Brian Forde, director of Digital Currency at the MIT Media Lab, wants you to imagine the typical ticket-buying experience. You purchase a concert or a sports ticket online, usually on Craigslist, StubHub, Ticketmaster, or from a friend. On the day of the event, you walk up to the gate with your printed ticket. Maybe you're 95 percent sure the ticket will scan and you'll see a green "Go" arrow. But there's that other 5 percent that prompts butterflies in your stomach because you know there's a chance the ticket might have been duplicated.
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Now, if you pulled up an e-ticket on your phone (bought with digital currency transferred directly from your wallet to the seller's), the ownership history of that ticket would sit right there in the blockchain ledger.Blockchain is most commonly known as the distributed data technology underlying bitcoin. But in a keynote entitled "Business Decentralized" at Singularity University's Exponential Finance conference this week, Forde stressed that blockchain is a way to take any digital asset—from a ticket or a song to all manner of money and data—and transfer it from one party to another without a centralized intermediary.
Forde uses the ticket analogy to help simplify a concept that can sometimes get bogged down in financial and technological complexity. For businesses considering blockchain, Forde said at a fundamental level it comes down to public or private.
"I think blockchain is an opportunity to reinstill the trust that's been lost in banking and finance," Forde said. "Bitcoin was built for people, not for companies."
On a basic level, public blockchains are cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin or Ether that enable peer-to-peer transactions and, therefore, a revolution in seamless global payments. Private blockchains (such as those being built by distributed ledger consortium R3) use blockchain-based application development platforms like Ethereum (which also includes the Ether cryptocurrency) hosted on virtual private networks (VPNs) or private clouds. R3 is building a set of technologies for banks and companies for private use in things such as smart contracts.
Forde likened public and private blockchains to the relationship between Linux and Red Hat. Public blockchains like bitcoin were the open-source movement that started it all, and private blockchains such as R3 are taking that technology and commercializing it for businesses.
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"Finance is hard to understand on its own, never mind adding blockchain to the mix," Forde told PCMag. "A private blockchain is an intranet and a public blockchain is the Internet. The world was changed by the Internet, not a bunch of intranets. Where companies will be disrupted the most is not by private blockchains but public ones."
Blockchains, Blockchains Everywhere
Most of the blockchain talk at this week's conference revolved around banking and finance topics: money transfer, financial ledgers global payments, contract management, etc. But Forde also called attention to some of the other interesting use cases that MIT and other academic institutions are exploring with this immutable distributed ledger for the digital age. Forde wrote a recent Quora post on all different kinds of problems blockchain can solve, but spoke to PCMag about some groundbreaking research in education, government contracts, and healthcare.
Digital Certificates: MIT researcher Juliana Nazaré and Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab, recently published a paper and open-source code on designing an academic certificates system on the blockchain. Co-written by Kim Hamilton Duffy, Principal Engineer at Learning Machine, the paper discusses how, through this kind of blockchain technology, a certificate issuer signs a digital certificate and stores its hash within a blockchain transaction. It is then assigned to the recipient. That means in every setting requiring verified credentials—from acceptance to college and graduate school to working a government job or holding public office—blockchains can serve as irrefutable proof.
"We live in this world of the rubber stamp authentication protocol," said Forde. "What's powerful about this project is that all of a sudden, we can start to look at ways to be more reliant on digital certificates. And it's not just about where you've studied; state and city governments have licensed contractors and all sorts of professionals. What if your LinkedIn had a little green check next to your degree, saying it's blockchain-validated? You could trust that information a lot more."
MedRec: Another recent MIT research initiative concerns medical record management on the blockchain. Forde talked about a project called MedRec (built on Ethereum) that would serve as a digital family history of medical records. Think about sitting down in a doctor's office and being asked your family medical history on XYZ illness. You might, off the top of your head, have no idea of the answer. But with MedRec blockchain, families and medical providers can create a shared medical history that can be passed from generation to generation.
"With medical records, we're all asked that question: Is there any family history of this? The answer is usually 'I don't know,'" said Forde. "What's interesting here, as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we now have this mandate for electronic health records and the government subsidizes doctors to get those records. But that data is still siloed. There needs to be a technology or protocol allowing all that data to be shared, regardless of provider. MedRec helps facilitate that. It's not just about the interoperability of your data, it's also about the protection of your data from fraud."
Miners serve as the protection for the bitcoin blockchain, incentivized by financial transaction fees and a 25-bitcoin reward. But for a use case like MedRec, the incentives are more akin to the trade-off we all make with the Internet: The experience is free but we're all knowingly forking over a lot of data. Medical researchers building a blockchain for medical records, Forde said, are incentivized by access to census-level healthcare data that could speed up research and discovery.
The importance of "miners" in all forms of blockchain also brings up a key point about all the banks and financial institutions creating their own blockchains, be it based on bitcoin, Ethereum, or through distributed ledger consortiums such as R3: Will these firms have to hire their own miners? Once again, Forde said, the answer depends on whether the blockchain is public or private.
"There are cybersecurity concerns," said Forde. "Let's say a government or a large corporation was to use a public blockchain, bitcoin or Ethereum, for example. [That's] great but their ledger is at the peril of an attack. The question is whether insurance companies will obligate them to have access to additional mining capacity to see an attack coming and protect it with additional mining resources. If you're a private blockchain or a consortium chain, you may not need mining."
