Blockchain: what is it? | Engineering Techniques

Distributed over the Internet, a “blockchain” is an ordered, decentralized and tamper-proof database thanks to cryptography. Each Blockchain user becomes a trusted third party. No central organization governs its operation. Enough to strengthen authentication and traceability in many areas.

In the late 1960s, there were the Shadoks who spent hours using their Cosmopompe intended to pump cosmogol 999. Today, “miners” spend several hours verifying the transactions of a block of a ” chain of blocks”, the famous Blockchain. These blocks contain transactions (write operations to the chain) that are in a specific order.

The best known use is the virtual currency Bitcoin, the first Blockchain created in 2008. Nine years later, Bitcoin is still blacklisted by countries or organizations. With a recurring argument: illegal transactions are favored by the anonymity it gives to its users.

Certified transactions

Beyond this controversy, a Blockchain represents an iconoclastic solution. It could “revolutionize” different sectors of activity and in particular all the “trusted” intermediaries responsible for verifying the identity of a person by taking a more or less high commission in the process.

This ordered database makes it possible to certify all the information and make it indisputable. The transaction can be certified by the community, even if all the difficulty is to define in the P2P field what are the limits of this community. “The integrity of the chain is guaranteed by cryptography. Any modification is detectable by all. Please note that I said any modification. The channel does not distinguish between “legitimate” or “illegitimate” modification”, specifies Stéphane Bortzmeyer (R&D engineer at the French Association for Internet naming in cooperation – Afnic), on his blog.

Another fundamental principle of a Blockchain: decentralization. The chain is “verifiable by all and controlled by no one”. When two people want to organize a transfer of money between them (it can be a matter of paying for a purchase or making a transfer for a family member), they each have a public key (a code) and another private one to send and receive money.

Recorded in the form of a computer code, this operation joins others which form a “block”. The latter appears in the giant Blockchain database. “All Blockchain users have this same register and each time someone writes something in it, it is replicated throughout the network”, specifies François Dorléans, director of operations of the French start-up Stratumn, who relies on Blockchain technology to create tools for businesses. This is where the famous “miners” come in, who, like the Shadoks, activate their machine to verify block transactions (to ensure, for example, that A has the necessary funds to send to B). The key is compensation.

Another singularity, the blockchain is public. “Anyone can create a node overnight, which will automatically download and verify the chain, with all the data it contains,” explains Stéphane Bortzmeyer.

Spot fake drugs

What applications could benefit from such particularities? They are very varied, both general public and professional. In the first case, the Blockchain facilitates money transfers between individuals. No need to go to a specialized counter, a simple internet connection and a smartphone are enough. Sending costs are drastically reduced (maximum 1% against 5 to 15%), and the currency formats that can be used are much wider. Several start-ups aim to “uberize” Western Union and others. Music platforms like Spotify and Deezer as well as record companies could also be affected: rights management would be done in real time and without going through intermediaries.

But it is the professional applications which should multiply, in particular in finance and energy. The creation of tamper-proof transaction registers would be very useful in many areas requiring optimized traceability of objects and products. Food and health could benefit from this. A health scandal like that of horse meat and counterfeit medicines would be limited, if not impossible. Good news, because according to the World Health Organization, fake medicines are the cause of 700,000 deaths per year. The French blockpharma start-up is in this niche. Its solution allows you to instantly check the authenticity of the medicine box purchased via your smartphone. This reinforced authentication would also be very useful for digital identity (cadastre, bank, transport, birth and death certificates, etc.).

Quite slow transactions

In Africa, but also in Latin America, many countries do not have cadastres, or at least reliable cadastres. The NGO Bitland has announced the launch of a digital cadastre project in Ghana by allowing landowners to survey their land via GPS and register their land deeds on a Blockchain.

But a Blockchain is not a panacea either. This solution has some limitations. The main ones are its relative slowness (more than ten minutes to record a transaction) and its energy cost (it mobilizes a lot of computers). It is also the target of pirates. If they can’t tamper with the blockchain, they are able to spot flaws in apps to embezzle money.

But the impact of these disadvantages seems very minimal compared to the advantages offered by this decentralized system.

By Philip Richard

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Blockchain: what is it? | Engineering Techniques

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