by Peter B. Nichol

Highlights from the W3C blockchain workshop at MIT

Jun 30, 2016
CIOConsumer ElectronicsInnovation

CIOs want to be innovative and have aspirations to be leaders among leaders. In the quest to achieve this, understanding where innovators go for innovation is important.

Do you have technology teams already involved in the W3C? Is your organization participating in a company or university innovation lab? You should. Through collaboration, innovation grows.

The W3C blockchain interoperability workshop at MIT is an incubator for inspiration and a source for new perspectives. The workshop might have even answered some questions. But we all know asking questions is more fun.

As you read the workshops highlights, ask yourself as a leader three questions:

  1. Is my company an innovation leader?
  2. How should my organization get involved in setting standards?
  3. Who from my organization should I get involved?

Magical collaboration

The morning kicked off with an introduction by Doug Schepers, with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). He framed the two-day workshop around a vision of enabling collaboration and engaging in technical discussions. The two days were organized primarily around lightning talks, short five-minute topic introductions to spark conversations. Four subject areas created the framework for the workshops:

  1. Identity: reputation, personal data BYC, various aspects of identity
  2. Provenance: licensing of IP, assets, and services
  3. Blockchain primitives and APIs: browser like features, wallets, a consensus protocols, standard data formats
  4. Kitchen sink: everything else that didn’t fit above

Schepers asked each table to come up with one primary theme that represented a magical and powerful collaboration story. The underlying goal was to identify the pieces of successful collaborations. Below is an abridged version of the big hitters.

  • Collaborative consensus is the secret sauce
  • Everyone, not too much agrees: friction can be productive
  • Shared problem statement that is an evolving document
  • Recognized when you’re finished and when to stop
  • You want motivation that might not be rational
  • Flexibility and diversity
  • Fail fast by staying focused
  • Breaking down of information and taking ownership of issues
  • Shedding concerns about ecosystem ownership
  • Encourage early adopters with hands-on-play

The event had a graphic facilitator. Thanks, Blockstream!

W3C Blockchain Workshop at MIT

W3C standards workgroups

Wendy Selzer, with W3C, kicked off the day with “Intro to W3C standards” presentation that also provided an excellent outline of the W3C organization. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards. The mission of W3C is to lead the Web to its full potential with over 400 member organizations participating in shaping the future of standards. Selzer discussed several workgroups that were making strong process towards standards in the Web space. Currently, W3C has over 40 active workgroups. If your organization doesn’t have technical leaders, involved in these groups, it’s advantageous to be engaged in creating the standard, versus blinding having to adhere to it.

  • Web authorization (GitHub): to define a client-side API providing strong authentication functionality to Web Applications.
  • Web cryptography: to define a high-level API providing standard cryptographic functionality to Web Applications.
  • Web application security: to define a high-level API providing standard cryptographic functionality to Web Applications.
  • Web payments: to make payments easier and more secure on the Web.
  • Privacy (Interest Group): to improve the support of privacy in Web standards by monitoring ongoing privacy issues that affect the Web.
  • Web platform: to continue the development of the HTML language, providing specifications that enable improved client-side application development on the Web (including APIs).
  • Web performance: to provide methods to observe and improve aspects of application performance of user agent features and APIs.
  • Cascading Style Sheets (CSS): to develop and maintain CSS.
  • HTML media extensions: to continue the development of the HTML language, as well as the development of APIs for interacting with in-memory representations of resources that use the HTML language.
  • Web real-time communications: to define client-side APIs to enable Real-Time Communications in Web browsers.
  • Verifiable claims task force: to determine if a W3C Working Group should be created to standardize technology around a verifiable claims ecosystem (credentials, attestations)
  • Private key javascript (PKLjs): pre-standards phase

Blockchain practical examples

Arvind Narayanan, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton soon followed with a priming presentation. Well not a typical presentation, we all hate those, more like a discussion igniter. His blogs Freedom to Tinker and 33 Bits of Entropy have insightful pieces of information, worth exploring. Narayanan also produced a course titled, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies from Princeton University. The course is quite popular, with over 35,000 students attending the last offered class introducing students to crypto and computer science.

W3C Blockchain Workshop at MIT

Narayanan started by asking, how do we marry the power of the blockchain with the reach of the web? There were a lot of great examples over the course of the workshop. I’ll highlight a few of the thought provokers below.

  1. USB-based car key for car sharing: in general, signatures would be uploaded to the blockchain. Then using Bluetooth, the car would query the key, requesting proofs, resulting in the temporary authorization enabling the individual to drive the vehicle. This entire transaction would be verifiable by the car including using proof-of-work.
  2. Blockchain receipts for your hamburger: We all have purchased hamburgers, but what if you could have your hamburger stamped with a unique hash to show that audit trail (proof the location was inspected, not necessarily who made the burger). What if every food receipt in the world became proof?
  3. Graceful failure: Between 1845 and 1957 bridges fell with frightening frequency. Today, we know when they are going to fail, we just don’t fix them. Adding traffic lights to bridges, linked to the blockchain, could prevent cars from passing when a suspension wire sensor fails. Let’s redefine graceful failure.
W3C Blockchain Workshop at MIT

W3C Blockchain Workshop at MIT

Archival bond

This concept is primarily associated with Luciana Duranti, a professor of archival science at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who first proposed the concept and Heather MacNeil. MacNeil conducted research into the integrity of electronic records, with her 1996 paper, The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records.

The archival bond is a concept in archival theory referring to the relationship that each archival record has with the other records produced as part of the same transaction and located within the same grouping.

When we applying this concept, records would not be on the blockchain, but rather, only the hashes would reside on the blockchain (or related links or mappings). Does this mean library science and archival studies will be rising educational majors? Will the “Chief Archival Officer” be the newest wave to enter the c-suite?

Tell me about the future

During the 2-day event, many more topics were covered, and there were a lot of questions asked. What’s the difference between blockchain and a database? How do we integrate existing the legal framework into blockchain? How do we transmit verifiable claims?

Doug Schepers, W3C, the MIT Media Lab, and the dozens of volunteers did a great job organizing this awesome event. From exploring security impacts of ISO standards to user interfaces for the integrity of devices and transactions – discussions around blockchain standards will continue.