Timothy Chang smooths the lapels on his four-thousand dollar Burberry suit and adjusts his tie. “An investment in my image,” he thinks to himself, recalling the amount he paid for the suit and how it makes him feel, as he steps onto the stage at a recent “Trends in Business Technologies” summit, held in Hong Kong, China.
A former consultant for Bain Consulting, Chang has now set up his own shop in Hong Kong, the overpopulated, over-polluted metropolis perched on the edge of China, where he helps foreign businesses navigate the nuances, intricacies and subtleties of doing business in the Middle Kingdom.
As Chang takes to the stage to speak to a crowd of some four hundred business leaders, members of the media, lawyers, analysts and bankers, his speech, titled, “The Transformative Power of Blockchain for Business,” draws a collective (but audible) groan from his audience.
They’ve heard this one before.
Despite the complexity behind blockchain technology, the bastardization of the term and its copious and liberal use in the media means that today, everyone and their uncle reckons that they’re an expert on the topic.
But make no mistake about it, anyone who claims to be an expert on blockchain technology is either a con artist or one of the early developers who built Bitcoin. Perhaps you’ve even made the acquaintance of the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto — do remember to get a wefie.
Given the nascent nature of blockchain technology, the state of the art is continuing to develop and even some of the most learned in the space concede that they have a lot more to learn.
Over the last year, buzzwords such as “blockchain,” “AI,” “machine learning,” “big data,” “augmented reality,” “virtual reality,” “Internet of Things (IoT)” and “quantum computing” have been bandied about on stages and conferences, forums and panel discussions so much that they’re more stale than last week’s unrefrigerated guacamole (don’t eat that and no, you can’t just scrape the rotted skin off, it’s not cheese).
Built on decades-old research in cryptography, decentralized data, decentralized computing and game theory, blockchain’s creation was initially intended as no more than to support Bitcoin.
But just like the World Wide Web and the internet, blockchain technology has transcended its original objectives and like an ear worm (think Mambo Number 5), entered into the consciousness of CTOs everywhere.
According to Mike Orcutt, writing for the MIT Technology Review,
“In 2017, blockchain technology was a revolution that was supposed to disrupt the global financial system.”
“ In 2018, it was a disappointment.”
“In 2019, it will start to become mundane.”
“After the Great Crypto Bull Run of 2017 and the monumental crash of 2018, blockchain technology won’t make as much noise in 2019.”
“But it will become more useful.”
It may yet be early days, but there are more than a few reasons to believe why blockchain technology is ready to emerge from the hype cycle and transition to the mundane era of adoption and application.
Moving Out of the Pilot Phase
According to Orcutt, pilot projects leveraging blockchain technology will either enter into the real-world application phase or have already done so.
Citing the example of Walmart’s two-year collaboration with IBM’s hyperledger, Orcutt notes that the retail giant recently announced that by September this year, all suppliers of leafy green vegetables to its Sam’s and Walmart stores will be required to input detailed information about their food onto the blockchain for better tracking of Walmart’s massive distribution network for fresh produce.
Sam couldn’t help but feel there was a target on his back every time he went to work.
The move could help to reduce the spread and impact of deadly food-borne infections as well as allow for more rapid tracing and containment of any cases of contamination which are discovered.
And Walmart is not alone.
In Singapore, one of the world’s busiest container ports, a trial using blockchain technology was deemed a success by its operating partners, Pacific international Lines and the Singapore port operator PSA International, together with the technology supplier IBM.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Scores of other blockchain applications have yet to be developed and moved beyond the trial phase.
That the earliest experiments with the technology have not only been found to be successful, but of real-world applicability bodes well for the underlying technology powering Bitcoin.
Institutionalizing the Institutions
One of the biggest risks associated with trading cryptocurrencies is the lack of institutional-grade custodial solutions.
As evidenced by the recent death of QuadrigaCX’s CEO and with him, the secret passwords to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency — there has been a collective cry for better custodial and trading solutions if more institutional investors and retail investors are to participate in cryptocurrency trading.
Management was starting to realize that the vault only works if you close the door.
Fortunately, some of the biggest names in the business are already working on it.
