Blockchain has become a buzzword in the past couple of years, but many people still don’t know what the technology can do. Best known as the foundation of cryptocurrency transactions, the decentralized ledger has the potential to replace existing databases, providing more transparency and security. It could be adopted by nearly every industry including energy, finance, health care, manufacturing, real estate, and transportation.
To help advance the technology, IEEE launched its Blockchain Initiative in January, and dozens of activities are underway. They include standards development and e-learning courses, as well as conferences. Groups have been formed worldwide to focus on blockchain applications based on local needs.
“This is a grassroots effort that gives technical communities the ability to advance blockchain, and inform one another about aspects of the technology they haven’t thought about,” says Tim Kostyk, who is overseeing the initiative. He is the senior program director of IEEE Future Directions, the organization’s R&D arm. “The more people who are involved, the more the technology benefits.”
BEYOND THE HYPE
One of the biggest advantages of a blockchain system over current databases, Kostyk says, is that it provides provenance: proof of ownership. “Blockchain allows for traceability in which users can see who had their hands on a product or service and at what point in time,” he says.
A blockchain database records every transaction and makes that record visible to all participants. Moreover, each transaction is blocked by the transaction that comes after it, making it nearly impossible to delete or edit previous records.
The health care industry could benefit from adopting the technology for medical records to help ensure a medical professional was not negligent. Doctors would record detailed information about medications prescribed, vaccines given, exams conducted, and surgeries performed. That information would be locked in a permanent ledger, not only providing the ability for patient records to be accessed by different medical providers but also making it nearly impossible for information to be deleted or edited—protecting against false malpractice allegations. IEEE is holding workshops and developing standards to advance blockchain technology for medical records.
Blockchain technology also could help ensure food safety. Retail giant Walmart, for example, is using it to track its produce, from farms to store shelves. That helps ensure items have not been contaminated and are not past their sell-by date.
The IEEE initiative is holding the Blockchain for Agriculture Forum in November in Honolulu. The conference covers recording seed plantings, changes in soil and irrigation, disease outbreaks in livestock, and shipping of produce. During a food recall, for example, those in the supply chain could refer to a single ledger to get to the root of what went wrong.
Another way blockchain technology could be useful, Kostyk says, is for creating and storing smart contracts: legal documents that use digital signatures. Several companies are emerging to provide blockchain systems to handle tasks such as finalizing a will and signing a contract without the need for an attorney or real estate agent. Users have their own private key assigned to each transaction that acts as a personal digital signature. It would be nearly impossible to delete or edit a legal document once it was recorded on the ledger.
FILLING THE GAPS
To advance blockchain technology, and to ensure the systems are secure, more education is needed. That’s why the initiative is offering e-learning courses and webinars to help educate technologists.
In partnership with IEEE-SA, the initiative has a variety of standards development projects in the works. The conformance and authentication project, for example, is developing a rating system to gauge the level of performance of each blockchain platform, measuring its efficiency and security.
Other projects include developing standards for blockchain use for utilities and energy infrastructure as well as for the Internet of Things.
The initiative publishes an e-newsletter, which is distributed to its technical community of 1,600 subscribers.
Something unique to the IEEE Blockchain Initiative is its formation of local groups around the globe. The idea is to allow participants to focus on aspects of the technology that suit their local needs, says Senior Member Ramesh Ramadoss, co-chair of the initiative and chair of the IEEE P2418.1 Blockchain Standards Working Group.
“Some groups are interested in blockchain because of cryptocurrency, others for government projects or public financing for projects in underserved areas,” Ramadoss says. “We let them decide how to get involved locally through their section and globally through the initiative.”
Groups are being formed in Canada, China, India, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States, with more on the way.
The local groups network through a virtual forum and at events including the IEEE Global Blockchain Summit, to be held 17 to 19 September in Gaithersburg, Md. Summit attendees can learn about emerging applications and can help inform policy and regulations.
The initiative is becoming so well known that many non–IEEE members from IBM, Oracle, and other companies are getting involved and sponsoring events, Kostyk says.
“The more blockchain advances,” he says, “the more it’s considered credible and the more people are going to invest in, develop, and standardize it.”