By Arjuna @ EliteX Media
We Shape the IoT & Thereafter the IoT Shapes Us
First a definition. What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? It is quite literally what it says: everyday objects and devices all connected to each other on the internet. Over which they can be operated, send and receive data and identify themselves. Spend a moment reflecting on the possible ways this basic idea may be realised, and immediately the mind boggles. To help convey the scope I’m referring to here www.iofthings.org identifies five different categories of IoT: smart cities, connected homes, wearables, autonomous vehicles and transportation, and the processes that underlies retail transactions. So, when it comes to our everyday interaction with the multitude of devices and mundane objects we use, the built environment that we live in, as well as the way we communicate and exchange value with each other — quite literally everything.
The implications of this scenario bring to mind a famous saying that is commonly (mis)attributed to media scholar Marshall McLuhan:
“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
McLuhan saw our making of technology as creating extentions of our sensory and mental life, all taking remediated form in the objects (tools) we make to serve our wants and needs. As a result human behaviour changes and new habits emerge. In turn, along with new opportunities it inevitably follows that many unforeseen issues arise, creating a kind of feedback loop that requires another iteration of trouble shooting and novel solutions. And so the cycle continues. Along with many of the benefits that IoT promises — new efficiencies in energy, renewables and manufacturing, environmental monitoring, health care, the sharing economy, looking after the household, to name just a few things — the sheer ubiquity of the IoT will inevitably entail a raft of new issues and problems; the affect it will have on our behaviour and habits is beyond question.
As McLuhan noted in the 60’s when he coined the term “global village”, one of the hallmarks of our current technological era is a shift from the linear and sequential ordering of the world we have inherited from the “mechanical ages”, to an emerging paradigm characterised by the networked, distributed and decentralised order of the “electronic age”. Presciently, he saw that this shift would involve a clash of worldviews and values. From the first instantiations of the “electronic age” in McLuhan’s time — the proliferation of television and global sattelite communication networks — to its current instantiation in the era of the internet, pillars of the old centralised order have toppled like dominoes in its wake, leaving virtually no major industry untouched. Telecommunications, record companies, film studios, retail giants, print media, news organisations and more besides have all been forced to relinquish centralised control over what was once ‘their’ domain, adapt to the new decentralised reality or face demise. As McLuhan foresaw, the remediation of our lives through the devices and tools of our making is rapidly reaching a kind of terminus that will utterly transform our lives. An increasingly real-time convergence of our endeavours and activities, individual and collective, finding inescapable mediation through a networked, always-on, global and distributed electronic domain, sustained continuously by our smart devices.
“”Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening.”
Importantly for McLuhan, it was not so much the content or service delivered by technology that matters most, but to pay close attention — for our own good — to the form:
“The medium is the message.”
The IoT, then, is rapidly emerging as a very consequential and far reaching culmination of this vision. The IoT medium set to completely transform, not only the way we live, but also the inhabited world in which we live.
IoTeX: Blockchain Meets the Internet of Things
Enter the IoTeX project (ticker: IOTX, website: www.iotex.io), positioning itself to engineer a blockchain-based foundation for the underlying infrastructure of the IoT. Though currently nacent in form, according to IoTeX the IoT is expected to grow by 21% a year, rising to an estimated 18 billion connected devices in 2022, with its market expected to grow rapidly from USD $170 billion in 2017 to USD $560 billion in 2022, amounting to what many pundits have referred to as the next industrial revolution.
That said, IoTeX argues that the IoT is not without technical and economic limitations that need to be addressed in order to realise its full potential. For one: developing an efficient way, on a macro scale, to interconnect the sheer heterogeneity of devices that involve a vast array of different uses, a range of different capacities for processing data and storage, and a number of different standards and protocols. For another: the IoT currently lacks a meaningful way to realise value beyond simply “being connected” so long as it remains predicated on a centralised model of operation, typically as a public cloud service linked to back-end infrastructures and server farms which, in effect, act as bottleneck and security risk. As a result the overall costs of operation are too high for vendors to profit from the sale of devices alone; a situation which also acts to keep the promise of automated inter-communication and coordination between devices out of reach.
The obvious solution then, is blockchain. Like the IoT it too is touted as a tech revolution; a next level internet that will transform the future of finance. Blockchain is arguably the prime exemplar of the new era of decentralisation. The IoT may be decentralised insofar as it stands to remake our human habitat by weaving it together into a web of digitally networked ‘smart’ environments. Unlike an IoT however, as trustless peer-to-peer network, the blockchain is an explicit riposte to the old view of centralised command and control.
The IoTeX team and the Internet of Trusted Things
IoTeX boasts a very impressive CV, with a highly credentialled team of silicon valley developers. It is not the first or only project with a specific focus on combining blockchain inspired solutions with IoT. IOTA is arguably the most well-known project in the crypto space, focussing on the domain of micro-payments. IoTeX, on the other hand, has set itself a mandate to address infrastructure, scalability and (arguably) most crucial of all, privacy. Indeed, to quote the homepage, IoTeX is:
“The privacy-centric blockchain platform to power the Internet of Trusted Things”.
Upon reading the Bitcoin white paper in 2009, Co-founder of IoTeX Raullen Chai was already involved in cryptographic research and the IoT while completing his PhD at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Not surprisingly, his interest was piqued and he began dabbling in the blockchain space, including for a time, running a Bitcoin miner. Raullen did four years at Google working in security and infrastructure after graduation, giving him a firm grounding in large-scale distributed systems. He then moved on to Uber to head a research team in cryptography.
