Can we get blockchains to talk to each other? 

As they get used for ever more things, blockchain communication will be key.

If blockchains are going to eat the world, like software did, there’s a high bar to be cleared first: blockchain communication.

Even as blockchains bloom — they aren’t just crypto and NFTs anymore! — they tend to be built with their own idiosyncratic systems and mechanisms. This makes it difficult to share information between them; it’s like the Tower of Babel out there. 

But the blockchain communication field is starting to see its own rapid expansion, IEEE Spectrum reports. Blockchain communication startups are garnering millions in VC funding, researchers are developing new methods to get blockchains talking to each other, and some chains are joining the inter-blockchain communication protocol (IBC).

If blockchains are going to reach their full potential, they need to overcome a challenge: communicating with each other.

The blockchain boom: While their most famous use case is cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, or the oh-so-hot NFTs, blockchains are finding their way into all sorts of things, like tracking supply chains or smart contracts, for example. These blockchain-powered contracts instantly kick into gear whenever a certain set of conditions are met, automatically completing your contract for you.

As Spectrum points out, all of these various uses make blockchain communication even more crucial. What happens if you use a smart contract to track your order for cold-chain pharmaceuticals, like IBM and Sonoco do, and you need to get that blockchain to talk to the blockchain that your client is paying you with?

You down with IBC? That’s the vision Christopher Goes, the lead developer of IBC, set out to fulfill. The inter-blockchain communication protocol is a model that can be added onto blockchains, allowing for “reliable, ordered, and authenticated” blockchain communication, according to Goes and his colleague’s overview paper.

“IBC enables blockchains to send & receive messages to & from other blockchains, just as computers send messages to & from each other over TCP/IP” — the protocols we use to connect over the internet — Goes wrote in ComputerWeekly

While the development of specific blockchains for specific uses means they can be highly specialized, it also means they are siloed. IBC changes that. With IBC, you could use Bitcoin to fulfill an Ethereum smart contract, or vice versa.

“Two pieces of software designed totally independently can now be connected and introduced to each other, without the thousands of coding hours required,” to build blockchain communication programs, Goes wrote.

Blockchains tend to be built with their own unique systems and mechanisms. This makes blockchain communication tough; it’s like the Tower of Babel out there.

Talking over each other: Spectrum reported on three different methods of blockchain communication. 

Most intuitive may be creating a “blockchain of blockchains,” the method Rafael Belchior at Portugal’s Instituto Superior Técnico is working on. Favored by blockchain communication companies Polkadot and Cosmos, a “blockchain of blockchains” requires creating one central blockchain whose entire job is passing blockchain data back and forth. 

Simple enough, but there’s a pretty big catch: All the blockchains involved need to have the same blockchain communication protocol, Belchior told Spectrum. 

Gang Wang of Emerson Automation Solutions is working on a different idea: Creating secure “gateways” that can act as a trustworthy link between different blockchains. 

If I want to send you bitcoin off my blockchain for our smart contract, the information is first verified, then passed on to the secure gateway. Once inside the gateway, the information is verified again, before being passed on to your blockchain’s gateway, and then onto your blockchain.

Blockchain communication startups are raising millions, researchers are developing new methods to get blockchains talking to each other, and some chains are joining the inter-blockchain communication protocol.

Hamburg University of Technology professor Stefan Schulte wants to facilitate blockchain communication by utilizing those smart contracts I keep bringing up. To do so, you need to “burn” your blockchain asset. Let’s say I want to pay you that Bitcoin again. I’d “burn” it by sending it to a user address that doesn’t exist. 

Included in the information are the details that would get the Bitcoin to you, kind of like the address on an envelope. A separate, third party looks out for these burned blockchain assets, and they scoop them up and pass them along to their destination for a reward. (To ensure no third-party shenanigans — a key value proposition for blockchains in general — they’ve got some crypto skin in the game, staking currency to the transaction.) 

Here’s the rub with this method, though; the transaction fee is over $6, Schulte told Spectrum, so it’s “still far from a solved problem.” 

Which pretty much sums up the state of blockchain communication as a whole.

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