The three most common smart contract misconceptions
As the developers of a popular blockchain platform, we sometimes get asked whether Ethereum-like smart contracts are on the MultiChain roadmap. The answer I always give is: no, or at least not yet.
But in the hype-filled world of blockchains, smart contracts are all the rage, so why ever not? Well, the problem is, while we now know of three strong use cases for permissioned Bitcoin-style blockchains (provenance, inter-company records and lightweight finance), we’re yet to find the equivalent for Ethereum-style smart contracts.
It’s not that people lack ideas of what they want smart contracts to do. Rather, it’s that so many of these ideas are simply impossible. You see, when smart people hear the term “smart contracts”, their imaginations tend to run wild. They conjure up dreams of autonomous intelligent software, going off into the world, taking its data along for the ride.
Unfortunately the reality of smart contracts is far more mundane than all that:
A smart contract is a piece of code which is stored on an blockchain, triggered by blockchain transactions, and which reads and writes data in that blockchain’s database.
That’s it. Really. A smart contract is just a fancy name for code which runs on a blockchain, and interacts with that blockchain’s state. And what is code? It’s Pascal, it’s Python, it’s PHP. It’s Java, it’s Fortran, it’s C++. If we’re talking databases, it’s stored procedures written in an extension of SQL. All of these languages are fundamentally equivalent, solving the same sorts of problems in the same sorts of ways. Of course, each has its strengths and weaknesses – you’d be crazy to build a website in C or compress HD video in Ruby. But in principle at least, you could if you wanted to. You’d just pay a heavy price in terms of convenience, performance, and quite probably your hair.
The problem with smart contracts isn’t just that people’s expectations are overblown. It’s that these expectations are leading many to spend time and money on ideas that cannot possibly be implemented. It seems large companies have sufficient resources to travel a lengthy path – from the moment when senior management encounters a new technology, to when that technology’s advantages and limitations are truly understood. Perhaps our own experience can help shorten this time.
Over the past nine months, we’ve been pitched many smart contract use cases, and have found ourselves responding, time and again, that they simply cannot be done. As a result, we’ve identified the three smart contract misconceptions that are most commonly held. These ideas aren’t wrong because the technology is immature, or the tools are not yet available. Rather, they misunderstand the fundamental properties of code which lives in a database and runs in a decentralized way.
Contacting external services
Often, the first use case proposed is a smart contract which changes its behavior in response to some external event. For example, an agricultural insurance policy which pays out conditionally based on the quantity of rainfall in a given month. The imagined process goes something like this: the smart contract waits until the predetermined time, retrieves the weather report from an external service, and behaves appropriately based on the data received.
This all sounds simple enough, but it’s also impossible. Why? Because a blockchain is a consensus-based system, meaning that it only works if every node reaches an identical state after processing every transaction and block. Everything that takes place on a blockchain must be completely deterministic, with no possible way for differences to creep in. The moment that two honest nodes disagree about the chain’s state, the entire system becomes worthless.
Now recall that smart contracts are executed independently by every node on a chain. Therefore, if a smart contract retrieves some information from an external source, this retrieval is performed repeatedly and separately by each node. But because this source is outside of the blockchain, there is no guarantee that every node will receive the same answer. Perhaps the source will change its response in the time between requests from different nodes, or perhaps it will become temporarily unavailable. Either way, consensus is broken and the entire blockchain dies.
So what’s the workaround? Actually, it’s rather simple. Instead of a smart contract initiating the retrieval of external data, one or more trusted parties (“oracles”) creates a transaction which embeds that data in the chain. Every node will have an identical copy of this data, so it can be safely used in a smart contract computation. In other words, an oracle pushes the data onto the blockchain rather than a smart contract pulling it in.
When it comes to smart contracts causing events in the outside world, a similar problem appears. For example, many like the idea of a smart contract which calls a bank’s API in order to transfer money. But if every node is independently executing the code in the chain, who is responsible for calling this API? If the answer is just one node, what happens if that particular node malfunctions, deliberately or not? And if the answer is every node, can we trust every node with that API’s password? And do we really want the API called hundreds of times? Even worse, if the smart contract needs to know whether the API call was successful, we’re right back to the problem of depending on external data.
As before, a simple workaround is available. Instead of the smart contract calling an external API, we use a trusted service which monitors the blockchain’s state and performs certain actions in response. For example, a bank could proactively watch a blockchain, and perform money transfers which mirror the on-chain transactions. This presents no risk to the blockchain’s consensus because the chain plays an entirely passive role.
