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Blockchain and Its Implementation Challenges

Imagine for a moment you're transported back to the late 1980s and early ‘90s; the internet was systemic transformation affecting most all aspects of people’s lives and processes. Certainly, many were skeptical as typified by this Newsweek article. We may be living through a similar moment today as more people across multiple industries highlight the potential for blockchain technologies to create a similar shift.

Blockchain technology is a way to record data and, increasingly, execute complex business processes like smart contracts in a cryptographical secured environment without using a middleman or institution in-between. So instead of a bank owning the ledger with your account balance, each customer has a role in maintaining a decentralized ledger. No one party controls the system; it's truly “peer-to-peer” and the data exists in multiple places.  Any changes to the block are tracked and must be agreed by the majority of the blockchain. This process creates a more secure system of transactions by ensuring the provenance of any change is accurate and traceable.

While the roots of blockchain technology can be found in the world of cryptocurrencies, many organizations are exploring how they can harness blockchains to transform their businesses, enable more efficient markets, or create new products and services. In financial services, there is potential to reduce trade settlement times from days to seconds and speed up trade finance negotiation. Blockchain technology can also be used to help ensure conflict-free diamonds  and reliably track the provenance on an item from source to delivery. Already, companies including Overstock and Paypal are accepting payments made on blockchain-based currencies.

What is blockchain?

The blockchain is basically a distributed database. Records in each block are verified through unique algorithms that assign a hash – a unique combination of letters and numbers - to each block. It's the hash that makes the information secure and encrypted. If any information is changed within the block, the algorithm will no longer produce the correct hash. 

Hashes are continuously checked for correctness, and the individual blocks are combined to form the blockchain. Due to the interlinking of these hashes, the information stored on the blockchain cannot be tampered with, unless an entire chain is re-written before a new block is entered. This continuous verification process is performed by all members of the blockchain. 

Imagine the existence of one master ledger for a class or type of investment. Rather than a single broker or investment house having to update its in-house proprietary ledger, and rely on counterparties accurately reconciling their own records, everything is done automatically. Customers have transparency and full assurance on the trades that are being made on their behalf. Financial fraud like Ponzi schemes could be eliminated.

Efficiency and cost challenges

Scalability is a major ceiling for current blockchain implementations, making it difficult for the technology to be applied at scale to applications like payments. For instance, VISA processes 1,667 transactions every second. Bitcoin has a capacity of 3-4 transactions per second, and Ethereum supports up to 15 per second. Even more significantly, blockchains today require colossal amounts of electricity.

To provide some context, it is estimated that for the Bitcoin network to process three to four transactions per second, it requires 32 terawatt hours of electricity annually -- about as much as consumed by the country of Denmark. Scaling this to handle a credit card network isn’t possible from either a technical or energy perspective.

To enable blockchain and other next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality, the semiconductor industry must find new ways to build processors that deliver more performance and operate more efficiently. From 3D chip stacking to better circuity design, engineers are tackling these challenges. Advances by CPUs and GPUs are with advances achieved through architecture innovation, improved power management, and new packaging options.

It is early days for blockchain, but the prospects are intriguing. In fact, industry expert Don Tapscott believes this is a true paradigm shift. His view is that blockchain could revolutionize the world economy by levelling the playing field regardless of participant economic status and create new opportunities for value creation.

It is a brave new world that can only be realized if we solve the performance, efficiency, and cost challenges to power blockchains.

Mark Papermaster is chief technology officer and senior VP of technology and engineering at AMD, responsible for corporate technical direction, product development including system-on-chip (SOC) methodology, microprocessor design, I/O and memory, and advanced research. He also oversees information technology to deliver AMD’s compute infrastructure and services. Before joining AMD, Papermaster was the leader of Cisco’s Silicon Engineering Group, and served as Apple senior VP of devices hardware engineering, where he was responsible for iPod and iPhone hardware development.