Blockchain Fever At The Consensus 2016 Hackathon

Winning the 2015 Consensus Hackathon was a huge moment for Tierion. It helped our little startup get noticed. I was honored to return to this year’s hackathon as a judge.

At the beginning of this year’s event, each team presented their idea. I was surprised that most projects didn’t seem to require the Blockchain. After everyone finished, I went to the front of the room and issued a challenge. Email me your answer to the following question and I’ll award the best answer one Bitcoin:

“What is the Blockchain?”

Remarkably, I received dozens of responses. They ranged from “the messiah” to technically articulate answers that were copied verbatim from Wikipedia. A compilation of answers is listed at the bottom of this article. Here’s the winner.

“The Blockchain is a trust layer for the Internet”.
- Lilia Vershinina of Distributed Lab

In less than ten words, Lilia succinctly described the fundamental innovation delivered by the Blockchain. Based on what I saw at the hackathon, I was tempted to give the award to the following answer.

“A blockchain is whatever you need it to be, what you want it to be, and what you demand it to be all at the same time.”
- HiroJa Shibe

Through out the day, I kept asking myself “Why is this group of intelligent and motivated engineers fundamentally misunderstanding the Blockchain?”. I wasn’t alone. As the judging finished, the Founder of a well known startup grabbed me by the shoulders and remarked “What planet are we on?”. Fellow judge Muneeb Ali was compelled to write “Blockchains are not Magic”.

Something deep and troubling is going on here. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it. We’ll start by looking deeper into Lilia’s answer.

The Internet is a global network of computers that share information. It’s built on open protocols and open source software. There is no central authority. For the most part, you don’t need permission to use the Internet. However, running the Internet has costs, so we all have to pay for access.

The Blockchain is a global network of computers that allow you to exchange value without the need for trusted intermediaries. It’s based on open protocols and open source software. There is no central authority. Once transactions are confirmed by miners, they are added to an immutable record that contains the entire history of every Bitcoin transaction. The integrity of the data and the robust nature of the network is secured by mining. The cost of running the Blockchain is subsidized by mining rewards and transaction fees. This last point is critical. There is an economic incentive for people around the globe to participate in hosting the blockchain’s network infrastructure. This keeps the network running, available, and secure.

Companies such as Lightning Network, Blockstack, and Tierion build applications that interact with the Blockchain. We leverage the global nature of the Blockchain in the same way that Amazon, Facebook, and Google rely on the global Internet. We didn’t have to ask anyone for permission. We all use the Blockchain as a secure trust mechanism and settlement layer.

  • Lightning Network — global scalable payments
  • Blockstack — global identity registry
  • Tierion — global data verification

A blockchain in a box is as useless to our customers as a website on a floppy disk. But, this is exactly what I saw from many entries at this year’s Consensus Hackathon. Several teams used private blockchains or Ethereum without regard to the technical constraints of each platform.

Blockchain Hype

We’re in the midst of a blockchain hype cycle. IBM Vice President of Blockchain Technologies Jerry Cuomo said it best, “If we call this project a blockchain, we’ll get funding”. Companies are creating application development stacks and calling them blockchains. It’s an easy way to get attention. I’m reminded of the early days of the Web when dozens of web development platforms such as Cold Fusion and IBM Websphere competed for market share.

There was a clear battle at the Consensus Hackathon for the winning team to use a sponsor’s technology platform. Some judges even suggested changes to the scoring mechanism to favor project’s that used their platform. Ultimately, we simply added up the scores and a team using IBM’s Hyperledger was victorious. The folks in the Ethereum camp we’re quick to proclaim another kind of victory. Andrew Keys of ConsenSys proudly posted on Twitter:

“At @coindesk @Consensus2016 hackathon: 2 @Bitcoin projects, 4 @IBM/@Hyperledger projects, 17 @ethereumproject projects.”
- Andrew Keys of ConsenSys

Blockchains Aren’t Magic

Severals teams built projects that didn’t acknowledge the technical limitations of the underlying platforms. For example, one team pitched voting on Ethereum. A quick calculation showed that recording 5 million votes on Ethereum would monopolize 100% of the Ethereum network’s throughput for several days and cost a small fortune. It just isn’t a practical.

Blockchain Fever

Blockchain fever is a dangerous condition. Those afflicted can be seen at conferences proclaiming that the world’s software will soon be running on their blockchain. They are blinded by the technical constraints of their platform. Like the Borg, resistance is futile. We will soon blockchain all the things.

I’d like to see fewer grandiose promises and more companies releasing software that utilizes the Blockchain. Those of us who survived the dotcom boom, recognize that it’s dangerous to over-promise what a new generation of technology can deliver.

So, What is the Blockchain?

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the Consensus 2016 Hackathon. And thanks to Lilia Vershinina of Distributed Lab for her excellent answer to my “What is the Blockchain?” challenge. Here’s a compilation of a few answers. If you have a better definition, add it to the comments.

