Trustless. The word gets thrown around a lot in the blockchain space. It is one of the principles that decentralized finance is based upon. DeFi, as it was initially envisioned, is supposed to provide users with the ability to interact directly with each other thanks to decentralized technology that eliminates the need for third-party control. Faith can be placed in the blockchain systems that are secure and enable users to engage in financial transactions as they wish without having to trust all-too-corruptible humans.
That is at least how it is supposed to go. In reality, things are quite different. This is not to disparage many of the remarkable developments that have occurred thanks to blockchain technology. Individuals willing to take the plunge into the industry have at their fingertips more possibilities than are dreamt of in traditional banking philosophies, which by and large profit off the individual and throw them back bread crumbs as a reward.
There is no disputing the great promise of the industry. What is uncertain—and what needs to be addressed—is whether blockchain technology is making good on that promise, specifically when it comes to security and trustlessness.
The Poly Network hack
Chances are you have heard about the Poly Network hack that happened a couple of weeks ago. Poly Network is a decentralized platform that facilitates peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions between users across different blockchains. The hacker took the equivalent of over $600 million worth of different cryptocurrencies. That makes it the biggest hack in cryptocurrency history. And yet, in what some have taken as a sign of the industry’s strength, the hack hasn’t been treated with the same significance that earlier hacks—for lesser sums—have.
This is partially due to the particulars of the case. The hacker responsible has reportedly returned all of the assets in question. Embedded in one of the final transactions is a note in which the hacker claims that their intentions were not to make a profit but rather to expose vulnerabilities and thereby make the network stronger:
“MONEY MEANS LITTLE TO ME, SOME PEOPLE ARE PAID TO HACK, I WOULD RATHER PAY FOR THE FUN. I AM CONSIDERING TAKING THE BOUNTY AS A BOUNUS FOR PUBLIC HACKERS IF THEY CAN HACK THE POLY NETWORK … IF THE POLY DON’T GIVE THE IMAGINARY BOUNTY, AS EVERYBODY EXPECTS, I HAVE WELL ENOUGH BUDGET TO LET THE SHOW GO ON.”
“I TRUST SOME OF THEIR CODE, I WOULD PRAISE THE OVERALL DESIGN OF THE PROJECT, BUT I NEVER TRUST THE WHOLE POLY TEAM.”
Bizarre to say the least. If the hacker didn’t intend to take the money for themself, then why take so much? Perhaps they wanted to draw as much attention to the situation as possible knowing that if it was the biggest hack in crypto history, it would surely make headlines. But the repercussions of hacks of that magnitude in the past have led to downturns in the crypto market that have caused assets across the board to depreciate in value. It would be a very risky way to try to strengthen DeFi.
One also has to consider that the hacker’s hands were tied. Many of the stolen funds had been identified on their respective blockchains and exchanges like Binance had promised to freeze any of them that came within their purview. In addition to that, a significant portion of the stolen funds were in USDT. When Tether got wind of what had happened they announced that they would be freezing the approximately $33 million of USDT that had been stolen, preventing the hacker from making any transfers with them.
The thing about trustlessness
Regardless of the hacker’s intentions and that the funds ended up getting returned to the exchange, there are two issues here that bring us back to where we started. The first is the issue of security. About $1 billion dollars has been stolen from DeFi projects in this year alone. That is a staggering figure that indicates that there are serious issues with the security of blockchain platforms. Hand in hand with that is the issue of trust.
In this case Tether froze the stolen funds, preventing the hacker from transacting with them. While the intentions and outcome here were both good, this kind of power completely flies in the face of the decentralized ethos. There should not be a third party that can act like a traditional bank with complete control over assets that are being exchanged among users. The whole idea behind decentralized finance was to do away with institutions like that.
The problem is that the systems in place are not trustable enough yet. The industry is still young, so from a certain perspective, it is to be expected that there would be growing pains and vulnerabilities. But $1 billion in stolen assets is much more than can be explained away by an industry that is still coming into its own. The unpleasant truth here is that by and large the DeFi industry is falling short of what it promises.
GBC.AI and the intersection of blockchain with AI
This is where projects like GBC.AI come into the picture. GBC.AI is a company that has been working to apply the benefits of AI and machine learning to the blockchain sector. The project has developed what they call blockchain guardians, AI technology that optimizes blockchain operations while also taking a preemptive approach to chain security.
Once a blockchain is launched, it is very difficult to go back and alter it or improve it. While there are benefits to immutability, there are also downsides. Take the Poly Network case. Once a flaw in the network has been detected and exploited, given that the blockchain is already in operation, there is a substantial risk that the entire chain could collapse under the pressure of further attacks.
What GBC.AI is striving to do is to make blockchains adaptable and dynamic. With a blockchain guardian connected to a network, the AI can assess potential risks before they appear and greatly reduce any threat of dropped transactions. Rather than dealing with a static network, attackers will have to deal with blockchains that are constantly reacting and adapting to internal and external circumstances. As GBC.AI has proven with their work on the Solana blockchain, this kind of arrangement not only bolsters security, but it significantly improves chain functionality.
What is key about this is that it complies with the decentralized, trustless philosophy. By introducing AI and machine learning into the equation, users will not have to place their trust in third parties—like the teams that create and operate exchanges and pseudo banks like Tether—when they want to participate in decentralized finance.
While projects like GBC.AI and others working to bring in AI and machine learning to the blockchain space are still relatively new, given the gravity of the security issues, it should be only a matter of time before this becomes a major feature of blockchain development. For a long time people have wondered how the two most significant sectors of technology, AI and blockchain, could operate in conjunction. Circumstances have come together in such a way as to make DeFi the space in which that conjugation is necessary. The future of the industry could very well depend on it.