Solving the Byzantine Generals’ Problem

I didn’t realize that the Byzantine Generals had a problem, but they did as part of a thought experiment. It is a problem of messaging security and solving the problem has perplexed many for years. It goes like this

  • two Byzantine generals are responsible to attack a fortified city
  • they each command an army, and the two armies are in different locations
  • for the attack to be successful, the two armies must attack at the same time, but no time has of yet been agreed.
  • to coordinate the attack the two generals must exchange messages, but there is no safe way to do so — the enemy might intercept the message

This sounds a bit esoteric. But the point is very simple. If you can’t secure the messaging, you need a service to secure it for you or you are in trouble.  If you can find a way to structure a network where any and all messages are secure, you no longer need a central clearance service that provides security.

So what are these “central clearance services”? For example, you may no longer need a bank or even cash. Perhaps you no longer need a corporation. Perhaps you no longer need a government. Yup, their primary services are to secure types of transactions.

This is wild stuff. But up to now, no one had developed a web based solution to the Byzantine Generals’ Problem. That is — up to now. Blockchains may just do that. And we are just starting to get our hands around the idea.

Consider this

“For the first time, two people can exchange a piece of digital property, without any prior relationship, and in a secure way, over the Internet,” Jeff Garzik, one of Bitcoin’s core developers (now employed by payment processor BitPay) (told his interviewer from BI)

More concretely

The breakthrough means that, theoretically, any act of commerce on the Web can be decentralized and stripped of a controlling authority. 

And so, anything that you want to do that requires an exchange will be easier and cheaper. Want to call a taxi? Now you call one provider, expecting to pay cash.  A blockchain service could offer you bids from services based whatever other parameter you choose: cost, speed, comfort. You name it. And cash? Well, no need for that. payment will be via digital exchange directly with your chosen provider (probably robotic).  Perhaps bitcoin, or something else.

The key here is to see that we are just starting out with a new type of service. Remember back when the internet itself seemed weird and how normal it seems now? In ten years, you will probably be thinking the same about blockchains.

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