A conversation with the Wolfram Blockchain Labs team

For this week’s spotlight, we chatted with the Wolfram Blockchain Labs team about Wolfram Language, Wolfram|Alpha, oracles, and more.

What is Wolfram Blockchain Labs? How did it come to be?

In mid-2013, the first of many blockchain efforts started within Wolfram Research. Our initial interest came about largely from our customers bringing questions and suggestions that pulled us into the space. It’s one advantage of having as diverse and active a user base as we do: they let us know when there’s important new tech to watch.

In 2014 we announced the addition of crypto pricing data to our knowledgebase. You can actually go back in time in on the Wolfram|Alpha blog and take a look at our first entry on Bitcoin. From there, enthusiasm for using DLTs began to spread across many groups at Wolfram, and we started to explore how we could start doing serious work on blockchains.

That eventually led us to begin building integrations with blockchains in mid 2016. The initial goal there was to provide our users with a playground to explore Bitcoin. To that end, we created an integration with a permissioned repository fork of Bitcoin so people could experiment.

Then, in the fall of 2017, Wolfram Research pulled these independent efforts into a single unit: Wolfram Blockchain Labs (WBL). In the spring of 2018, we started working to integrate public MainNets from DLTs. We gradually moved into the three areas we have now: blockchain analytics, educational explanations of blockchain technologies and, perhaps most importantly, providing computational facts for smart contracts.

We are looking forward to continuing to inspire, engage and grow our community as we continue to add great services to Tezos.

How will Wolfram Language and Wolfram|Alpha help developers build on Tezos?

The Wolfram Language will help Tezos developers in several ways, both for building things on the Tezos blockchain and for building around the Tezos Ecosystem. To understand the full scope of what we’re offering, it’s important to give a bit of background on our parent company, Wolfram Research.

Critically, Wolfram has been working on knowledge about the world since our founding in 1988. What we’ve done over the past 30 years is quite remarkable, especially given the size of our company. At that founding, Stephen Wolfram pursued his life’s work of assembling a computational language that describes the world that we live in. I’d categorize that into two large-scale areas: algorithms and knowledge. We’ve managed to become the only large scale effort to create a knowledge-based programming language.

The Wolfram Language provides developers the ability to build really terrific applications and express ideas in a language designed for machines, but readable by humans. We’ve used that language ourselves to develop Wolfram|Alpha, a web service used by millions of individuals to democratize knowledge, as well as by startups and Fortune 10 companies looking to add computational intelligence to their products.

What we’ve done at WBL is build on top of these two great tools to add resources for blockchain developers to use. We have connected the Wolfram Language to the Tezos blockchain and made data on the Tezos blockchain computable in the process. That will allow Tezos developers to read and write to the Tezos blockchain quickly and easily as well as use the full array of Wolfram Language and Technology resources. People will be able to monitor and probe transactions for all kinds of interesting insights on how people are using Tezos, as well as other in-depth analytics. We are also working on a fork of Wolfram|Alpha that focuses on providing a vast store of continuously updated knowledge about the world to use as computational facts for Tezos smart contracts.

We’ve tied these two resources together, with documentation and educational materials to help maximize the abilities for both developers and users who want to explore and learn what the Tezos ecosystem has to offer.

The Wolfram team has worked with TQ to develop an oracle. Why are oracles important? How do you think they will be used in the future?

Oracles are important because they are a bridge between DLTs and real world data. They expand the computational capabilities of the systems by providing off-chain data and additional computations. This is particularly relevant for computational contracts and smart contracts that could be triggered by events happening outside the DLTs. Additionally, oracles can become an abstraction layer to standardize communications coming in and out of the DLTs, so other systems and languages can easily communicate with them.

In the future, we not only envision oracles improving computational and data capabilities for DLTs, but also a whole ecosystem developing around them. For instance, current data providers are usually companies gathering and providing the data. But this business model could expand and become more decentralized to include any person. We can imagine users subscribing to some specific “data channel”, submitting data in the appropriate format and getting a reward for that action.

Let’s take the case of weather data: any user who wants to be rewarded for providing local weather data could install a simple weather station connected to the internet that will stream the data to the appropriate channel. This itself opens a potentially huge market because the user has two options: a DIY weather station the user will need to build and configure (e.g. using Wolfram Language on a Raspberry Pi with sensors); or a plug and play device sold by another participant of this economy that the user can easily install and use.

Now, if you have a decentralized data system, you will probably also need decentralized data curation and data rating systems, adding more actors and incentives to this oracle ecosystem. We expect that there will be an increase in the number of oracles available in the near future. This will naturally incentivize the creation of oracle data rating systems and layers that handle multi-oracle communications.

Finally, after the impact the current pandemic is having on the development of VR and AR technologies, we can expect oracles to not only provide real world data but also data coming from virtual worlds where alternative economies and ecosystems will thrive.

How does your experience working with the Tezos ecosystem compare with other projects?

Tezos exposed us to an interesting on-chain governance that provides incentives to contribute to and maintain a healthy Tezos network. Integrating these capabilities with the Wolfram Language has illuminated the importance of making technically complex ideas simple to grasp in a unified framework. And the ongoing intellectual and philosophical conversations about making those concepts accessible have been stimulating. We appreciate how the Tezos governance structure gives stakeholders a real say in how the blockchain is managed.

While working on our Tezos oracle, we have become well acquainted with their formal verification methods. Combining the reliability of the Mich-cho-coq framework with computational facts from Wolfram|Alpha makes for a uniquely sturdy, formally verified oracle implementation.

During the development process, we have also continued to watch the Tezos community flourish. This is particularly important for development because it generates competition among parties who want to contribute to the ecosystem and creating a positive effect on the technology.

What three things are you most excited to see built on Tezos?

We can think of all kinds of things WBL would like to see thrive in the Tezos ecosystem. But if we have to limit our discussion to three…

First and foremost, we are excited about prediction markets and other sorts of systems that can take advantage of the wide array of computable data we have in our knowledgebase. We envision our oracle being used to provide verifiable facts to drive a range of prediction platforms.

Similarly, we’re looking forward to possible financial applications. Our goal is to help build resources that will be available for a wide array of consumers and businesses. Applications in the Tezos ecosystem could help nimble decentralized systems compete against large centralized financial operations.

Lastly, we’re excited about the potential for collectibles and games that make use of NFTs. The ability to collect, trade and compete with unique digital assets not only gives people a novel form of entertainment, but can also provide a secure store of value.

Maybe that’s four things? Oh well… It’s hard to separate the collectible aspect from some of the games out there, which have really broad appeal.

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A weekly newsletter highlighting teams and projects across the Tezos ecosystem from TQ Tezos

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