The Blockchain in our Future

blockchainYou may have seen articles that predict that the blockchain will be a major software tool in the very near future. Or you may have seen that blockchains are at the heart today of cryptocurrency like Bitcoins. I’ve been following the development of blockchain technology and I think it’s something that will soon quietly sneak into all of our lives.

So what is a blockchain? It’s essentially a software technique for creating a permanent and unchangeable ledger of events – a record of events that are stored in sequential order and that can never be altered. There are many places in the business world where having a permanent record of events or transactions would be of great value.

Second, a blockchain relies on peer-to-peer verification of entries onto the chain. That means that the identity of the person making any entry into a blockchain is verified by somebody else. This verification process adds validity to the entries on the chain since every entry on the chain has a verified author.

Third, blockchain information can easily be encrypted, making it hard for anybody other than the people involved in the transactions to be able to read the information on the blockchain. This adds an automatic level of security because, unlike a standard data base, each entry can be separately encrypted making the task to decrypt daunting. In a standard database, once a hacker gains access to the database they can see everything. In a blockchain a hacker would have to individually unscramble each entry – something that will deter all except the most determined hacker.

So, what are some of the ways that a blockchain might be used? The short answer is that it will make sense to use the technology anyplace where there is merit in having a detailed record of events that can’t be amended or altered. I can think of hundreds of likely uses, but here are a few:

Accounting. Since a blockchain is basically a ledger it would make sense to use it during the accounting process. In a larger company where multiple people can make accounting entries, a blockchain could be established that would record the events of each entry made – not only the entry itself, but who made it and when they made it. There also could be a pointer to the underlying document that supported the entry. This would be of use to the head accountant in the company because they can now look back with certainty and know everything about any entry into the accounting system. This would give them a tool to pinpoint who made mistakes. But the real benefit would be for external auditors who could quickly understand every entry in detail. Blockchain also would provide the history of each entry and would show if and when an entry was ever changed or amended. A ledger backed up a blockchain creates an audit trail that will make it easier to do things like pass a tax audit years later after everybody in the company forgets the details.

Credit Card Security. I can picture a credit card company establishing a blockchain to record the events of each credit card transaction with the goal of cutting down on credit card fraud. For a credit card used in a store it would establish an exact time stamp of a transaction. But there also might be a picture snapped of the purchaser or some biometric test like taking a thumbprint. Biometric credit transactions are being tested in China, and using a blockchain adds the ability to make a permanent and indelible record of the events involved in each transaction. Something similar could be done with online purchases where a blockchain could be used to record the IP address of the purchaser of other identifying information that might make it easier to track down fraud.

Personal Blockchains. I think people will be interested in keeping track of events in their life. We do a lot of things electronically today and those records are fleeting. You inevitably get a new smartphone or change cellular providers and your personal history is lost. And even if you somehow keep every text you’ve ever made, for example, there is no current easy way to search through them to find a specific text you might have made years ago. A blockchain creates a ledger that can then be searched. For some reason that is beyond my understanding, my wife likes to read things I wrote to her years ago, so she is going to love this! In essence a personal blockchain could create a searchable log of events in your life, large and small.

I can easily think of hundreds of uses for the idea of keeping track of the things we do at work or in our personal lives. The blockchain provides a tool to create a permanent and searchable ledger of past events. For any business that does a lot of transactions of any kind, this gives them a new tool to create a record of their business – something that businesses are largely not very good at today.

We are Almost at the Tipping Point

Alexander_Crystal_SeerThere is an amazing amount of progress going on in numerous fields that affect our daily lives.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society polled experts to ask when they expected major new technologies to hit a tipping point, meaning that the technology would pass the point where it would then become a mainstream norm. The list of technological changes that are predicted for the next ten years is astounding. This coming decade is probably going to be considered by historians as the time when mankind moved past the era of the Industrial Revolution into the Computer and Software Age.

We live in a time when it has become routine to expect rapid changes and improvements in the way we do things. But taken altogether, we will hit a tipping point with so many new technologies that lives will be decidedly different a decade from now compared to today. Following are the changes that this group foresees on the immediate horizon along with a prediction of when each of the changes passes the tipping point and becomes part of our daily lives. Note that the tipping points they provided are not the only event that could move a technology into the mainstream, but instead are a good example.

