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In tech circles block chain technology — the transaction processing engine behind the Bitcoin crypto-currency — has become the technological equivalent of quinoa. Not everyone is sure of what it is, but everyone is raving about it as an answer to any number of tough problems. The latest is IBM’s research team, who are looking at building out a distribution platform for the internet of things that uses block chain.
Paul Brody, the head of mobile and internet with [company]IBM[/company], is proposing a system called Adept, which will use three distinct technologies to solve what he sees as both technical and economic issues for the internet of things. The Adept platform is not an official IBM product, but was created by researchers at IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV). Adept will be released on Github as open-source software. The platform consists of three parts:
- Block chain: As mentioned above, block chain is the distributed transaction processing engine that keeps track of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. The beauty of block chain is that it can be used for many purposes. Basically it’s a technology that allows data to be stored in a variety of different places while tracking the relationship between different parties to that data. So when it comes to the internet of things, Brody envisions it as a way for devices to understand what other devices do and the instructions and permissions different users have around these devices.In practice this can mean tracking relationships between devices, between a user and a device and even between two devices with the consent of a user. This means your smartphone could securely communicate with your door lock or that you could approve someone else to communicate with the door lock. Those relationships would be stored on the locks, your phones and come together as needed to ensure the right people had access to your home without having to go back to the cloud.
- Telehash: It’s one thing for devices to use block chain to understand contracts and capabilities, but they also need to communicate it, which is why Adept is using Telehash, a private messaging protocol that was built using JSON to share distributed information. It’s creator Jeremie Miller says at its simplest telehash is a “very simple and secure end-to-end encryption library that any application can build on, with the whole point being that an “end” can be a device, browser, or mobile app.” He added, “Perhaps, you can think of it as a combination of SSL+PGP that is designed for devices and apps to connect with each other and create a secure private mesh?” A new version of the software is expected soon.
- BitTorrent: And finally, to move all this data around, especially because not everything has a robust connection to each other — especially if they are using a low data rate connection like Bluetooth or Zigbee, Adept uses file sharing protocol BitTorrent to move data around keeping with the decentralized ethos of Adept.
The end perspective is one of many chunks of data flying between devices where it can then be assembled according to the rules laid out by the block chain software. Of course, this sort of architecture won’t work with machines running 8-bit processors, which means it won’t appear on low-end devices any time soon. However, Brody is convinced we won’t be dealing with embedded processors for much longer as connectivity takes over our every appliance and electronic device.
Why this, why now?
Brody, explains this in depth on a podcast he did with me this week, but there are two reasons he’s eyeing the new architecture. The first is economic. For him the internet of things as a plethora of devices talking to the cloud doesn’t make much fundamental sense. There’s way too much overhead in operating a cloud platform, especially for devices that are designed to live in people’s homes for a decade or longer.
Building a cloud back end to support your dishwasher when not that many devices will realistically want to talk to your dishwasher seems impractical. He’s also skeptical that the model of selling people’s data as a revenue model will support these services for several years, thus he’s trying to build a platform that keeps the intelligence at the device level (and maybe in a hub on the premise) and can operate even without a manufacturer’s constant attention and survival.
The second reason is that Brody has some ideas about how this architecture could change the business models for the internet of things. He’s not convinced that the sales of data will ever amount to much, especially since sensors will be so cheap. If a company decides it wants data, it’s not terribly difficult to put a sensor on the market and build a program so consumers will use it to share their data.
But with this architecture and the use of block chain, one could actually create new business models around sharing more than just data. Devices could share computer power, or bandwidth or even electricity via the block chain’s instructions. And while Bitcoins are built to be difficult to mine via computation, there’s no need for the Adept platform to rely on scarcity, meaning that the hash tables could track any number of variables. For more on this, listen to the podcast or come see Paul Brody answer my questions (and yours) at Structure Connect Oct. 21 and 22 in San Francisco.