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“The Blockchain is a trust layer for the Internet”.
- Lilia Vershinina of Distributed Lab

“A blockchain is whatever you need it to be, what you want it to be, and what you demand it to be all at the same time.”
- HiroJa Shibe

“It´s the ultimate lie detector”
- Alexandre Chaparro

“The Blockchain is Today’s best digital analog of Hive Mind, Group Ego, Collective Consciousness, or Gestalt Intelligence”
- Lazy Badass

“The blockchain is a publicly verified ledger of truth that can never be independently altered or changed and only added to truthfully.”
- James Steele

“Our messiah”
- Bitcoin Architect

“Every traditional database is maintained by a queen bee & worker bees. Blockchains remove the need for a queen bee.”
- Ryan Shea

“Blockchain is distributed, robust ledger that can be used to verify something even when the parties on the network are anonymous.”
- Kevin Moran

“”Our” DNA.”
- Alex Rockwell

“It’s a democratic immutable database technology.”
- Vishal Jadhav

“The Blockchain is a decentralized and distributed ledger that keeps track of transactions between entities through consensus. Similar to Gold, the value of a Bitcoin relies on his unique existence (non-duplicability) and precise timeline of events (transactions) since creation. The Blockchain is the reason why the Bitcoin you will send me is worth 454.11$ USD. It is a universal machine that validates transactions through proof-of-work, timestamped data. The Blockchain can be used to transmit, archive and secure many types of instruments not limited to financial assets.”
- Jonathan Hamel

“A peer-to-peer, insert-only datastore that uses consensus to synchronise data between digital identities”
- Nick Addison

“Bitcoin is the New Money! It allows you to send payments over the internet. An open source peer-to-peer electronic cash system. Global decentralized money; computers from around the world work together to track ownership. When you send a bitcoin, the entire transaction is broadcast through the network, after it’s verified, then it’s recorded in a public ledger called Blockchain. A Blockchain contains every bitcoin transaction that has occurred since the system began, it’s shared and maintained on the network.”
- Maria Esteves

“Bitcoin is a distributed database that is approximately 70 megabytes. It is a public ledger and a blockchain. A blockchain is a consolidation and consensus of previous blocks. A block is a package of information in a given epoc. A Block is recorded data in a unique immutable fashion that contains transactions from one party to another. This is a crypto graphic hash of three factors the first owner of the private key, the private key and the second owner of the private key. This is done in sha256 on the bitcoin blockchain. The consensus of blocks vote on the most recent block. Blocks can vary in size. “
- Jeff Balough

“The Blockchain is the consensus about digital present. Once it happens you cannot change it, and if something doesn’t happen yet you cannot say that it’s going to happen. BLOCKCHAIN IS TIME, FREE WILL ARE THE TRANSACTIONS”
- Santiago Molins

“The blockchain is a public and permanent transaction record of everything within bitcoin. Every transaction is recorded forever within the Blockchain”
- Jason Hughes

“The blockchain is a registry where all the executed Bitcoin transactions are saved.”
- Carlotta Tatti

“The blockchain is the public ledger of all bitcoin transactions. It is formed and maintained by consensus and is crucial for verifiable transactions”
- Michael Jones

“Hi the Blockchain is a database of public bitcoin payments between users who are transferring crypto currency it is constantly growing with blocks being added from miners mining more coins.”
- Aric Williams

“The blockchain is the hardest database to fraud on earth, therefore, only it could store something as valuable as money.”
- Lucas Zanella

“The blockchain is the decentrally maintained append-only log of all transactions verified on the Bitcoin network.”
- Murch

“A blockchain is a data structure that makes it possible to create a digital ledger of transactions and share it among a distributed network of computers. It uses cryptography to allow each participant on the network to manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central authority.”
- Daniel

“A ledger of exchanges”
- Christian McMahon

“Blockchain is future of finance among very more things”
- Wojciech Pysiewicz

“It’s a public ledger containing all existing Bitcoin transactions and will always be updated with new validated txs”
- Fabrizio

“The blockchain is an open-source, permissionless, decentralized, public database, to which anyone can write entries, but no one can delete or alter past entries.”
- Rytis

“A blockchain is whatever the consensus decides.”
Kirill Gourov

“The blockchain is the world’s largest electronic ledger that permanently stores important transactional information that is not dependant on any central authority. “
- Adam Guerbuez

“Blockchain is sequentially generated publicly distributed ledger following protocol rules released as open source software by “Satoshi Nakamoto””
- Tony Tint

“ Blockchain is Freedom”
- Svbdlsmrt

“When your transaction does not need to be controlled”
- IC

“Databases are often referred to as “dumb buckets” in which information is stored. A blockchain is a smart bucket.”
- Kodtycoon

“A data structure in which subsets of data are represented by a merkle root and hashed with previous subsets.”
- Kinoshitajona

“For a 18 year old; something that will give you visability or access to stuff you cant have now.
For a Consensus 2016 attendee; a new technology that we did not have before to solve things.
For a CIO; something that you might have to aquire and build talent for.
For my grandmother; something that makes me smile.”
- Laury Behrens
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