  • Implantable Technology – Tipping point when the first implantable mobile phone is commercially available. Expected date: 2023
  • Personal Digital Presence – Tipping point when 80% of people in the world have a digital presence on the web. Expected data: 2023
  • Vision as the New Interface. Tipping point when 10% of reading glasses connect to the internet. Expected date: 2023
  • Wearable Internet – Tipping point when 10% of people wear clothes connected to the Internet. Expected date: 2022.
  • Ubiquitous Computing – Tipping point when 90% of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Expected date: 2024.
  • A Supercomputer in Your Pocket. Tipping point when 90% of the world population has a smartphone. Expected date: 2023
  • Storage for All – Tipping point when 90% of people have unlimited and free (supported by advertising) data storage. Expected date: 2025.
  • The Internet of Things – Tipping point when 1 trillion sensors are connected to the Internet. Expected date: 2022.
  • The Connected Home – Tipping point when over 50% of broadband to homes is used for appliances and devices. Expected date: 2024.
  • Smart Cities – Tipping point when the first city with more than 50,000 people has no traffic lights. Expected date: 2026
  • Big Data for Decisions – Tipping point when the first government replaces a census with big data. Expected date: 2023.
  • Driverless Cars – Tipping point when driverless cars are 10% of the vehicles on the road. Expected date: 2026.
  • Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making – Tipping point when an AI is on a major corporate Board. Expected date: 2026.
  • AI and White Collar Jobs – Tipping point when 30% of corporate audits are done by AI. Expected date: 2025.
  • Robotics – Tipping point is the first robotic pharmacist in the US. Expected date: 2021.
  • Bitcoin and Blockchain – Tipping point is when 10% of gross domestic product stored on blockchains. Expected date: 2027.
  • The Sharing Economy – Tipping point when more global trips are made by car sharing than in private cars. Expected date: 2025.
  • Governments and Blockchain – Tipping point when tax is collected for the first time via blockchain. Expected date: 2023.
  • Printing and Manufacturing – Tipping point when the first 3D-printed car is in production. Expected date: 2022.
  • 3D Printing and Health – Tipping point when first transplant of 3D liver. Expected date: 2024.
  • 3D Printing and Consumer Products – Tipping point when 5% of consumer goods printed in 3D. Expected date: 2025.

Even if only a large fraction of these changes happen when predicted it is going to be a very different world a decade from now. This kind of list is almost overwhelming. I am probably going to write future blogs about a few of the changes that I find the most intriguing. One thing is for sure, – hang onto your seats, the whole world is about to enter a new age.

A New Kind of Internet?

Hong-Kong-ProtestSomething very interesting happened over the last few weeks that provides a glimpse into a different future for the Internet. The students and others who were protesting in Hong Kong were able to set up a private network that bypassed the Chinese authorities using a blockchain. I will describe what that is below.

There are currently a lot of different people who don’t like the way the Internet is operated today. First, we have the NSA surveillance and everything that implies. Numerous countries around the world are in the process of setting up servers that will keep a lot of local data on their own servers so that it doesn’t leave the country. In effect we are looking at a world where each country may have its own Internet cloud and a firewall around their data

Probably even more intrusive, we have a few large companies controlling a large percentage of what happens on the web. Science Fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling calls these large companies the ‘Stacks’ and his current list includes Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. We know that these large companies each have their own agenda for tracking each of us, mostly for marketing purposes, but each of them also has cooperated to some degree with the NSA.

Finally, we have the possibility that in the US that the FCC is going to vote against net neutrality which will free the large companies and the ISPs to do what they wish. It may seem a bit nationalistic to think that what happens here is important to the world, but since the large companies that control the web today are all American, to some extent, as goes America so goes the web.

There are many who are disturbed by these trends and I have seen numerous articles asking if the Internet as we think of it is already dying. To counteract these trends we have seen numerous new browsers, email services and encryption programs introduced in the last year for people who are looking to opt out of the surveillance world.

And now we have Hong Kong which is behind the Great Firewall of China where the government micromanages Internet access. Had the Hong Kong protesters used any of the normal available services to communicate, such as email or the various social media sites in China they would have been quickly squashed. So instead they cleverly established a blockchain.

A blockchain is a software technology that was established as the basis for trading Bitcoins. A simplified explanation of a blockchain is that it’s a distributed consensus network that allows communications to be made securely and without any centralized authority. The Bitcoin world is entirely based upon trading currency, but the same technology can be used to exchange any other kind of communication such as emails, tweets, etc. Every transaction is encrypted including a unique encrypted code given to each user of the network. This means that even if intercepted by the Chines authorities, the blockchain communications were coded both in terms of content and identity of participants.

One of the interesting things about blockchain communications is the consensus required for it to work. Each user involved in the blockchain basically validates everybody else. If for some reason there is no communication on the blockchain, then after a set amount of time the whole chain collapses.

So the protesters in Hong Kong established a temporary encrypted peer-to-peer network that was impenetrable by the authorities. This let them communicate and coordinate their activities free from oversight or censorship. And when the protest ends the blockchain will collapse and disappear.

This concept could become the basis for establishing secure group communications in the future that falls outside of the NSA or large company tracking. It’s not hard to imagine those with similar interests of some sort being able to launch their own blockchain that would just look like indecipherable bits as it passed through any Internet hubs or monitoring points. Such networks need not be nefarious and a blockchain network could be used for any group like a college fraternity, a science fiction fan club, the fans of a sports team or band, or anything else. Such networks could spring up and disappear as needed and would only be available to those with some sort of in on how to join. But even those who are insiders in the network have no way to see what others are doing and they can only decode their own transactions.

It’s an interesting concept and is the first effective way that people are bypassing the surveillance world. The vast majority of people in the world have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy having large companies or governments track and record everything they do. Expect there to be numerous attempts to create alternatives to today’s Internet. And expect it to be a cat-and-mouse game where new strategies avoid surveillance for a while until cracked, but with new ideas strategies waiting to work next. We could be seeing the start here of a new Internet where people take back privacy by opting out of products offered by the mainstream companies.