If your refrigerator could talk to your telephone, what would it say? How about your car and your home security system?
Blockchain technology is giving new meaning to the phrase, “If these walls could talk.” They can now not only talk, but they apparently have some interesting things to share with you and the other connected devices in your home and workplace.
It doesn’t stop there. The so-called internet of things is ripe for an adoption explosion, and it remains one of the most compelling use cases yet for blockchain technology.
Despite the moniker, the internet of things is really about how people, places, and things will eventually develop a common language, making life easier for everyone – and everything – involved.
Wearable technology is pretty old, with the standard wristwatch serving as the ur-example. You’re also likely familiar with more advanced hardware, like wearable pedometers or heart rate monitors.
The decentralized nature of blockchain technology is forcing innovation in the wearables sector like never before. With processing power distributed via the cloud and the blockchain, wearables can simultaneously become less obtrusive and more powerful.
This was ultimately the death of the most high-profile wearable device, Google Glass. The goony-looking goggles immediately made their presence known, and some locales outright banned them for fear of privacy violations. U.S. law permits photos to be taken of you when you’re out and about in public, but what about in a locker room or bathroom?
Google Glass 2.0, Image from Wired
The next generation of wearables is far subtler. While privacy concerns will still come to the fore, the ability to surreptitiously snap photos is just one tiny example of possible wearable applications.
Imagine a bracelet or other such device, similar to the Fitbits currently used to track steps, heart rate, and other biometric functions. Now give that device the ability to talk with other smart devices instead of just recording data and delivering it to your smartphone.
You walk up to your front door, and your bracelet tells your security system to deactivate the alarm and unlock the door. Both devices are in harmony and can be assured that you are who you say you are due to the inherent security of blockchain cryptographic signatures.
Smart Watches, Image from FitBit
You walk in, and the lights spring on to your specified brightness, partly dependent upon the ambient light already streaming through the windows and sensed by photovoltaic sensors. It’s a Friday, so your stereo automatically keys up your weekend playlist. Your home electronics shake themselves out of hibernation mode, ready to be at your beck and call.
You have become a powerful universal remote. You no longer live in your home; your home lives around you.
This connectivity doesn’t have to end at home. A DJ in a club could potentially “read” the heart rates of the audience and adjust the spins accordingly. You can skip the grocery line at the checkout store, because your bracelet has already been synced with your purchases, and your bank (or Bitcoin) account is automatically deducted as you walk out the door.
More to the point, a person doesn’t even have to be present for blockchain technology to give value to the internet of things.
Manufacturing settings are likely to see the most widespread adoption of this technology.
Modern factory floors like very different from the way they did even as recently as the 1990s. You’re more likely to see an assembly line staffed by faceless robots than live human workers in most industries. It makes sense; robots don’t get sick, they don’t take holidays, and they don’t vote to join unions. All they require is regular maintenance, electrical power, and a plan of some sort. The few humans you see milling around a modern factory are likely to be technicians of one kind or another. Their job is primarily to make sure that the company’s machines are performing up to snuff. The actual work of assembling widgets and welding steel car panels together is done semi-autonomously.
IoT in Manufacturing, Image from The Manufacturer
It’s that “semi-autonomously” that blockchain technology might be able to address. Even in a highly automated facility, like a modern steel mill, humans are still required to do the fine-tuning and make the decisions that robots can’t. A human driver is likely behind the wheel of the rig bringing scrap to the facility, and a human engineer is the one who ordered the scrap in the first place when he or she noticed the number 2 basic oxygen process furnace getting a little low.
In a factory making use of the internet of things, the furnace and the truck can make decisions on their own. The furnaces’ sensors discover that raw materials are running low. It pings the driverless rig, which proceeds to the scrapyard for automatic loading by an equally jacked-in conveyor system. The rig returns to the furnace for unloading, and the work of making steel continues. The decision-making process is fast and automatic. There is no room for error or misjudgment, and the process is elaborately documented on the blockchain’s distributed ledger. At the end of the day, each portion of the factory’s internal supply chain is accountable and available for review.
The applications don’t stop at already-automated factories. The internet of things has immediately obvious potential in the retail and food service sectors, as well.
There’s virtually no limit to what devices can be empowered by the internet of things, nor on what those devices can say to one another. This is a blessing and a curse. In a world where your refrigerator, your car, and your home security system can carry on a conversation, it only takes one weak link to create a serious security vulnerability. This has already happened. Hackers were able to take control of the proprietary camera technology inside of China’s Hangzhou Xiongmai Technology’s components and gain access to connected devices and propagate through the system. It’s easy to imagine a similar security failure being used to simultaneously unlock all of the doors in an apartment building or maliciously fiddle with traffic signals. It’s the bad trope of many clueless Hollywood movies coming to frightening life.
Using blockchain technology instead of traditional connecting tech mitigates this risk by creating a secure and decentralized language for the internet of things. It becomes much more difficult to seize control of a device with an open and transparent ledger, cryptographically sealed at each step.
There are a number of Blockchain companies looking to harness the power of blockchain coupled with IoT.
IOTA is a crypto token (IOT) specially designed and optimized for the Internet-of-Things (IoT). The team behind the project developed a new distribution ledger architecture which aims to support the 4th industrial revolution and machine economy, where machines trade resources and services with each other without third party involvement.
Streamr is a complete system that will be able to tokenize real-time data, allowing people as well as machines to trade it via the system’s decentralized P2P network. Streamr is frequently compared to IOTA because the two are in direct competition, even though Streamr’s is still growing while IOTA recently exploded to take it’s place among the top cryptocurrencies by marketcap.
Waltonchain is a joint project between Chinese and Korean developers that aims is to combine blockchain technology and radio-frequency identification (RFID) to assist in the management of supply changes, with the stated aim of pushing forward the integration of blockchain and the Internet of Things.
A Connected World
The world is on the cusp of a great technological revolution, with the internet of things at the fore. Ubiquitous technological devices are gaining the ability to communicate with each other to improve efficiencies and discover synergies previously undreamed of. The lines between a technology user and the environment are going to become blurred, as the user’s very presence and desires shape the world around him or her. Even without a user present, machines will be able to translate and anticipate their owners’ future wants and needs, be they personal or professional. Blockchain both makes this possible and ensures that a highly connected world is just as secure as a world full of discrete technological links.