September 13, 2016
Most people don’t realize it yet, but blockchain could clear a path for “the collaboration of things.”
By 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet, the World Economic Forum predicts. Even then, connected devices will only get us so far. That would be an internet of things, true, but those things could only interoperate as well as smartphones do, for example. We’d have something bigger, but it wouldn’t really be new.
The real value of things being online is in getting them to act on our behalf, so they can do things for us they haven’t done before. Think for a minute about autonomous ecommerce, the blue-sky scenario considered in PwC’s on smart contract automation. Autonomous ecommerce implies massive machine-to-machine collaboration at scale.
Even more challenging is what’s not depicted in this illustration. What good is a self-driving truck to a transportation carrier if that truck can’t recharge itself anywhere there’s a charging station, for example? What good is a delivery drone to an ecommerce provider if that drone isn’t authorized to place the package you’re expecting on the back patio, or pick up that pair of shoes from you that don’t fit?
How will devices in general help us get work done in new ways? Standards of course are still in flux, but effective networking protocols are hardly the only challenge. What things need to interoperate is not just communication, but validation of steps in a process. If you’re a self-driving truck, I’m a charging station and you need me to recharge your battery, we need mutual authentication, authorization, a rules framework encoded in a smart contract that sets parameters around this recharging scenario, and a means of logging the resulting energy transfer to a shared, tamperproof ledger so there’s a record of the transaction, whether or not there’s a money transfer.
In other words, you and I as autonomous things would need to be not only connected to the internet, but to a blockchain as well, or a blockchain equivalent.
There shouldn’t just be an internet of things—but a collaboration of things. Without blockchain technology or something like it, even if they’re smart, things online can’t collaborate very effectively with each other or scale across boundaries. They certainly can’t do so on an ad-hoc basis.
To collaborate at scale online and in the ad-hoc ways, there needs to be a full online ecosystem. That’s why some including the International Telecommunications Union have adopted another term: the internet of everything (IoE). The internet of everything includes not only machines and people, but also process. Blockchain tech ideally marries immutable identity, authentication, authorization and access control to business process in smart contract form.
In that sense, blockchain technology closes the trust gap that would otherwise exist in the internet of everything. Forget what you may have heard about blockchains being “trustless”—their value is in removing the need for human third parties and substituting a more reliable, virtual third party instead. Blockchains could be the internet’s Chief Validators, checking the identities and other facts necessary to validate, complete and log a transaction in a permanent record visible to all parties. In addition, blockchains enable virtual agents embodied in smart contracts to enforce terms.
How would blockchain, business process management and artificial intelligence all work together in an internet of everything that would make it possible for things to collaborate? That’s a topic we explored in Besides blockchain, what’s missing from the internet of things?.