Looking at these two workarounds, we can make some observations. First, they both require a trusted entity to manage the interactions between the blockchain and the outside world. While this is technically possible, it undermines the goal of a decentralized system. Second, the mechanisms used in these workarounds are straightforward examples of reading and writing a database. An oracle which provides external information is simply writing that information into the chain. And a service which mirrors the blockchain’s state in the real world is doing nothing more than reading from that chain. In other words, any interaction between a blockchain and the outside world is restricted to regular database operations. We’ll talk more about this fact later on.
Enforcing on-chain payments
Here’s another proposal that we tend to hear a lot: using a smart contract to automate the payment of coupons for a so-called “smart bond”. The idea is for the smart contract code to automatically initiate the payments at the appropriate times, avoiding manual processes and guaranteeing that the issuer cannot default.
Of course, in order for this to work, the funds used to make the payments must live inside the blockchain as well, otherwise a smart contract could not possibly guarantee their payment. Now recall that a blockchain is just a database, in this case a financial ledger containing the issued bond and some cash. So when we talk about coupon payments, what we’re actually talking about are database operations which take place automatically at an agreed time.
While this automation is technically feasible, it suffers from a financial difficulty. If the funds used for coupon payments are controlled by the bond’s smart contract, then those payments can indeed be guaranteed. But this also means those funds cannot be used by the bond issuer for anything else. And if those funds aren’t under the control of the smart contract, then there is no way in which payment can be guaranteed.
In other words, a smart bond is either pointless for the issuer, or pointless for the investor. And if you think about it, this is a completely obvious outcome. From an investor’s perspective, the whole point of a bond is its attractive rate of return, at the cost of some risk of default. And for the issuer, a bond’s purpose is to raise funds for a productive but somewhat risky activity, such as building a new factory. There is no way for the bond issuer to make use of the funds raised, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the investor will be repaid. It should not come as a surprise that the connection between risk and return is not a problem that blockchains can solve.
Hiding confidential data
As I’ve written about previously, the biggest challenge in deploying blockchains is the radical transparency which they provide. For example, if ten banks set up a blockchain together, and two conduct a bilateral transaction, this will be immediately visible to the other eight. While there are various strategies for mitigating this problem, none beat the simplicity and efficiency of a centralized database, in which a trusted administrator has full control over who can see what.
Some people think that smart contracts can solve this problem. They start with the fact that each smart contract contains its own miniature database, over which it has full control. All read and write operations on this database are mediated by the contract’s code, making it impossible for one contract to read another’s data directly. (This tight coupling between data and code is called encapsulation, and is the foundation of the popular object-oriented programming paradigm.)
So if one smart contract can’t access another’s data, have we solved the problem of blockchain confidentiality? Does it make sense to talk of hiding information in a smart contract? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Because even if one smart contract can’t read another’s data, that data is still stored on every single node in the chain. For each blockchain participant, it’s in the memory or disk of a system which that participant completely controls. And there’s nothing to stop them reading the information from their own system, if and when they choose to do so.
Hiding data in a smart contract is about as secure as hiding it in the HTML code of a web page. Sure, regular web users won’t see it, because it’s not displayed in their browser window. But all it takes is for a web browser to add a ‘View Source’ function (as they all have), and the hidden information becomes universally visible. Similarly, for data hidden in smart contracts, all it takes is for someone to modify their blockchain software to display the contract’s full state, and all semblance of secrecy is lost. A half-decent programmer could do that in an hour or so.
What smart contracts are for
With so many things that smart contracts cannot do, one might ask what they’re actually for. But in order to answer this question, we need to go back to the fundamentals of blockchains themselves. To recap, a blockchain enables a database to be directly and safely shared by entities who do not trust each other, without requiring a central administrator. Blockchains enable data disintermediation, and this can lead to significant savings in complexity and cost.
Any database is modified via “transactions”, which contain a set of changes to that database which must succeed or fail as a whole. For example, in a financial ledger, a payment from Alice to Bob is represented by a transaction that (a) checks if Alice has sufficient funds, (b) deducts a quantity from Alice’s account, and (c) adds the same quantity to Bob’s.
In a regular centralized database, these transactions are created by a single trusted authority. By contrast, in a blockchain-driven shared database, transactions can be created by any of that blockchain’s users. And since these users do not fully trust each other, the database has to contain rules which restrict the transactions performed. For example, in a peer-to-peer financial ledger, each transaction must preserve the total quantity of funds, otherwise participants could freely give themselves as much money as they liked.
