For the vast majority of the population, the term “blockchain” is about as understood as the inside of a carburetor. The technology is linked to even more complicated words like “cryptocurrency”, which in turn is linked to “bitcoin”, which, for some, conjures up images of purchasing illicit substances off the dark web.
The good news is that it’s not nearly as nefarious as it’s made out to be. The bad news is that even for those who have been blessed with exceptional technological prowess, it can still be difficult to truly comprehend blockchain — and more importantly, to understand why it matters to the average person.
Blockchain, at its core, is a digital list of records. If you’re determined to understand the underpinnings, think of it this way: I want to send you a dollar. We’re at two ends of a train track, so I attach my dollar to a cart and roll it over to you. I had to use a key to access that cart, and you’ll also use a key to open it on your end. Along the way, there was someone checking the cart to make sure there was really a dollar inside (we’ve paid them a small amount to do so). Once that’s approved, you get your money and all is well.
Not too tricky! In the world of blockchain, the “track” is the blockchain, the “cart” is a block of data, the “keys” are passwords, and the “dollar” is any asset you’d like to transfer to another peer on the network. The dollar is also a complete joke — you’d be crazy to send such a small amount.
But to understand why sending such a small amount is a strange idea (and contentious topic in the world of blockchain), we have to understand a bit more about that person who is checking the cart, and a bit more about the size of the cart. That “person” is called a miner, and it’s actually a group of people, computers, and specific software that solves increasingly difficult questions as the 21 million Bitcoins in existence become scarcer. Because blockchain is decentralized, AKA there is no central government overseeing operation, the miners are essential in verifying transactions on the ledger, or all the dollars attached to carts. Only once the miners come to consensus, only once they’ve all said okay, there’s really a dollar in this cart, are the assets transferred and that block is recorded to the blockchain. As for the size of the cart, let’s use Bitcoin, the world’s most used cryptocurrency, as an example. Each block on the Bitcoin blockchain has a maximum size of 1MB, which quickly makes for a somewhat bulky system. If you had to pay to send a new cart every time your own cart was full, you’d probably be asking for either a bigger cart or a lower fee to pay each time it was checked. Maybe both. But you’d probably spare yourself the time and money if you wanted to send a single dollar.
That’s all to say that cryptocurrency, despite its incredible technological breakthroughs, isn’t, of course, perfect. Issues around scalability (block size) and governance (fees) are what keep blockchain from breaking into the mainstream market. It’s not difficult to see why: Who would pay a $7 fee and wait for up to 20 minutes for verification to buy something like a cup of coffee? That may make sense for large transactions, but what place does cryptocurrency have in everyday life?
That’s the million dollar question that Brooklyn-based startup Cypherium has been trying to solve. Their mission, in a nutshell, is to create a new blockchain that’s faster and cheaper to use.
The team at Cypherium (who earned their stripes working for the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) plans on delivering the scalable, convenient blockchain via a two pronged approach. Remember those miners who had to come to consensus on each individual block on the chain? Well there are various ways of coming to that conclusion, none of which are flawless. Simply put, one, Proof-of-Work, is efficient but slower. Another, Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance, is scalable but at the cost of anonymity on the system. Cypherium’s consensus mechanisms are a sort of hybrid between the two: Proof-of-Work’s efficiency plus Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance’s reliability. “Hybrid Consensus Mechanisms” is a mouthful. The important thing to know is that the resulting blockchain will theoretically be able to process thousands of transactions per second, a function that doesn’t exist on any other current blockchain.
If you’ve made it this far, let’s get lofty. We want to lower the cost of transactions, so imagine we’re back on that train track and I’m sending you another dollar. Rather than waiting for the miners to completely clear all other carts out of the way so we can move forward, we’re going to slip into an alternate dimension (where the cart is the only one on the track) to quickly get approved. That happens almost instantly and we’re able to jump back to the original track where my cart with my asset has been delivered. Cypherium calls this multi-level governance, and in actuality, what’s happening is a split of the application protocol from the main protocol. This means that the main chain is able to operate without getting backed up as all the heavy lifting is done on the temporarily split application chain.
Again, the backend of the system isn’t for the layman. The bottom line for users is this: If you’re interested in a blockchain, and, by proxy, a cryptocurrency that’s faster, more secure, more convenient, and ideal for a wider range of payments, look to Cypherium. For its average user, moving assets on the blockchain will likely be as easy as any commonplace app. And who knows what the future holds? Maybe soon we’ll all be buying coffee with cryptocurrency.