BIOTS — an experiment in cheap experimentation

Author: Meher Roy, co-founder Validity Labs

Software is eating the world. Starting with the 1990s, we have witnessed myriad parts of our economy revolutionised by cheap data storage and computation. Every decade since has brought new computing platforms and datasets to solved previously unmet desires. The 90s facilitated information exchange and online commerce through the desktop internet; and the previous decade transformed how we connect socially, record memories, and collaborate using supercomputers in our pockets, aka smartphones. The hunt is on for the next big IT platform.

Blockchain networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) are two potential technologies that could provide the next quantum jump in the collection, storage, utilisation, and monetisation of information. The Internet of Things, a growing network of internet connected physical objects and sensors, is forecast to grow to 26 billion devices in 2020. Technologists speculate on how to best use all the data collected by these devices for the larger good. Similarly, blockchain technology provides new distributed architectures for banking services, insurance services, information markets and social media platforms. It is however unclear how both these technologies can be deployed productively at scale. Both are looking for their iPhone moment!

André Wolke, co-founder of technology education company Validity Labs, is a firm believer in the power of quick experimentation to systematically explore the large product design possibilities opened by the combination of these two technologies. Having personally experimented with Bitcoin mining as a means to generate useful heat and blockchains to optimise banking processes at Credit Suisse; he was left wanting a higher throughput method to systematically explore other design ideas concerning financial services, privacy, information sharing etc.

This desire for quick experimentation led him to found the Blockchain and Internet of Things school, christened BIOTS. BIOTS seeks to develop a global community of enthusiasts and small entrepreneurs building applications and Proof of Concepts in the Blockchain and IoT space. One of the challenges identified therein is the lack of basic engineering know-how for building prototype applications. Therefore, BIOTS has been quietly working towards standardised five day hands-on training and prototype development bootcamps for enthusiasts to start with their Proof of Concept application. This 5 day bootcamp design was demoed recently at ETH Zurich in collaboration with the institute’s Computational Social Sciences group chair Prof. Dr. Dirk Helbing. Dr. Helbing is renowned in the Internet of Things fraternity for pioneering NervousNet, a decentralised software platform enabling citizens to share and make use of IoT data.

BIOTS participants and organisers at the conclusion of the successful event

The inaugural five-day event, held from 5–9 September at ETH Zurich, brought together experts such as Dr. Christian Decker (core tech engineer at Blockstream), Arthur Gervais (blockchain researcher at ETH Zurich), Farzam Fanitabasi (IoT researcher at TU Delft), Dr. Evangelos Pournaras (NervousNet researcher at ETH Zurich), Thomas Bertani (founder of Oraclize), Roman Mandeleil (founder of EtherCamp), Taylor Gerring (co-founder of Ethereum) and Dr. Sebastian Bürgel (co-founder of Validity Labs), in addition to sixty students and ETH teaching staff. The event kicked off with hands-on lessons in building systems delivered by the aforementioned. This was followed by two days of prototype building by student teams spanning the application areas of:

  • Price stable cryptocurrencies: One teams tackled the volatility challenges of cryptocurrencies by creating a blockchain-based market to match currency users, looking to hold a stable medium of exchange, with currency speculators, looking to speculate in USD dollar denominated cryptocurrency markets. This design satisfies the needs of a stable medium of exchange for one group of users and margin trading for the other group of users. A whitepaper and code implementation was released publicly.
  • Privacy preserving negotiations on public blockchains: Data on the cryptocurrency blockchains such as Ethereum, are visible to the world. This makes it unsuitable for use as a platform for negotiating insurance contracts. One of teams used the advanced cryptographic technique of homomorphic encryption to enable insurance companies to compute and deliver price quotes to prospective users on the Ethereum network without any user data being revealed on the public ledger. An advanced prototype indeed with the potential to partially solve privacy problems, the single biggest hurdle in getting financial institutions to adopt blockchain technology.
  • IoT Information markets using blockchain technology: Data from IoT devices need to move from device owners to companies who most value the data for analytics purposes. Naturally, a market between these two parties would facilitate better information exchange and services. Such a prototype was built using blockchain technology at BIOTS 2016.
  • Voting systems on blockchains: The past years has brought intense interest from open source communities and Governments for implementing economical fraud resistance voting systems using blockchain technology. Such voting systems can be administered by ownerless computer programs instead of election committees to ensure neutrality. Two teams demonstrated early prototypes in this direction; with one of them focusing on privacy preserving voting and the other on elegant design.
  • Payment automation: The ability to pay recurring expenses seamlessly using cryptocurrencies was demonstrated by the final team. Customer centric functionality such as this is key to mainstream adoption of these alternative money systems.

All in all, the prototype applications impressed the experts and event judges by the breadth of thought, design and budding code implementations. This demonstrated how correct hand-holding can trigger creativity in participants that hitherto haven’t ever developed applications using this technology.

Post this successful trial, the BIOTS organisation is looking to conduct more of these events at different university campuses across North America, Europe and Asia. Do get in touch with Andre Wolke on Twitter if you would like to host one of these.