in brand and not distracted by advertising, it simply considers price and performance, and makes the trade-offs that its owners would make if they had the time and inclination to do nothing but gather information and analysis about available detergents. It seeks out new sources of information about detergents, and it pays for this in part with the money it makes from selling its own performance data. It downloads software updates from independent third-party sources to improve its own washing methodology. It schedules its cycles to take advantage of electricity prices; perhaps it collaborates with other washing machines to game the electricity pricing algorithms – so naturally it manages its own software security too, because that capability means that a fleet of rogue washing machines could launch a massive DDoS attack. It maintains itself by ordering service visits from an Uber-like network of independent maintenance engineers, who all compete on price and availability, and are rated indefatigably by their washing machine customers.
Now that does sound useful. I’d like a washing machine like that, but I don’t think anyone wants to make one for me. Manufacturers’ want to add IoT capability to their products to enable ‘servitisation’ – they don’t want to sell boxes, they want to sell services and long term subscription relationships. They don’t want to make machines that will break up with them as soon as they leave the factory in order to provide a better, smarter service to their new owners.
There’s an obvious irony here. Blockchain technology is fiendishly clever, but it’s hitherto been largely associated with an ultra-capitalist ideology that is about making trustworthy money which is independent of governments. In the realm of the IoT, though, its friction-removing capability fits badly with the interests of major corporations, which is why we don’t expect to see it deployed in this sort of scenario any time soon.