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Facebook seems interested in speeding up blockchain smart contracts—but why?

February 5, 2019

What is Facebook up to? The social network has just made its first blockchain-related acquisition: Chainspace, a small startup that had been focused on techniques for speeding up blockchain smart contract transactions.

The news, first reported by Cheddar, suggests that Facebook’s nine-month-old blockchain team may be getting serious about whatever it has been working on behind closed doors.

We learned recently that Facebook may be trying to develop a price-stable cryptocurrency meant for users of its popular WhatsApp messaging service. Perhaps it thinks Chainspace’s technology can help. An academic paper (PDF) from 2017 describes Chainspace as a smart-contract platform that uses a technique called sharding to get transactions passing through an order of magnitude more quickly than Ethereum can.

The slow speed at which transactions can be verified and processed is one of the things holding back the wider use of Ethereum and smart contracts. Indeed, Ethereum is also hoping to implement sharding for the same reason.

If it works, it would allow a smart-contract platform to split its data up and assign small pieces of it to subsets of nodes to compute. That would be much quicker than requiring every node to compute every transaction, making the whole system more efficient.

If Facebook is intent on using a blockchain to compete with electronic payment providers like PayPal, it will need to figure out some way to handle large numbers of transactions at a time. Perhaps this acquisition is related to that challenge. We can only speculate.

Whatever the case, once you’re talking about “sharding,” you are deep into the blockchain rabbit hole. Just how far will Facebook go?

This story first appeared in our newsletter Chain Letter. Sign up here to get your daily dose of the latest in emerging tech.

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