How Blockchain Technology Could Change The World
This makes it difficult for the layman to assess whether it’s something worthy of their time and attention. And for a new technology to become mainstream, let alone change the world (as blockchain enthusiasts claim it will) it must find a fan base beyond the technically-minded. One way people describe blockchain technology is the “internet of value”. I like this term but it deserves closer inspection.
We have become used to sharing information through a decentralized online platform (the internet). But when it comes to transferring value – for example money – we are usually forced to fall back on old fashioned, centralized financial establishments such as banks. Even online payment methods which have sprung into existence since the birth of the internet – Paypal being the most obvious example – generally require integration with a bank account or credit card to be useful.
Blockchain technology offers the intriguing possibility of eliminating this “middle man”. It does this by filling three important roles – recording transactions, establishing identity and establishing contracts – traditionally carried out by the financial services sector.
Worldwide, the financial services market is the largest sector of industry by market capitalization. If blockchain technology can replace just a fraction of that by enabling peer-to-peer transactions in other sectors then it clearly has the potential to create huge efficiencies.
The technology was initially pushed into the headlines several years ago thanks to the virtual currency Bitcoin. The value of one unit of the currency (which is underpinned by blockchain technology) rose from pennies to over £$1,000 between 2011 and 2013, making a handful of early adopter enthusiasts very wealthy. Of course, this generated press interest. Since then, while Bitcoin’s value may have fallen and the currency established a more stable rate of growth, the buzz around the blockchain concept has intensified.
In my opinion, though, it’s the third crucial role – the establishing (and verifying) of contracts – where blockchain offers the most exciting possibilities. And it’s also where the value of this type of technology becomes apparent outside of financial services. The ability to securely read and write to a distributed ledger, governed by mathematics and consensus rather than the whims of a centralized operator, has a whole heap of potential in just about every other industry.
The key here is that as well as something as basic as an indicator of value (as with Bitcoin), blockchains can be used to store any kind of digital information, including computer code. This code can be programmed to execute when two or more parties enter their keys – meaning that everyone agrees that a contract has been filled. It can also read from external data feeds – stock prices, weather reports, news headlines, or anything else that can be parsed by computer code – to create contracts which automatically “sign off” when stated conditions are filled. These are known as “smart contracts”.
Obviously the potential here is limitless. Applications could be developed which allow businesses to validate transfers based on delivery of service – for example a certain number of buying orders would signal to the blockchain-based smart contract that conditions had been filled for an invoice to be paid. The payment could then be made automatically through a blockchain based payment system. App ecosystems are already evolving, based around platforms such as Ethereum which aim to give businesses the toolsets necessary to get involved.
One theory even suggests that blockchain tech will provide the value “fuel” for the Internet of Things. Devices in the home and across industry could automatically pay for the energy they use by writing to the relevant blockchain, creating a transfer of value based on the precise usage of the device. One project involves the creation of “smart” local power grids based on distributed blockchain technology. Of particular use in remote communities, such systems would allow the distribution, metering and billing of electricity to be administered within the community itself, rather than being reliant on external multinational power and finance institutions.
Another, ascribe, aims to use blockchain tech to solve intellectual property issues in the digital age. Blockchains can be used to create a permanent or transferable link between the owner and a piece of IP, handle licensing issues, and even create “limited editions” of digital information, securely limiting the amount of times a piece of information (for example an artwork) can be displayed, shared or copied.
There are, as I previously said, an almost limitless number of applications for the technology. Fraud-resistant voting systems to be put in place, where the owner of one private key is assigned one vote, and no third party referee is necessary. Censorship-resistant distribution of information. Decentralized reputation and recommendation engines, provably free of interference from intermediaries such as moderators or advertisers.
In my opinion, blockchain technology looks set to be one of the most impactful developments on the horizon. I often find myself writing about “buzzwords” – Big Data, machine learning, predictive analytic – and now undoubtedly “blockchain” will join that list. But remember that the word “internet” was a buzzword, too, not so long ago in objective terms (although it seems like another lifetime!). The fact is that with all these concepts, while there may be a lot of hype around them, the potential they offer for change is just too big to overlook
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