Me: I work with blockchain
Stranger: nods silently
Me: (carefully) The tech behind Bitcoin…?
Stranger: Ooh so I was considering buying cryptocurrency
Me: So the weather lately…
Even in times when the crazy hype seems to be over and when probably even my grandmother has heard the word, it’s still the default reaction. And yet, it has never been really about any shady coin trading. At least not for me.
Let’s be honest, where is the business value in virtual currencies that might just be empty bits and bytes tomorrow? The real power lies in the idea behind it. Blockchain duplicates the story of what has happened and stores it on all computers in the blockchain network (of which you decide the size).
If I would have a blockchain network of 1000 computers and I’d use a blockchain-based web application to promise you that I’ll buy you a Tesla, all 1000 computers would store that information. When I’d change my mind, I would have to hack into the majority of the computers to alter my statement. Besides, as soon as you alter 1 fact on 1 of those computers, the whole history of the blockchain gets corrupted. Consequently, if I manage to 1 hack computer and delete my Tesla-promise, the other 999 computers would say that nothing on the hacked computer should be trusted anymore, not even the promise you made earlier to buy me a Ferrari.
In fact, you get an immutable record of everything that has happened on your computer program that, by the way, just looks like any other computer program to the end user. With the right set-up, you even get to decide who can access which part of the record and who gets to store a copy of it, so you can always keep an eye on security.
Let’s record home ownership on a blockchain. Following the same logic, that would mean that hundreds of computers on my blockchain network would have a record stating “the house on this address is now Paulien’s”. If I’d sell later on, those same 100 computers would state that the house on this address is now New Guy’s house, while you could still see in the record that I’m the previous owner. No way of hacking my entire network, so we can trust what’s on it. No need to pay expensive notaries! Maybe I’m getting close to blockchain idealism here, but you get the idea. Besides, it doesn’t have to be about home ownership. How about tracking where your food has been before it ends up on your plate? I would trust a blockchain over a random ‘fair trade’ logo…
Well that’s a lot of buzz. Yet, blockchain might just offer the right solution to secure data registered by IoT devices. Fancy transporting food, sensitive to temperature changes, or art that’s sensitive to light, to only name two examples. Monitoring what’s happening is one thing. But how can you be sure the data on your screen hasn’t been tampered with? Sending data straight from an IoT sensor to the blockchain would significantly improve the trustworthiness of the information. When cooling suddenly breaks down, all computers in your blockchain network suddenly notice a temperature increase of 5 degrees. No way to hack all that out before someone notices.
Insurers are also looking into this idea to see how they can forsee micro insurances on home appliances. You could for example have a smart washing machine that immediately logs error data to the blockchain, so the insurer knows what happened without having to send someone to verify that information.
I’m pretty sure that ‘healthcare means administration and paperwork’ is not just a Belgian thing. Doctors and specialists have to be able to share certain information about patients, whereas other data has to stay private. Then again, mutualities, insurances and pharmacists all need other bits of data. As such, personal information gets duplicated over and over and resides in lots of computers and databases in the world of healthcare. Not only a time consuming and expensive process, but also a process in which a real danger of losing information exists due to copying. Not to mention the privacy issues involved.
By storing data on a blockchain, doctors and specialists would be sure they access the same information. All computers in your blockchain network would have identical medical information about you, and you as a patient could grant different parties different viewing rights. No more need to send poorly written confirmations back and forth, no more waiting for slow paperwork processes.
So no, putting every shopping list on a blockchain is not going to make the world a better place. However, having a single source of truth can save us lots of administration and even lawsuits and, as such, lots of time and money. It has its specific use cases in almost every industry, but you have to make sure you identify those use cases in which blockchain can really add value. And you better start small. Using blockchain usually requires you to approach business processes in an entirely new way and from a whole new perspective. Rarely something to be done overnight. But looking beyond the cryptocurrencies does get you thinking…