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Filament Blocklet Chip connects blockchain and IoT edge

Blockchain is already hyped for IoT use, but Filament is the first company to enable basic blockchain operations to be computed on its Blocklet Chip, a chip directly on the device.

As a startup, Filament has for several years focused on a distributed loT platform where the edge devices could operate autonomously during periods of disconnection. Hardly surprising, then, that as a next step the company announced the beta release of a chip that enables end-device hardware to perform basic blockchain operations. So, now, there's a chip with blockchain and IoT that spends your hard-earned cryptocurrency right from the edge device.

The company's new Blocklet Chip, according to Filament CEO Allison Clift-Jennings, can perform interactions such as signing transactions, placing those transactions in a blockchain distributed ledger and receiving insertions to the ledgers from other blockchain participants. Clift-Jennings also noted that "if a transaction includes currency representation via tokens such as bitcoin or Ether, then it could essentially send or receive that bitcoin or that Ether directly within the hardware itself."

Filament blockchain primitives on board

Like Bluetooth chips that provide devices with complete wireless capabilities in one stroke, Blocklet Chip gives a manufacturer or vendor distributed ledger capabilities and a trusted data store, where encryption keys and certificates can be stored. With these tools, vendors can create devices that make or receive automated micropayments, or that can cryptographically attest to the authenticity of sensor readings. Devices such as smart electric meters could, therefore, manage their own cryptocurrency wallets and make micropayments for electric services used. And when the local solar grid produces extra electricity, for example, devices could charge other meters to which the locally produced power was sold.

We can have two different manufacturers transact directly with each other because the blockchain is the intermediary that's powerful. Finally, we're there.
Allison Clift-JenningsCEO, Filament

"What we're really doing now is the sci-fi part," Clift-Jennings said, "bringing about
economic capabilities so that machines can not only be data-driven, but they can also be economically driven."

Jessica Groopman, a founding partner at analyst group Kaleido Insights, based in San Francisco, called the new Blocklet Chip "an important proof point in the blockchain and IoT narrative, because it offers a novel design configuration addressing the issue of scalability," which she said is the top barrier to blockchain use in connected environments and a primary reason blockchain and IoT don't mesh well.

"Just as edge computation and analytics have evolved rapidly to address scalability in high data volume, high-security and mission-critical IoT environments, the same dynamics will force blockchain to the edge," Groopman said. She added that "these pressures are forcing focus on development in these areas, but we'll likely see only [proofs of concept] for some time."

Clift-Jennings, not surprisingly, had a more bullish view of her company's announcement. "The benefit of Filament is that it solves the core engineering problem that we've had our own struggle with internally [when] deploying keys on devices. Now, we can do the cool things, the economic things, because now we have root of trust. We can have two different manufacturers transact directly with each other because the blockchain is the intermediary that's powerful. Finally, we're there."

Hyperledger support

In conjunction with the Filament blockchain and IoT Blocklet Chip hardware news, the company announced it has joined Hyperledger, an open source, global collaboration effort created to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies hosted by The Linux Foundation. Filament is currently supporting the open source business blockchain framework, Hyperledger Sawtooth. The project is a modular platform designed for building, deploying and running scalable distributed ledgers, particularly in environments requiring detailed tracking of objects in the physical world.

Clift-Jennings argued that distributed ledgers extending all the way to the edge could help companies shift their business models from one-off sales to recurring revenue service agreements. "There's a fundamental problem with IoT when it comes to selling it. There's no incentive for a webcam company in China to support that webcam once it's sold. It wants to sell things as cheaply as possible, and it has no incentive to update the firmware.

"A company that wanted to be a little bit different could say, 'I'm not going to sell these one-off, but instead, as a service.' Then, actually, you pay for the webcam yourself, over Bluetooth. You literally pay with a [cryptocurrency] token."

Not everyone is as convinced, however. Bruce Sinclair, consultant and publisher of IoT-Inc in Sunnyvale, Calif., said, "The Filament idea sounds innovative, but, unfortunately, it needs to rely on a wider network."

He said there were other issues to resolve before business functions, such as financial transactions, were easily pushed to a blockchain and IoT edge. "The power issue in blockchain is not so much about the local activities, but the so-called mining required to validate the transactions. Other distributed ledger technologies are getting closer, but establishing true, truth-with-blockchain technology is still years away."

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