Decoding bitcoin and the blockchain

[A version of this post originally appeared on the O’Reilly Radar blog.]

When the creators of bitcoin solved the “double spend” problem in a decentralized manner, they introduced techniques that have implications far beyond digital currency. Our newly announced one-day event — Bitcoin & the Blockchain: An O’Reilly Radar Summit — is in line with our tradition of highlighting applications of developments in computer science. Financial services have long relied on centralized solutions, so in many ways, products from this sector have become canonical examples of the developments we plan to cover over the next few months. But many problems that require an intermediary are being reexamined with techniques developed for bitcoin.

How do you get multiple parties in a transaction to trust each other without an intermediary? In the case of a digital currency like bitcoin, decentralization means reaching consensus over an insecure network. As Mastering Bitcoin author Andreas Antonopoulos noted in an earlier post, several innovations lie at the heart of what makes bitcoin disruptive:

“Bitcoin is a combination of several innovations, arranged in a novel way: a peer-to-peer network, a proof-of-work algorithm, a distributed timestamped accounting ledger, and an elliptic-curve cryptography and key infrastructure. Each of these parts is novel on its own, but the combination and specific arrangement was revolutionary for its time and is beginning to show up in more innovations outside bitcoin itself.”


Within O’Reilly, Mike Loukides has long observed in backchannel conversations that peer-to-peer networks will play a crucial role in solving many problems facing the Internet (including online payments and identity). We’re drawn to the applications of APIs that accompany platforms like bitcoin. The ecosystem around bitcoin now includes projects (like Ethereum and Codius) that are working to make smart contracts possible in few lines of code.

Over the coming months, we’ll highlight many interesting applications of these technologies. Early supporters of bitcoin were drawn to aspects like decentralization and pseudonymity. We’re particularly excited about how these technologies can significantly lower transaction costs and lead to new products. For example, smart contracts automatically verify and enforce terms of a contract and can potentially be used to lower costs of many standard financial transactions. Blockchain technology also could be used to maintain and disseminate electronic medical records and government documents. Additionally, applications that involve micropayments have important implications for us and other content publishers.

Our upcoming Bitcoin & the Blockchain event will feature technologists, entrepreneurs, executives, investors, and academics. We’ll have a mix of sessions on current as well as future applications. The implications of these technologies transcend national borders, so we’ll have speakers from companies and start-ups from several countries.

Bitcoin & the Blockchain: An O’Reilly Radar Summit happens January 27, 2015, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Register for the conference here — and, of course, bitcoin can be used to pay for registration.

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