At the start of the summer I assumed I would be a camp counselor at a STEM summer camp, sharing my passion for science with kids, coming up with games to keep them entertained, and getting blasted by water guns. Never would I have guessed I would find myself spending my summer interning at a blockchain startup.
During the first week of work at Harmony I was introduced to the world of cryptocurrency and with it, a torrent of blockchain concepts. I had difficulty figuring out how concepts connected to others and even struggled to understand which were abstract or applied models; I remember being unable to wrap my head around how the abstract model, State Machine Replication (SMR), relates to the applied rules of blockchain. This would have been similar to learning about bonds between protons and electrons before learning the basic two-dimensional model of an atom and then, struggling to connect the two.
In my second week of work, I had the opportunity to attend a team research talk on Facebook’s own take on both cryptocurrency and blockchain — Libra. I was so intrigued with everything I was able to grasp out of that talk and so determined to understand the blockchain concepts in that presentation that I found myself asking questions, surprising both myself and the engineers at the talk with how interested I was in the material.
I continued engaging my teammate who presented on Libra after the talk was over. I learned the differences between our project’s protocols and others, and another one of our engineers walked me through Harmony’s protocol in detail.
From those talks onward, I ended up spending late nights at work sifting through whitepapers, and discussing blockchain concepts with my coworkers to gain an understanding of what blockchain is and how it works.
In this post I am presenting my understanding of blockchain in a way that would have made sense to me during my first day interning at Harmony. As a biochemistry undergraduate I have a very basic background in computer science; I know that searching up cryptography related terms and general blockchain concepts can be confusing — and not everyone has a room full of doctorate brains to pick. I am writing this guide as an introduction to blockchain for those interested in learning more.
Let’s start off with bitcoin. Bitcoin is a coin with real market value. You can trade it and buy it as currency. Bitcoin increases in value as new blocks are mined and added to an existing blockchain. However, bitcoin is just one application of blockchain — there are numerous use cases ranging from securing new apps to patenting ideas with timestamps.
Blockchain is only limited to what we can imagine it to be.
So What is Blockchain?
Say I want to drive from my house to yours, and I take a road to get to your house. This road is viewed by everyone as a secure method of travel and everyone, you and me included, holds a map of that road. Maybe we are all using Google Maps or Apple Maps or Waze but the point is, everyone’s map is identical. With this identical map anyone can view how to drive from my house to yours — if they know our addresses.
Blockchain is that road and houses are nodes. Secure transactions can be sent from one node to another within the blockchain as the blockchain is a trusted network to do so.
The map that is shared by all users is the entire history of transactions in the blockchain — known as a distributed ledger that all nodes share. This map or ledger is copied across the blockchain network so that each node will have its own copy. There is no single node with a master map sending out copies to each new node. Instead the network is decentralized — nodes replicate the ledger and save identical copies, updating their own copy independently as the network grows.
Why is Blockchain Useful?
The answer to why blockchain can be adopted by numerous platforms lies in decentralization — in a public blockchain no one authority has control over validation of user transactions, how the network grows, or who earns rewards.
In the current banking system, a third party is used when money is sent from one account to another, but in blockchain there is no third party. This means anyone can use blockchain in international transactions to speed up their validation processes. In addition, transactions are permanently time stamped and logged into blocks within the network; open source projects can be patented through these timestamps to give creators acknowledgement when their work is used later on. With such a variety of use cases, blockchain is a powerful tool for those who can apply it.
In the next post I will go into how blockchain eliminates the use of a third party through cryptography and will begin introducing and explaining the terminology needed to understand how a blockchain functions and how users can earn rewards.