One can imagine various ways of expressing these rules, but for now there are two dominant paradigms, inspired by Bitcoin and Ethereum respectively. The Bitcoin method, which we might call “transaction constraints”, evaluates each transaction in terms of: (a) the database entries deleted by that transaction, and (b) the entries created. In a financial ledger, the rule states that the total quantity of funds in the deleted entries has to match the total in those created. (We consider the modification of an existing entry to be equivalent to deleting that entry and creating a new one in its place.)
The second paradigm, which comes from Ethereum, is smart contracts. This states that all modifications to a contract’s data must be performed by its code. (In the context of traditional databases, we can think of this as an enforced stored procedure.) To modify a contract’s data, blockchain users send requests to its code, which determines whether and how to fulfill those requests. As in this example, the smart contract for a financial ledger performs the same three tasks as the administrator of a centralized database: checking for sufficient funds, deducting from one account, and adding to another.
Both of these paradigms are effective, and each has its advantages and disadvantages, as I’ve discussed in depth previously. To summarize, Bitcoin-style transaction constraints provide superior concurrency and performance, while Ethereum-style smart contracts offer greater flexibility. So to return to the question of what smart contracts are for:
Smart contracts are for blockchain use cases which can’t be implemented with transaction constraints.
Given this criterion for using smart contracts, I’m yet to see a strong use case for permissioned blockchains which qualifies. All the compelling blockchain applications I know can be implemented with Bitcoin-style transactions, which can handle permissioning and general data storage, as well as asset creation, transfer, escrow, exchange and destruction. Nonetheless, new use cases are still appearing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some do require the power of smart contracts. Or, at the very least, an extension of the Bitcoin paradigm.
Whatever the answer turns out to be, the key to remember is that smart contracts are simply one method for restricting the transactions performed in a database. This is undoubtedly a useful thing, and is essential to making that database safe for sharing. But smart contracts cannot do anything else, and they certainly cannot escape the boundaries of the database in which they reside.
Please post any comments at LinkedIn.
Crypto.com Integrates PayID Offering 5M Users an Easy and Unique Way to Send & Receive Crypto
HONG KONG, October 19, 2020 — Crypto.com today announced PayID, a universal payment identity developed by the Open Payments Coalition, is now available on the Crypto.com App.
Crypto.com’s 5M+ users can register for a PayID from the Crypto.com app, consolidating complex wallet addresses and accounts into a simple ID that works across any payment network and currency. Users who register for their unique PayID will get an exclusive Crypto.com-branded, easy-to-read ID — such as “yourname$payid.crypto.com — that enables users to send/receive crypto payments from other compatible wallets with just a single ID, easing their ability to connect to 100M+ crypto users worldwide.
PayID solves a key pain point in the crypto payments world, which consists of many closed and complex networks. Participants must manage multiple long and random wallet addresses, increasing the likelihood of erroneous transactions. PayID creates a free, open and common protocol that allows for interoperability between any payment network or currency.
Starting today, Crypto.com is offering early access for select customers to register their unique Crypto.com PayID. To be eligible:
- Stake 10,000 CRO or more in Crypto.com Exchange; or
- Stake 10,000 CRO or more in Crypto.com App
On 2 November 2020 all Crypto.com App users can register their own Crypto.com PayID within the Crypto.com App.
Once registered, users can send crypto from other compatible wallets to the Crypto.com App with just their PayID, instead of a full-length crypto address. At launch, supported cryptocurrencies include CRO, ETH, BTC, XRP and many more ERC20 tokens. Users can also send crypto to other compatible wallets using PayID hosted by other members in the Open Payments Coalition.
Crypto.com was founded in 2016 on a simple belief: it’s a basic human right for everyone to control their money, data and identity. Crypto.com serves over 5 million customers today, providing them with a powerful alternative to traditional financial services through the Crypto.com App, the Crypto.com Card, the Crypto.com Exchange and Crypto.com DeFi Wallet. Crypto.com is built on a solid foundation of security, privacy and compliance and is the first cryptocurrency company in the world to have ISO/IEC 27701:2019, CCSS Level 3, ISO27001:2013 and PCI:DSS 3.2.1, Level 1 compliance. Crypto.com is headquartered in Hong Kong with a 600+ strong team. Find out more by visiting https://crypto.com
Crypto More Popular Than Gold Among Russian Investors: Report
A survey among over 2,000 Russian investors has placed cryptocurrency next to gold in terms of popularity. Moreover, younger investors aged below 30 have displayed significant favoritism towards digital assets.
