A blockchain is a distributed database that is impervious to attacks aiming to change the history of the transactions it records.  Testifying software expert witness Michael Barr talks about blockchain and how it may impact embedded systems in IoT devices.


Andrew Girson:  Hi.  I’m here with Mike Barr, Co-founder and CTO of Barr Group; and we are here to talk about blockchain.  Mike, blockchain is this new technology.  A lot of people are talking about it.  I’m starting to get calls from our clients about blockchain, how it relates to internet of things, how it relates to embedded systems.  So, let’s talk about that a little.  First, let’s start with what is blockchain?

Michael Barr:  Well, blockchain is a technology and it’s really a type of database.  So embedded programmers often involve databases in their work, and you can think of blockchain as being a sort of a next generation database with certain special properties.

Andrew:  Okay.  So, how do use it?  I mean it’s a database but obviously it’s a specialized database.  How do you use blockchain?

Michael:  So what’s different about blockchain than other types of database technologies is that typically you would use – first of all, it’s a distributed database with multiple copies of all the records.  And this is something that you would typically put into an environment where there are multiple different trust relationships – complicated trust relationships where you need an objective record of what has happened, say in a series of transactions where maybe one party doesn’t trust another.  That’s why you see it being used for example in currency applications like Bitcoin and Ethereum. And so, there are certain special cases; it’s sort of a database that can be used in those special cases, okay.

Andrew:  And you mentioned Bitcoin, you mentioned Ethereum.  I mean those are – that’s like this Bitcoin is more financial, but I mean as it relates to internet of things or embedded, are there any examples or any ways in which from the embedded perspective that blockchain could matter or could be used?

Michael:  Sure, absolutely.  So, the thing you should understand about the blockchain technology is because it’s replicating potentially a very large database on a lot of different computers, and also because it’s computationally intensive to do the reconciliation, it’s often the case that the blockchain itself would probably be taking place in the cloud.

Andrew:  In the cloud, right.

Michael:  But what we see with internet of things and other embedded systems is often that they are providing data that could become a part of those records, or they are interacting with the data that’s in the Blockchain.  So, an example of this could be that an application could be tracking the history of a particular car.  So, you could start with information in the history of the building of that car, that this particular component when it’s the engine in a factory in Japan and the engine went into a car in, say Mexico in a factory there.  And then a particular version of the firmware was flashed into each of the different processors, and that later one of the computing boards had been replaced, and later the car had been bought and sold.  You can think about it as having a relationship with service, with Carfax® type of records and details.  And embedded systems could be providing some of that information along the way.  They could be associated with the firmware updates like I talked about.  They could be providing for example, an insurance company might be interested when, if ever has the car run more than 100 miles an hour, and so there could be some trigger where that information becomes part of a blockchain history of this car.

Andrew:  And then because it’s blockchain it’s distributed, it’s much more secure theoretically, and therefore it’s easier for disparate or distributed partners to trust that information from the inception of the vehicle all the way through its use?

Michael:  Sure, from the next buyer of the car.

Andrew:  Right.

Michael:  That the maintenance has been done in a certain way or as stated by the previous seller for example, that it’s never been in a flood, like Carfax does now.

Andrew:  Right.

Michael:  …that it has all the latest versions of the firmware, something could be checked.

Andrew:  Sure.

Michael:  Another way that embedded systems could interact with blockchain technology is with e-currency.  So, for example if you are developing an embedded system, let’s say it’s a set-top box for like an Apple TV or some type of device where you can watch different streaming services.  It’s possible to imagine that that device would have a Bitcoin wallet, so it would be able on its own to make purchases, micro payments and things of that sort.  Maybe there is an application in automotive or doing the same thing where instead of having an E-Z Pass in the car that’s linked to your credit card, the card has a certain amount of credit in the Bitcoin wallet, and as it drives through, that becomes part of the Bitcoin ledger, Bitcoin transaction.

Andrew:  Right, okay.  Alright, thanks.