In 2011, as an inquisitive engineering graduate student in Illinois, Christopher Wilmer was browsing the Internet when he came across a fascinating technology called Bitcoin. After some sleuthing, he learned that Bitcoin was the world’s first digital currency to operate independently of any central institution like a bank. It was also the first iteration of what we now call a blockchain. That Web search morphed into an intensive hobby; Wilmer spent months researching the technology before he made his first Bitcoin purchase: honey caramels from Utah beekeepers.
Since then, the world of blockchains, and Wilmer’s work with them, has rapidly expanded. In 2014, Wilmer joined Pitt as an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and established a lab to study hypothetical materials. He then took his hobby to the next level by cofounding Ledger, the world’s first academic journal for blockchain research. Published by Pitt’s University Library System, Ledger provides a platform for researchers across disciplines to share blockchain-related research with others who find their curiosity similarly piqued.
What is a blockchain?
Essentially, it’s a shared data-storage mechanism similar to a cloud storage database, except there is no central administrator. Instead of being housed under a company like Google, it is maintained by all of the computers that are part of the blockchain’s network. Bitcoin, which today is maintained by thousands of computers belonging to individual people around the world, was the original blockchain. Since then the number of and uses for blockchains have grown.
Who is it for, and how can people use it?
Anyone with a computer can use a blockchain, just like anyone with a computer can connect to the Internet. All you have to do is install a blockchain-compatible program, either by downloading one of the many free applications or creating your own. But a blockchain can be used to store more than just financial transactions; it could be used to store social security information, medical records, patents, weather data, poetry—anything you want. At Ledger we use blockchain technology to store article summaries as proof of publication.
What’s so special about it?
In a blockchain there are no middlemen who control the network, so it consists of truly peer-to-peer interactions. And the more people connected to the blockchain, the more resilient it is: the only way to delete information from the database would be to find all the computers connected to the blockchain and chuck them in the garbage. Also, once new data is added to the blockchain, it can’t be tampered with or changed, which makes fraud much harder. This is pretty exciting; we’ve never before had digital information storage that is immutable.
Why is there so much debate surrounding blockchain technology?
Like any technology, a blockchain itself is neutral. How humans use the technology reflects the immense diversity of those users. But there’s a lot we still don’t know about blockchain technology, so how people actually decide to use it is yet to be determined.
This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Pitt Magazine.