Blockchain Start-Ups Changing the Game
There were also several blockchain-based start-ups exhibiting this week at Singularity University's Exponential Finance conference, each of which tackles the technology from a different perspective and for different use cases. The following are some of the most innovative ones I found on the conference floor, as well as a couple of start-ups and initiatives to which Forde called particular attention.
A blockchain-based digital wallet that lives on your smartphone. Bill Barhydt, founder and CEO at Abra, moderated a conference panel on the future of digital banking. He likened the blockchain to "TCP/IP for money." Abra allows you to send or receive funds from any source in the world, without required bank accounts or transfer fees, using its own community of "tellers."
A decentralized market prediction platform. Augur sells a product called "Reputation" that uses blockchain-based tokens to report on market trends.
An international blockchain-based wage platform to help contractors and employees get paid. Launched in 2014, Bitwage simplifies international workforce management through Bitcoin-based payroll. The company has transferred more than $4.5 billion worth of payments to date, through invoices and team-based wage payments. Bitwage gives the worker a US or EU bank account number and then sends next-day wage payments through the bitcoin blockchain exchanged into local currency. At its core, it's a way to avoid the delayed payments, currency exchange delays, and processing errors that are plaguing international contractors.
BlockCypher is a cloud-based web services infrastructure platform for blockchain apps. Catheryne Nicholson, co-founder and CEO at BlockCypher, also spoke on "The Future of Digital Banking" panel, announcing that the company (which she described as "Amazon Web Services [AWS] for blockchain") now supports Ethereum. The platform includes fully hosted blockchain nodes, multiple data centers, and a cluster of distributed databases to host blockchain-based apps. Beyond just financial apps, Nicholson also said "identity management on Blockchain has the potential to change everything we know."
Protocol-agnostic middleware (meaning it supports bitcoin, Ethereum, or any other blockchain distribution) to build blockchain-based financial apps. Pavel Bains, CEO at Bluzelle, describes Bluzelle as the "Red Hat of blockchain" in that its payment application programming interface (API), gateway technology, and trade finance service smooth out blockchain-based banking and payments, regardless of the platform.
Currently live in Brazil, Credit Dream is a mobile-based blockchain platform for connecting investors in any country to loan borrowers in any country for affordable verified loans.
A real-time payment processing platform for traditional ACH payments that's now focusing its alternative payments network on blockchain. Ben Milne, co-founder and CEO at Dwolla, was the third member of "The Future of Digital Banking" panel. He said blockchain-based systems are empowered by their connections to existing financial infrastructure.
"If that connection is severed, these systems don't exist," Milne said during the panel. "Even though it may feel very confrontational between existing financial institutions and all these new blockchain start-ups that have only been around for six weeks, it's all of a sudden very collaborative because both sides have the opportunity to make a lot of money."
Everledger is a blockchain-based fraud-detection system for valuable physical assets. It uses a hybrid blockchain that combines bitcoin with its own private blockchain to build smart contracts for uses such as diamond certification.
"Everledger takes a diamond or a piece of art and hashes it to the blockchain," said Forde. "I'm not that big a fan of movable assets on the blockchain but, for something like a diamond ring, Everledger takes an image of it—like a unique diamond fingerprint—which can then be scanned against the blockchain to verify it's the same one."
"What Imogen Heap and Zoe Keating are doing with testing out music on the Ethereum blockchain is very interesting," said Forde. "There are so many applications of music, from streaming services to iTunes to movie and TV; you have to be quite sophisticated to be able to license all of this music. So how do you figure out a way to make sure artists are directly compensated fairly and on time? There would be a lot more trust and efficiency if the database were more clear and transparent."
The Nakamoto Factor
Everyone wants to know who bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto really is, be it Craig Wright or not. But Forde said there are major blockchain implications beyond simply putting a face to the pseudonym.
"Whether it's Craig Wright or not—and he hasn't publicly proven he is—there are a couple reasons why it might matter if we knew who Satoshi was," said Forde. "One, will that person start selling off their bitcoin? There's a stockpile of somewhere between $400-$600 million that's never been touched. So, if you were the founder of a company or a major investor and you sold off 100 million shares without announcing it previously, that would have dramatic ripple effects on the market. But [it] could also decrease security, which is tied to a certain price based on what miners are paid. If miners are receiving something of zero value, they'll no longer mine, bitcoin will no longer be decentralized, and we lose all our security."
The second reason Forde is curious about Nakamoto's identity is the impact that it could have on how bitcoin and blockchain evolves. A mystery this fundamental to an emerging technology naturally comes with monumental expectations for its creator. Whoever Satoshi Nakamoto is, if they do come out of the shadows and begin taking an active role in development and policy, there's no way to tell how that would impact the technical decision-making process and the ever-volatile cryptocurrency market.
"People always say 'Satoshi meant to do this or Satoshi meant to do that' in big technical debates. Or they save a seat at the table for Satoshi—I'm not kidding," said Forde. "When we're in big technical debates, the question you might ask is whether the real Nakamoto might have undue influence over the technical debate. No human is perfect, and whoever the real Satoshi is, they'll be flawed. That doesn't mean the technology is flawed."