What the bleep is RChain?

by Dubravko Golub

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

It was the first sunny Sunday this April after a few weeks of strangely cold and snowy weather.

“The same thing is happening again this year. We had a green Christmas and a white Easter again. Even though we are in the northern hemisphere. ” — I remembered a comment from someone at the first family gathering this year, one of the traditional family gatherings my parents organize at their cottage in the hills next to the city.

The day was coming to an end. The sun had already set. The guests had left, the voices of the children in the game had fallen silent. The embers in the hearth still shone shyly, and the leftovers on the plates and the drunk bottles of wine left on the table were reminiscent of the liveliness that reigned here today.

“All I have to do is clean up this mess. Then we’ll go home! “— I said to my wife while she was busy reprimanding our kids over their misbehaviour that day.

I hurriedly started to clean the table, and my father joined me. While reaching for the plates from the table, he first looked at me a couple of times, sighed, and said quietly:

“Mom and I are worried about you, you know!”

“Worried ?! Why? “— I replied with astonishment.

“We noticed that at every family gathering “— he starts — “you begin a passionate conversation about some chain. We didn’t know what it’s about. We were…. you know… We were frightened that you have joined some cult.” — He said worriedly.

Hearing that, I started laughing out loud!

“No, don’t worry. I haven’t joined any cult.” — I replied cheerfully, patting him on the shoulder. “I was talking about RChain,” — I said.

“RChain? What the bleep is RChain?” — he asked, frowning.

“It’s… um, a blockchain project that I’ve been following for a while” — I answered carefully picking the words, knowing that technology was never among his interests.

“Aha, blockchain! I heard about it on the news!” — He said with relief, realizing that their worries were unreasonable.

“I know that blockchain is about trading some virtual currencies. Many have allegedly gotten rich on it!” — He exclaimed with a gleam in his eye.

“Yes, they have, but that is not the reason for my interest in this project. My reason is the promise of change this project will bring… changein the world that we are leaving to our children.” — I said.

“Change? I don’t understand.” — He replied in astonishment.

“During lunch today, you have mentioned that the weather has gone completely crazy.”

“Yes, the weather has gone crazy… Now we are skiing in April, and we sunbathe in December. It wasn’t like that when I was young. What’s going with the weather here is peanuts, I think, compared to the fires in the Amazon and Australia last year and the floods this year, again in Australia? The climate is changing for sure. And my cherries have completely perished due to the cold of the past few days.” — He said, pointing to the withered flowers on the cherry trees nearby.

“But what does all this have to do with that RChain?” — Asked me curiously.

“As you have mentioned, climate change is already happening. The changes are visible to all of us. Imagine what would happen to our world if predictions made by some scientists about sea-level rise and submergence of the coastal area came true.” — I said

“That would be a disaster!” — He replied.

“I agree. It would be a catastrophe that would cause the suffering of millions of people, and the response to such a catastrophe would require global collaboration. Only together, the world could try to find a way out of this situation. We will need togetherness to overcome the crises that are yet to come.”

“What do you think? Have our leaders show they sincerely care about the environmental issues we are facing? Are they leading the world toward solving the real problems that we have today?” — I asked my father.

“I would say that the concern of our leaders is to maintain the status quo. Am, and to win the next elections. I don’t know whose interests they serve, but somehow I doubt they are doing in our best interest. At least, not in my grandchildren best interest.” — Said he sadly.

“I think they have not shown enough concern for climate change, one of the biggest threats to the world. The authorities around the world have agreed that changes are necessary. But only in principle, I would say, since deforestation is even accelerating, and we are building even bigger coal-fired power plants.” — The father replied resignedly.

“Yes, one often gets the impression that the authorities are more concerned about the interests of their campaign donors, instead of being focused on the real problems, problems concerning our survival on the planet. I do not know whether political corruption is the only cause of such behaviour of some people in power. If it is, we should remember that corruption in the past has brought some empires to collapse. On the other hand, maybe the problem is human nature. Maybe power inevitably corrupts. The elite probably thinks that world problems do not concern them. I’d say that the climate issue is a concern of every being on this planet.” — I explained.

“I agree with you. “— answered the father — “The people around the world have already gathered in various associations to raise public awareness of the climate change issue. Environmental activism has never been more present in the world than it is today.”

“But, I still don’t understand what climate change has to do with that blockchain.” — said the father.

