Matthieu Riou is founder and chief technology officer of BlockCypher Inc., a company that enables blockchain applications to be built easily and reliably. Riou is also a member and former vice-president at Apache Software Foundation, and has founded and mentored several open source projects. In an email interview, Riou—who was a speaker at the two-day SingularityU India Summit (held on 7-8 April in association with INK, which hosts events like INKtalks, a platform for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas and inspiring stories)—shared his thoughts on cryptocurrencies and blockchains. Edited excerpts:
You describe BlockCypher as a cloud-optimized blockchain platform powering cryptocurrency applications reliably and at scale. How does it work?
Regardless of the protocol (e.g. Ethereum, bitcoin, etc.), all blockchains use what is called a reference client which is used to interact within the peer-to-peer network. Such a blockchain client is designed for individual or desktop use. None of the clients are designed for enterprise use. Developers quickly find how hard it is to start running their own blockchain infrastructure. And it becomes even harder when they try to move into production.
To enable scalable, enterprise-ready applications, BlockCypher broke down all the individual parts of the blockchain client architecture and rebuilt an infrastructure that is modular. BlockCypher is completely blockchain agnostic. As a result, developers find it much easier to build applications across multiple blockchains. Hundreds of developers have used BlockCypher, resulting in thousands of transaction per hour and over two million API (application programming interface) calls per day. To support this continued volume, BlockCypher continuously refines and improves its APIs, adding new services for Ethereum and analytics.
Do you believe that this will solve issues regarding the scalability and security of cryptocurriencies like bitcoin?
Cryptocurrencies are actually very secure but the price to pay for it is scalability. As they evolve in an open environment, where anyone can run the software on their laptop, they have to apply very conservative limits on the amount of data and bandwidth required. These limits are not representative of what the technology can do, but more of the surrounding environment.
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BlockCypher can’t change these limits as they’re embedded in the protocol. However we still help in multiple ways. As a “supernode” on the network, we pool resources together and allow many companies to benefit from our very high-performance infrastructure. We power private or permissioned blockchains that do not have to abide by the limits of open chains, and can therefore scale to much higher capacities.
More than bitcoin, it is the underlying technology—blockchain—that is showing much more promise. Besides firms, governments too are warming up to the potential of this technology across sectors. What, in your opinion, is the future of blockchain?
I can’t predict the future of the blockchain as a technology, the same way that 50 years ago no one thought that so many people would have a phone in their pocket that could connect them to the rest of the world through a wide variety of apps. But what I can say is that the blockchain is going to permeate our lives in a very similar way.
Give us an example of how blockchain is promising to change the payments’ world.
One of our customers, BitPesa, is located in sub-Saharan Africa. About 75% of the population does not have a bank account. Many use mobile apps in lieu of traditional bank accounts. For Africans, transferring cash through a bank or a money transfer operator like Western Union or MoneyGram can be costly. While there is much opportunity in Africa, it can be difficult for companies outside of Africa to work with people and businesses across the continent. BitPesa sought to reduce the costs and wait times for Africans to receive payments by using the blockchain. By quickly, safely and cheaply making a market between African and global currencies, BitPesa provides an alternative to inefficient banking channels. Thanks to the time and cost savings of using the blockchain and our services, BitPesa has gone from prototype to live product in six markets—in only two years.
Blockchain technology is now being powered by artificial intelligence too. What other trends do you see?
Smart contracts, or the possibility to capture contracts of law in software code on a blockchain, may have very far-reaching consequences. They can automate how we deal with our legal system, reduce bureaucracy and corruption, and even improve democracy and voting. I think there’s also a real opportunity in bringing the price of banking down dramatically, allowing everyone to benefit.