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Give time to blockchain to make a difference in everyday lives

The disruptive technology may have its ebbs and flows, but patience is key when applying it to the real world.

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As a distributed, tamper-proof ledger that reduces costs, accelerates processes and widens reach while also offering transparency and traceability, blockchain is poised to transform a myriad of industries.

"Most people overestimate the amount of change that will occur in two years and underestimate the change that will occur over 10 years" - Bill Gates

MUCH of the technology that is now deeply embedded in our daily lives was unfathomable a few decades ago, with many of these new innovations ascending into mainstream society at a slow pace. We are privileged to be living in a time when science makes our lives easier, improving so many aspects of human existence. The technology we're already exposed to every day is paving the way for continuous innovation that has the potential to change our lives even more. If we take a look around, there's a tremendous amount of creative thinking occurring as people work to solve some of the biggest challenges confronting mankind.

There really is no limit to the future of innovation. The above quote by Bill Gates gives expression to the patience that is required to let true innovation crystalise - innovation that takes place over a marathon, not a sprint. In the case of blockchain technology, we are in the early stages of a marathon.

So far, the 21st century has brought a wave of significant technological advancements, with many of these leaps improving human communications. By using wireless technologies, people are able to connect with one another instantaneously, which has a profound impact on business, politics, and society as a whole. For every successful blockchain application, there will be short-lived projects that fade away as quickly as they emerge. The protracted and "hit-or-miss" nature of the technological journey has been well documented over time, with several successful examples that illustrate the evolution of use cases for a particular technology.

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For example, Skype's original purpose was to utilise the Internet to allow people to video chat for free. Since then, it has evolved to change the way we work, through teleconferences, and the way we learn, through live webinars. And while the Blackberry was heralded as the next big thing in telecommunications upon its launch, it fizzled out spectacularly, and barely features on the mobile phone landscape anymore.

A few months ago, Bloomberg published an article highlighting a number of problems that were beginning to emerge in the application of blockchain technology. The piece suggested that interest in the adoption of this technology was waning as a result. The article claimed the hype that had built up around blockchain following a number of high profile ICOs not delivering anywhere near what would have been expected in terms of production.

However, if history has taught us anything it is that transformative technologies take time to develop. Consider the case of Big Data. When the term was first coined by Roger Mougalas of O'Reilly Media back in 2005, many considered it another passing fad of the Internet age. But today, Big Data is widely used in healthcare to map disease outbreaks and test alternative treatments, in space exploration to map the universe, in cybersecurity to stop cybercrime, and in the utilities sector to study customer behaviour and avoid blackouts.

BUILDING BLOCKS

When the term "blockchain" emerged, so did the promise of a financial and industrial revolution. Several years have passed since then and although we see many blockchain projects on the market today, none of them have registered notable breakthroughs, and none have completely revolutionised an industry. Yet. While this may seem disappointing to some, these projects are just the building blocks for the systems that will reshape tomorrow.

Recent isolated incidents demonstrated what can happen when blockchain networks are carelessly designed, further underlining the need for a gradual, methodical approach to development. The process might not be as fast as some would want, but it ultimately services the sustainability of the industry.

The most important journeys take place one step at a time, and when it comes to enterprise-level adoption of technology, this is a complex and slow process, due in part to the number of decision-makers involved. While there have been important milestones along the blockchain journey so far, the road ahead is long. Blockchain innovation has yet to evolve past interesting prototypes but soon we will see production systems that solve niche problems. Only then will the true potential of blockchain technology be unleashed.

Important milestones blockchain has achieved

Blockchain and Bitcoin are deeply connected. But while questions remain over Bitcoin's long-term viability, the underlying blockchain technology has potential applications that go far beyond the financial industry and has a much greater chance of impacting our society in a sustainable way. When we take a retrospective look at the significant milestones achieved in the blockchain space, it becomes much easier to appreciate the progress that has been made in a short space of time.

We have to remember that from the moment Satoshi's white paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, was published in November 2008, the terms bitcoin and blockchain were inextricably linked for nearly five years in the public consciousness. During 2009 and 2010, as economies across the world were in the grips of a global recession, the first open source bitcoin client and online marketplaces became operational.

Another major milestone in August 2010 was the first (and to date the only) major bitcoin security breach, which led to an updated version of the protocol being updated within hours of the breach being exploited.

A (DISRUPTIVE) FORCE FOR GOOD

By 2011 bitcoin was becoming more prominent in society. There were signs that a widespread application of the currency could emerge when BitPay was launched in May that year. It provided an online payment service for merchants that wanted to accept bitcoin and within 12 months they reported more than 1,000 platform users accepting the currency. Also, alternative cryptocurrencies began to emerge when Litecoin was launched in October that year, offering faster transactions and an alternative mining algorithm. Certainly, what caught the eye of investors was the price of bitcoin spiking at US$31.91 in June before it crashed back down by 93 per cent over the following four months.

But while headlines focused on the volatility of BTC, the likes of the altcoin Ripple (launched in 2012) had begun focusing on interesting concepts like integration to current banking models. The non-profit Bitcoin Foundation was also launched to promote the development of bitcoin and help restore the currency's image as a disruptive technology and not a facilitator of criminality.

The second bitcoin bubble in 2013 saw the price hit a new high of US$1,242, a staggering rise when we consider the aforementioned price two years previously. While it was often a case of "one step forward, two steps back" in those early years of bitcoin, one thing that seemed for sure was the rapid nature of progress.

It was only in 2014 that the true value and potential of blockchain technology began to be seriously considered in its own right. That year, after failing to gain agreement within the Bitcoin community to update the original Bitcoin protocol, Vitalik Buterin developed a brand new blockchain protocol featuring smart contracts that allowed programmers to build scripts into his blockchain that act as contractual agreements and execute when certain conditions are met. This blockchain 2.0 is called Ethereum. The use cases for smart contracts are incredibly diverse and it is likely that we won't fully understand their usefulness for many years to come.

In the last 12 months, blockchain technology has taken a significant step towards mainstream recognition with hundreds of companies investing heavily in its infrastructure. Nearly all major consulting firms have publicly declared their bullishness on the potential impact of blockchain technology on a range of industries, including Accenture, Deloitte and PWC.

But it's not just industry heavyweights that are tapping into blockchain's potential. In PwC's 2018 survey of 600 executives from 15 territories, 84 per cent said their organisations have at least some involvement with blockchain technology, while Gartner forecasts that blockchain will generate an annual business value of more than US $3 trillion by 2030. These reports give expression to the future viability of this technology.

As a distributed, tamper-proof ledger that reduces costs, accelerates processes and widens reach while also offering transparency and traceability, blockchain is poised to transform a myriad of industries. But this transformation will take time, and we must be patient as the community of dedicated teams around the world build the projects that will deliver new levels of innovation to society.

  • The writer is CEO and Co-founder of Orvium, a company using blockchain technology to create an open-source, decentralised publishing platform for academic research.