The Internet of things (IoT) is a growing industry, currently worth US$800 billion, with more than 8.4 billion connected devices online and spending predicted to reach almost US$1.4 trillion by 2021. But for this to work properly, decentralized machine networks are required.
The colorful range and growing numbers describing IoT seem to be pointing toward prospering; however, at a closer glance and considering the fundamental element needed to make IoT possible, connectivity, we see that this concept is slowly reaching a difficult pass.
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Most of the IoT devices need to connect to the Internet to function. Unfortunately, current solutions — like cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth — are not the optimal solution in a long-term sense. The reason is that they are too expensive, require too much power, or have a limited range.
Decentralized machine networks
Luckily, there are people working on a solution to the before-mentioned tight space that IoT is currently starting to fill out. The Helium network is one such solution, offering a decentralized machine network that allows machines to connect from anywhere in the world wirelessly and geolocate themselves without the need of power-intensive satellite location hardware of expensive cellular plans. The Helium network is powered by a blockchain with a home-brewed protocol token “incentivizing a two-sided marketplace between coverage providers and coverage consumers,” according to Helium’s white paper release.
De-monopolization of networking power
As with many new technologies requiring a hub for connectivity and the further use by other consumers, the service-provider usually becomes the central and most important peace in the puzzle, inevitably leading to a monopoly position in the overall scheme. We can already see a foreshadowing of this, with current market giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon each offering their proprietary IoT solution environment.
The merger of decentralized machine networks
Thanks to the introduction of a blockchain to incentivize the further growth of a two-sided marketplace between coverage providers and coverage consumers, a form of decentralization is established. Usually, in the connectivity business, the industry is controlled by monopolies who control the “who, where, when, and what” of connectivity.
However, with a decentralized blockchain approach, wireless network coverage becomes a commodity, fuelled by competition, available anywhere in the world, and costing only a fraction of what it currently costs. The future might see that anybody would be able to develop and build low-power, Internet-connected machines fast and cheap. The Helium network appears to be the first decentralized machine network of its kind.
Why the need for decentralization?
The world is being drawn ever more rapidly toward decentralization away from centralized proprietary systems. But why?
To understand this, you need to look into the historic motivation behind peer-to-peer networks such as Napster and BitTorrent, which paved the way for blockchain networks and cryptocurrencies to be built. The value of decentralized transaction ledgers has been shown by services like Bitcoin, Etherium, and other similar blockchain networks. Even Internet services for file storage, identity verification, and those handling the domain name system are slowly being replaced by modern blockchain-based versions.
Decentralized machine network (DMN)
In essence, a DMN uses a proprietary version of the blockchain network customized to run with an open-source and standards-compliant wireless network protocol (WHIP). Together, the two components provide a system environment for authenticating and identifying machines, providing data transmission and authentication that is encrypted.
The following is a basic rundown of the key components of a DMN. A DMN network is comprised of its participants, which could take up the following three states — a machine, miner, or a router.
Machines send and receive encrypted data from the Internet using hardware compatible with the proprietary WHIP. Every machine has its own digital fingerprint stored in the blockchain.
Miners are the ones who provide the wireless network coverage to the network via hardware built for that purpose, called gateways. These gateways basically provide a bridge between the machines in the DMN and the Internet. Users join the network as miners by either buying or building a gateway that conforms to the given wireless network protocol, like WHIP. Users are rewarded for continuously providing wireless network coverage that machines can use, by being allowed to stack a token deposit proportional to the density of other miners operating in their area.
The main purpose of mining is to create new blockchain-blocks; with every block, the level of encryption increases, making it a step more difficult to create the next block, and so on. Miners are rewarded for every new block. To prevent users from unrightfully creating blocks, the miners enter the network with a score that diminishes as blocks pass without valid proofs being submitted. Only miners who are elected to join a so-called “consensus group” are allowed to mine for new blocks. A miner’s score dropping also results in a drop of his probability to be elected into such a consensus group, thus diminishing that miner’s chance to mine future blocks and get a reward and transaction fee for any transactions included in the block once mined.
Within a network, the blockchain is used to function as a distributed ledger designed to provide a cost-effective way to run application logic fundamental to the operation of a DMN. This includes storing machine data fingerprints and creating a transaction system. A blockchain-based network is basically an immutable (you can’t delete any data) append-only list of transactions. Transactions are approved by using proprietary Consensus Protocols, used to establish things like “proof of coverage.”
Proof of Coverage
In such a decentralized machine network, miners must prove that they are providing wireless network coverage that other machines are able to use to communicate with the Internet. This happens by having each connected user be audited by a “Proof of Coverage” protocol, through other miners, who would then collectively legitimize that user as being a functioning part of the machine network. Part of the Proof of Coverage would be geared to solve the following points essential to a decentralized network:
- Are the miners operating RF hardware and firmware compatible with the open wireless protocol?
- Prove that miners are located in the geography they claim they are by having them communicate via RF.
- Correctly identify which version of reality is correct when there is a conflict.
Wireless Protocol (WHIP)
There are several Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies available today. These wireless solutions focus on creating long-range, low-power Internet communication for sensors and other smart machines. The unique thing about LPWAN is that these technologies trade bandwidth for range, reaching data rates as low as 18 bits per second (bps) and a range measured in miles, compared to typical Wi-Fi networks that may have considerably higher data rates, but ranges limited to only a few dozen feet.
The motivation driving the force to create a new protocol like WHIP was that the first generation of open-standard wireless networking stacks, like IEEE 802.15.4, did not meet the demand for extremely long-range connectivity with low power requirements. According to the creators from the house of Helium, who introduced the new protocol, WHIP is a very secure, long range, low power, bi-directional wireless network protocol that is compatible with a wide range of existing radio transceivers operating in the sub-GHz unlicensed frequency spectrum.
It is basically the use of an unlicensed band of the frequency spectrum that makes this solution so cost-effective for its users. One downside in using the unlicensed RF spectrum is the need for a high spectral efficiency, meaning that RF is a shared and limited resource. DMN network solution providers will have to focus on the efficient use of the given bandwidth to increase capacity and improve things like robustness if needed. Basically, WHIP functions as a wireless protocol that creates a number of channels within the unlicensed spectrum. It also uses “frequency hopping” to switch between channels.
Indifference to typical frequency hopping, which requires a complex time-synchronized system that also limits the overall capacity, WHIP does not require the machines using it to coordinate with gateways when they select channels, because the gateways in the case of WHIP are able to hear all channels within the available spectrum at any given time. Should you be interested in finding out more details about this, the full WHIP specifications will be made available by the Decentralized Machine Network Alliance.
To the future of intelligent machines
We seem to be currently approaching a turning point in history. If the right decisions can be made and a moral and ethical implication can be ensured, then the benefits of smart machine networks for technical, medical, and scientific advancement may also be of benefit to all of humanity. The current challenge is to create transparency and overseeing institutions for the decentralized networks, their users, and purpose, so that the end goal of all the applications that use the IoT or other smart machine network systems is also in line with the moral foundations that benefit the ethical, rational, and sane progress of humanity and do not harm, deceive, or cloud it.