The blockchain oracle problem is one of the most important barriers to overcome if smart contracts can be used to their full potential, and Khalifa University is leading the way in research.
A review paper covering the academic contributions to the literature on blockchain and oracles has identified Khalifa University as the most productive institution, with four researchers listed as the most impactful around the world in this field.
Blockchain offers an immutable and tamper-proof ledger, where each record created forms a block, and each block is confirmed by the community among which the platform is shared before it can be paired up with the previous entry in the chain. The blockchain is a shared database, validated by a wider community rather than a central authority, making it a public ledger that cannot be easily tampered with, as no one person can go back and change things.
Many blockchain solutions use programmable smart contracts – simple programs that can be used to automatically exchange information under predetermined conditions. The paper notes, “With the advent of smart contracts, the benefits of decentralization offered by distributed ledger technologies could be implemented in sectors other than cryptocurrencies, such as healthcare, supply chains, and finance. Smart contracts, however, need oracles to fetch data from the real world, which do not offer the same characteristics of decentralization as blockchain.”
The blockchain oracle problem is an interesting one. The term ‘oracle’ comes from Greek mythology and refers to someone able to see the future. In ancient stories, people turned to oracles for knowledge beyond their understanding, and in the blockchain world, oracles are systems that provide the blockchain with information from the real world. Oracles on the blockchain act as a bridge, translating external information into the blockchain. Without this information, the smart contracts could not be executed.
But with the oracle retrieving external information, its trustworthiness must come into question. Verifying the information provided by a third-party oracle without impacting the validation mechanism inherent to sharing blocks among the community is the oracle problem. As oracles are not distributed among the community, they represent a point of failure: they could be tampered with and provide false data to the blockchain.
Research on oracles is still in its infancy and academic contribution on the subject is scarce and sporadic. The paper reviewed the contributions to academic research on blockchain oracles and found that Khalifa University is the largest contributor to this field, with 12 documents produced, of which two are among the ten most cited globally, and four are among the top 20.
The review noted that many of these papers involve contributions from multiple KU researchers, “[giving] an idea of an institution that is heavily investing in this sector.” The review also highlighted that Khalifa University has contributed at least one paper to every oracle application category, offering contributions to the healthcare and data management fields, and also producing research to address the oracle problem.
Four Khalifa University researchers were named in the top 19 most impactful authors, with PhD candidate Hamda Al-Breiki placing highest as the fifth most globally impactful author in blockchain oracle research. Ilhaam Omar, Research Associate, ranked sixth, MSc student Ammar Battah eleventh and Mohammad Moussa Madine, Graduate Researcher, ranked thirteenth.
Oracle applied research is focused on various sectors and Khalifa University research resonates in all areas of application.
Two of the three papers in the healthcare sector originate from KU and focus on the security and access control of patients’ records.
Contributions from KU approach the confidentiality of Internet of Things (IoT) data by granting users different access privileges, presenting a roadmap for development in the IoT sector.
For cloud computing, the work proposed by KU was the only paper to approach the problem of ensuring an optimal fees level to balance the needs of cloud providers and users.
Other KU studies investigated how data quality can be managed and improved with multi-party authorization and reputation systems.
The results from this review show that within six years of academic research, only 111 papers have been published. The UAE is one of the most productive countries, with all 12 publications coming from Khalifa University.
Despite the impressive number, it’s clear that blockchain oracles are still a globally neglected area of research. The paper also noted that there were no studies for real-world blockchain use cases such as in the entertainment, tourism, insurance or e-government resource management sectors. This represents a potential area of academic investigation that would be highly sought after.
Importantly, the findings of this research show that Khalifa University is an institution with advanced knowledge and competence of blockchain solutions that can be shared with industry to further progress the field and contribute to the building of a knowledge economy in the UAE.
28 November 2021