Crypto Ranks Above Gold Among Russian Investors
According to the study published by the World Gold Council, investors from the world’s largest country by landmass have allocated the most funds into generally accepted as safer instruments such as savings accounts, foreign currencies, real estate, and life insurance.
When asked what sorts of investment tools they had invested in the past 12 months, they placed cryptocurrencies as the fifth most popular asset with 17%. Interestingly, gold came next with 16%.
World Gold Council Director of Central Banks and Public Policy, Dr. Tatiana Fic, commented that gold had been a valuable part of Russia’s history. She explained that the development of the gold mining industry began in 1745 with the discovery of gold in the Urals. In the next 100 years, more than half of the global gold production came from Siberia.
However, she noted that the investment market has declined in interest lately. Dr. Fic reasoned that there’s an evident lack of education, resulting in people steering clear from the bullion. She also claimed that investors fear buying fake or counterfeit gold products.
It’s worth noting that Russia seized purchasing gold earlier this year following half of decade of increased accumulation.
Younger Generations Keen To Experiment With Crypto
WGC’s report confirmed previous narratives that younger generations prefer allocating funds into riskier investment instruments such as digital assets.
“18-to-24-year-olds are much more willing to take risks to get exponential growth, rather than take a long-term view. For example, they are the least likely to have invested in a savings account but are the most likely to have invested in collectibles – and around two-thirds are considering investing in cryptocurrencies.” – the report reads.
The paper highlighted that the growing role of mobile apps linked to investment accounts have made it easier for tech-savvy youth to purchase their preferred assets. Cryptocurrencies lead the way “with nearly 80% being bought exclusively online.”
Although physical gold has been bought mostly offline, the report noted that online investments in gold-backed ETFs and vaulted gold have jumped in the past few years as well.
Swiss Government Starts Discussions on Local Blockchain Regulations
A new consultation process on blockchain laws is set to begin in Switzerland. Initiated by the country’s Federal Department of Finance, the operation is focused on initiating a blanket ordinance in the local blockchain and distributed ledger technology environment.
For Better Laws In Blockchain Industry
A number of parties, individuals, and other interested groups are set to be included in the upcoming consultations in the blockchain spectrum. The project is planned to go on for three months, ending on February 2 next year.
As per a recent report by Switzerland’s Federal Department of Finance, the blanket ordinance is set to help legislative amendments, recently voted by Parliament, turn into law at the federal ordinance level. The grand plan is that the Federal Council will bring amendments to the acts and ordinates into force on August 1, 2021.
The news appears a month after the Swiss Parliament unanimously adopted a Federal Act on the Adaptation of Federal Law do Developments in Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). With it, the government amended several active finance and corporate laws, re-shaping them with additions in favor of blockchain technology and DLT.
According to the report, the act has improved the framework conditions for the country to turn into a significant, innovative, and sustainable place for blockchain and DLT firms to settle.
A Further Leap Into The Crypto Means Of Payment
The recent news comes shortly after the Swiss government announced that soon cryptocurrency would be operable for tax payments. As CryptoPotato recently reported, Bitcoin and Ethereum will become acceptable assets for the purpose, as Zug, a canton in Switzerland, announced its partnership with cryptocurrency broker Bitcoin Suisse. Both sides declared their readiness to realize the acceptance of cryptocurrency for tax payments, starting from February 2021.
Individuals using the crypto option for tax payments would be able to notify authorities and, thereafter, get a QR code through email.
According to the announcement, Bitcoin Suisse will assist in converting crypto to francs, this way avoiding state incurring losses due to price volatility.
The option will give taxpayers, both individuals, and companies the opportunity to pay their taxes with cryptocurrency up to about CHF 100,000 ($110,000).
Blockchain1 month ago
Bitcoin price volatility expected as 47% of BTC options expire next Friday
Blockchain1 month ago
Bitcoin Bouncing From Bull Market Support Points To 2021 As The Year Of Crypto
Blockchain2 months ago
Market Wrap: Bitcoin’s Powell-Induced Price Swing; Ethereum Still High on Gas
Blockchain1 month ago
Ethereum: Is the HODLing in yet?
Blockchain1 month ago
Blockchain Bites: Is DeFi an Inside Deal?
Blockchain1 month ago
Hackers Have Been Trying To Crack Bitcoin Wallet Worth $750 Million But Here’s The Catch
Blockchain1 month ago
YFI Founder Puts Himself Forward for Uniswap (UNI) Delegation Duties
Blockchain3 months ago
Wealthfront Lures Millenials With Crypto Memes and Tactics