“We have to be aware that we are facing the biggest threat to our civilization in human history. Climate change will bring many changes to the way we were living our lives so far. Just look at the changes the Covid-19 pandemics has caused to our lives and our society, for instance. That changes will be far from being pleasant, and they may happen abruptly. To cope with them, people will have to collaborate globally. And to be able to collaborate globally, people from all over the world will have to be able to communicate in a trustful and efficient way. In other words, we will have to build a global communication network. Blockchain is a technology that can help us achieve this.”

“Okay. I understand that we need to have means of global communication to achieve collaboration globally to face climate change. But there is plenty of them… I mean, there is plenty of communication networks, there are social networks… Facebook, for example, I use it also… “— said the father.

“Yes, there are plenty of communication networks. But do not forget that the individuals and groups control existing communication networks. I doubt the future of the planet on top of their lists of priorities. Based on the events that have happened so far, I am more inclined to believe that their most important interest is our personal data. Also, since the existing global communication networks are centralized, they are not resistant to surveillance and censorship.”

“We need” — I continued — “a global communication network that needs to be decentralized, to enable communication without intermediaries and the risk of censorship, surveillance and misuse of personal data. Such a network should allow us to express opinion, will and sentiment and, it should enable the establishment of trust among the participants of the network. This way, the participants will be encouraged to collaborate. And collaboration is what we need more than ever!”

“I figured this out, but I still don’t understand what makes blockchain different from other communication networks we have now. “— Father said.

“Blockchains are systems consisting of hundreds and thousands of computers, which, um, interact with each other. Each computer is running the same software. The shutdown of one or more computers will not damage the network because it continues to operate. Any individual can participate in the operation of the network. Even your computer can be a part of such a network. Decentralization of the network is achieved in a way that anyone can participate and ensure the network. In that way, the network belongs to everybody and nobody because no individual has control over it. All decisions concerning such a network are made exclusively by those who ensure its operation. And only by consensus.” — I answered.

“Interesting! I thought blockchain was just some kind of new financial platform.” — Father said.

“The first blockchain networks were used as public ledgers to store financial transaction information. Probably because of this, some people still associate this technology with virtual currencies. Over time, some blockchain networks have evolved into systems that enable applications to run on top of them. One could think of such a network as a big, imaginary world computer made of many real computers running blockchain software. And such a global computer that can run applications, controlled by the people participating in the network operation, could have endless possibilities of use. The most important would be, in my opinion, global coordination on climate change.” — I replied to my father.

“Now I understand why you are talking about blockchain in the context of climate change. About that RChain… It’s also a blockchain, as you’ve said. People on the news said that there are a lot of these blockchain projects. Why another one?” — he asked.

“Yes, there are plenty of blockchain projects. Although blockchain technology is promising, no one has managed to create a functional world computer. At least not the one that would deserve such a name. There are several reasons for that. One of the reasons is that previous blockchain projects have failed to solve performance issues. Imagine a distributed global computer, which hosts a distributed global social network with, let’s say, several billion users, whereby this network allows only 15 users to post at a time.”

“That would be useless.” — he said.

“The performance of such networks can’t even be improved. They are not scalable. You would be mistaken if you thought that adding more computers to such networks would help improve performance. The situation is, in fact, the opposite.”

“It’s like adding more horsepower to a car, and it goes slower after that.” — Said the father.

“Exactly. RChain timely realized that the existing tools, approaches and technology will not be sufficient to overcome the challenges many other blockchain projects have faced. Therefore, before starting with RChain, Greg, the founder of RChain, laid the theoretical foundation for the so-called Rho calculus. That’s the new calculus on which Rholang is based, a programming language designed specifically for distributed applications on the RChain network. That way a big step forward has been made compared to other blockchain projects. In addition to inherently solving problems with network scalability, Rholang also ensures applications to be correct by construction.”

“Correct by construction?” — he asked.

“You’ve heard about software bugs. Right? Bugs are flaws in software. They are some of the reasons your mobile phone occasionally asks you to install updates. Sometimes bugs can be exploited by hackers. The last thing that we want to worry about is whether our global computer will be hacked. That is why it’s of utter importance to ensure bug-free applications running on a global computer. This is one of the significant features of the Rholang language.” — I said.

“I don’t know if you knew, “— I continued — “but some of the existing blockchain networks use enormous amounts of energy. That certainly does not contribute to mitigating climate change. In contrast, RChain is extremely energy efficient.”

“Um, so that’s RChain. “— Said the father.

“That’s not all. If you want, I can also tell you about sharding, consensus algorithms, RSpace, behavioural types, LADL algorithm …” — I said with a smile, aware of his resistance to technology.

He just waved his hand and said on his way out:

“Enough for today. I’ll try to explain this to your mother. Happy Earth Day, son!”

“Happy Earth Day, Dad! “— I replied.

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