It was during his year at Uber that he regularly met up with his fellow IoTeX Co-founders, Jing Sun and Qevan Guo to discuss their mutual interest in technology, and the coming future shaped by blockchain and IoT. Through their regular discussions it became evident that blockchain was the obvious solution to power the IoT. With Jing’s experience as co-founder and managing partner of Sparkland Capital, a venture capital and technology investment firm; and Qevan’s background, with a PhD in Machine Learning from the University of Singapore, followed by a seven year stint at Facebook as Research Scientist and Engineering Manager, it was only a matter of time before this meeting of silicon valley minds would lead to the genesis of the IoTeX project in 2017.
Blockchain within a Blockchain: a brief overview of IoTeX architecture
The IoTeX blockchain architecture is designed to account for the inescapable fact that standard blockchain consensus algorithms like Bitcoin’s PoW (Proof of Work) are too heavy to run across an entire network of connected IoT devices that will populate it. It’s impossible to have every device act as IoT node on one single chain. Many devices are in effect ’weak’ nodes having little to no processing power or storage capacity, and are thus unable to verify transactions. Moreover the huge variety of different IoT devices and applications will make use of different blockchain feature sets. To provide the scalability required to run over an IoT network, IoTeX separates blockchain duties: an operational layer of IoT subchains, each connected directly to its particular network of IoT devices. All orchestrated by, and running concurrently with the root chain which works to ensure interoperability. As the public main chain in the network, the root chain functions as relay for data and value across the network of subchains, acting as supervisor, anchoring trust and settling cross-chain transactions.
Subchains can be configured and specified to meet any one of many IoT use case scenarios, where similar work environment, purpose or level of trust are shared. They may utilise the IOTX native token, or define their own token which can then be sold or exchanged publicly. The tokens function as the ‘fuel’ that powers the operation of the blockchain-enabled IoT, providing a means of value transfer and liquidity that vendors and applications require to make the IoT viable. Implementing an account-based model similar to Ethereum, subchains can run with both regular accounts or smart contracts which for the IoT, better enables the tracking of state transitions on weak-node devices that interact with the physical world, like the ‘clock state’ on a subchain for the switching of a lightbulb.
In developing its blockchain this way, IoTeX has rendered the bottlenecked and centralised template for the IoT redundant. Asserting itself as the model instance for an IoT backbone that is scalable, maximises efficiency and generates value commensurate with the promise that a fully realised IoT envisions.
IoTeX and Blockchain Consensus
Like non-IoT utility coins EOS and Lisk, IoTeX is deployed with a Delegated Proof of Stake (DPoS) algorithm to verify blocks and forge rewards. In standard DPoS, stakeholders elect a certain number of network nodes as delegates to forging positions (Lisk has 101, for instance), to generate new blocks, in turn distributing a proportion of weighted block rewards back to the stakholders who have voted for them. Such a system is suited to IoT wherein a small pool of powerful nodes can be elected to perform the consensus process on behalf of the entire network of IoT devices. However the unique demand that a complex, large-scale and decentralised IoT network places on a blockchain, populated with a motley and disparate collection of resource-constrained devices, requires a modified solution to the way the blockchain consensus protocol is implemented.
IoTeX has developed Roll-DPoS, which introduces a randomised element to the selection of block producers from a candidate pool that is dynamically updated, scheduled and auto-scaled according to the provisioned number of subchains in operation, using a combination of cryptographic techniques; such as distributed key generation and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT) consensus protocol. The details of which alone make for a rabbit hole that deserves a thorough exposition for the lay audience in another article. Though it’s worth noting here that true to the core team’s academic credentials and status as silicon valley alumni, the IoTeX white and yellow papers read like peer reviewed journal articles lifted straight from a computer science quarterly; technically detailed and dense, yet clearly argued and free from the hyperbole and unnecessary guff one occasionally encounters in other crypto white papers in order to sound impressive.
IoTeX: A Privacy-Centric Blockchain for the IoT
Given what will likely be a proliferation of IoT devices in the near future, and a lot of misgivings over the ever-encroaching reach of surveillance technology — think the recent controversies raised by Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, with admissions that they can and have recorded and stored private conversations in the homes of users — the emphasis on privacy and the cryptographic techniques that blockchain engineering can deploy are not without timely relevance. The pseudonymous privacy afforded by the decentralised nature of blockchain is not enough on its own to curtail the many ways that user data can be tracked, collected and made available to bad actors when they interact with physical devices on the IoT, whether that actor claims to adhere to the maxim ‘don’t be evil’ or not.
The IoTeX blockchain is built to be privacy-centric by virtue of advanced cryptographic techniques such as stealth addresses combined with relayable payment codes, zero-knowledge proof, and an improved implementation of ring signatures (RingCT 2.0 +multi-party computation protocol), a method similar to that used by the privacy coin Monero. All work to anonymise receiver, sender and transaction details in the process of consensus and transaction verification. This is, again, a topic worth deep-diving on alone in a future article for the lay reader to grasp how these techniques function. As far as future developments go, IoTeX also makes it an explicit aim to keep researching and updating privacy-preserving computation. Given the existential changes that IoT is set to bring to our lives, the importance of this kind of work cannot be emphasised enough when it comes to safeguarding our right to privacy in the face of an emerging technological panopticon.
Staking IoTeX On EliteX Exchange
EliteX is proud to list the IoTeX (IOTX) token on our Exchange. In addition to the listing, we are also on board with the IoTeX project as a delegate. Therefore, users who buy or deposit IOTX on our exchange have the option of staking a proportion of their holdings with us, and in doing so receive 100% of the distribution of forge rewards generated. Log in to www.elitex.io for more details. We accept deposits of both the ERC20 IOTX tokens and the native IOTX tokens. Users can also swap their tokens automatically on our exchange should they require it.
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only, and does not constitute investment or trading advice.
IoTeX White Paper
IoTeX Yellow Paper
Marshall McLuhan (1964), Understanding Media