Blockchain is about more than cryptocurrency
Tired of hearing about Bitcoin? The notoriously hard-to-explain digital currency is just the tip of the iceberg. Blockchain — the underlying principle that makes Bitcoin so exciting — has the potential to revolutionise how our health is recorded, how resources are shared and how nations are governed. Moving World’s Jed Carter explains why.
The past year saw a meteoric rise in the value and popularity of major cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and Ethereum. Although they remain volatile, the growth shows increasing interest and trust in blockchain technology, the underlying system powering Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
When stripped of jargon, the technology is actually pretty simple. A blockchain is a shared, encrypted set of records maintained by a network of computers. We call them ‘digital ledgers’, in reference to the books (remember those?) accountants used to keep track of financial transactions. Changes to the blockchain are checked by computers across the network, which are compensated for their effort by earning ‘tokens’, in a sort of competitive version of bookkeeping. Different flavours of blockchain come with different tokens — Bitcoin and Ethereum being amongst the most popular.
Still confused? Don't worry. Read our visual explainer, 'So, what is blockchain, anyway?'
Why blockchain matters
While some ledgers are designed to keep track of financial transactions such as Bitcoin, different ledgers can record other kinds of information too. Beyond the speculative cat-obsessed hype surrounding cryptocurrencies, many interesting initiatives are using blockchain tech to tackle pressing global problems.
The real significance of the blockchain is that ledgers are completely shared, with no single authority, and governed by the immutable laws of mathematics, making it extremely difficult to use them to perpetrate fraud. In the words of the Bank of England, a blockchain is:
“A technology that allows people who don’t know each other to trust a shared record of events.”
Consider for a second the databases of information on which the world currently depends. The global financial system depends on a series of databases to keep track of everyone’s money — each individually owned by a banking corporation, and each prone to human error, miscommunication and fraud. Businesses such as Facebook and Google own vast, valuable databases detailing our identity and online habits, but these secretive companies remain extremely reluctant to tell us what they know about us, and who they are sharing this information with. What if there was a way of storing this information securely so that it did not belong to any sole organisation?
At its core, blockchain technology offers us a way of agreeing on the contents of a database without any single entity being completely responsible for it, and a way of compensating individuals for making that database more valuable, without needing any sort of official payroll or corporate organisation. This makes the technology extremely appealing in situations where a network of individuals need to exchange something amongst themselves, without a central governing body.
Power to the people
The rapidly changing energy industry is one area where blockchain technology is appealing. For homeowners that generate their own electricity, why sell excess power back to a utility company when you could sell it directly to your neighbours? Business LO3 Energy is already trialling a blockchain-powered microgrid in Brooklyn that enables the community to buy and sell energy amongst itself. Energy utilities, traditionally the middlemen between power plants and consumers, may find their days are numbered.
For patients relying on a series doctors, specialists, pharmacists and hospitals for their healthcare, why rely on practitioners to share your medical records over outdated and mismatched IT systems? Businesses such as MedicalChain and BurstIQ want patients to take ownership of their own medical records, building a secure, singular set of records distributed safely over blockchain tech. Access to a single, united set of medical records would be invaluable in fighting human error and cutting down diagnosis time, whilst the same data could be sent anonymously to researchers to help develop new treatments. Plus, such a system wouldn’t only rely on doctors manually punching your records into a computer: data from your Fitbit or Apple Watch could help paint a much more complete picture of your health.
These examples are really just the beginning of how blockchain technology might impact industries and disrupt incumbent businesses. Although they are all in early stages of development, we’ve highlighted five blockchain businesses that have the potential to make huge changes in 2018.
Five blockchain businesses set to change the world
LO3 Energy: Peer-to-peer power grids
What’s the ambition? LO3 Energy’s electricity marketplace aims to disrupt the energy industry.
Why blockchain? Blockchain’s distributed ledger enables individuals and communities to buy and sell electricity directly, without the need for centralised power plants or big energy companies.
Golem: A world-wide, decentralised supercomputer
What’s the ambition? Golem wants to create a global super computer that anyone can access, using unused processing power from individual devices and data centres across the world.
Why blockchain? Golem’s users rent processing time from each other, relying on Golem’s blockchain to keep track of computations and payment. Data is much more secure within the blockchain as it only passes between the renter and provider.
Is it legit? Golem’s first release is scheduled for early this year. It’s aimed at CG artists, and can process Blender and LuxRenderer scenes much faster than a local machine and much more cheaply than a commercial render farm. Golem plans to add support for GPUs and commercial rendering software later this year.
MedicalChain: Securely shared medical records
What’s the ambition? MedicalChain wants patients to be able to control their own healthcare records, allowing them to securely share records with practitioners, hospitals and pharmacists, and benefit from their potential value to researchers.
Why Blockchain? Using blockchain technology means medical records can be shared securely — they can’t be seen or changed without the right permission. Using blockchain tokens, MedicalChain will let patients share anonymised records with researchers, creating a secure, decentralised marketplace for medical data.
Is it legit? MedicalChain is currently being piloted within several UK hospitals, with plans to launch pilots in China, Japan and South Korea late 2018.
ShipChain: Decentralised transport and logistics
What’s the ambition? ShipChain wants to revolutionise the freight industry, aiming to unify tracking of freight, eradicate theft and cut out middlemen.
Why blockchain? Keeping track of freight using a blockchain means it can be traced across the whole supply chain, no matter how many times it changes hands. Drivers earn tokens as commission for timely and efficient deliveries.
Is it legit? ShipChain has a detailed rollout plan, including a commercial pilot with Perdue Farms early this year.
Civil: A platform for more open journalism
What’s the ambition? Civil aims to be a blockchain-powered platform for journalism, creating an ecosystem that rewards good content and incentivises fact-checking.
Why blockchain? Keeping track of journalism with a blockchain means the history of an article is always transparent, even if it is changed by new events or fact-checkers. Readers pay journalists for content with tokens, and earn tokens for fact-checking and commenting on content.
Is it legit? Civil is currently seeking journalists interested in operating on the channel, and will initially launch its token payment system in Spring.
What’s exciting you about the year ahead in blockchain? Let us know on Twitter @movingbrands.