Orcutt notes that in the fall of 2018, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, launched Bakkt, a platform which enables consumers as well as institutional investors to safely buy, sell, store and spend digital assets.
And while being able to buy and sell digital assets such as Bitcoin and Ethereum will no doubt be good for increasing trading volumes, it’s the ability to safely spend the same digital assets which has the power to be truly transformative.
“Look, I can’t get you guys off Tatooine unless you’ve got something other than Bitcoin Cash.”
Bakkt is backed (no pun intended) by Starbucks, whose physical store and widespread Point-Of-Sale network could quite rapidly make spending digital assets a physical reality. Litecoin for your latte may no longer be a pipe dream.
And it’s not just ICE which has gotten in on the action.
Hot on the heels of the ICE announcement, Fidelity, one of the world’s largest asset managers, announced the creation of Fidelity Digital Assets, a full-service, enterprise-grade platform for storing, trading and servicing digital assets.
For pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors across the world, many of their due diligence processes and procedures require regulated custodians, fund administrators, auditors and a whole gamut of service providers who thus far have either been incapable or unwilling to service cryptocurrency asset managers.
The existence of more large institutional-grade service providers such as Fidelity will go a long way to convincing more service providers that there is both opportunity and potential in the cryptocurrency space.
And competition will help to drive down the costs associated with service provision for the safe custody, auditing and trading of cryptocurrency assets.
Real World Smart Contract Applications
Part of the promise of Ethereum was the ability to provide for smart contract creation and execution.
In a nutshell, smart contracts are programs that are designed to automatically execute when a set of pre-specified conditions are met.
Once the terms of the smart contract are agreed upon and uploaded onto the blockchain, the contract is immutable.
Immutable smart contract took on a life of its own.
Like the autonomous killer robot in Terminator , a smart contract will execute the contract automatically once those pre-specified conditions are met and they are irreversible. The same way that being terminated is (more or less) irreversible.
In theory, a smart contract is useful because it guarantees the sanctity of contract (no backsies) and digitally guarantees contractual enforcement, reducing the need for intermediaries or dispute resolution.
In practice however, smart contracts require a reliable source of information or oracle to determine if such said smart contract pre-conditions have been met.
One relatively more accessible example for applying smart contracts is, as Orcutt points out, its use for flight insurance policies. Such smart contracts could be designed to pay out automatically in the event that a flight gets cancelled.
But if hackers tamper with the source of flight information, they could feed smart contracts with fraudulent data and claim payouts. Companies such as Chainlink, a startup that’s developing a tamper-proof system that securely feeds the necessary data to smart contracts on a blockchain are already working on the problem.
Whilst complex, the sanctity of data is not an intractable problem — the world’s financial markets have dealt with the issue for decades.
And it’s the ability to come up with accurate and immutable information that has the potential to really turbocharge cryptocurrency trading and markets.
Whilst CoinMarketCap has been widely accepted as the purveyor of cryptocurrency price information, it’s methodology and algorithms are decidedly opaque.
For cryptocurrency trading to grow in institutional acceptance, one of the key issues that needs to be addressed is (the lack of) reliable price information.
That is where regulated cryptocurrency marketplaces such as Bakkt, combined with the existence of smart contracts could increase the speed, security and ease with which to trade cryptocurrencies.
State-Backed Digital Currencies
While Bitcoin may have begun its life as an alternative to fiat currencies, the technology which Bitcoin wrought has piqued the interest of central bankers who are now considering issuing their own digital coinage.
Central banks from across the globe, including China, are looking at embracing blockchain technology to issue their own digital currencies.
“We demand that you monitor how we spend our money!”
From the shrinking role of cash to the increasingly digital nature of money, the potential to reduce the costs associated with managing, replacing and issuing physical banknotes are just some of the ostensible reasons for central banks to issue their own digital coinage.
Orwellian states such as China have the added incentive to issue digital coinage (despite claims to the contrary) in their ability to track the expenditure and income of citizens.
But even more important than the cost savings for a central bank to issue digital currency, for the millions around the world who are unbanked, a central bank-issued digital currency would provide them with access to basic financial services and the ability to transfer money and build a savings account outside of the traditional financial system.
And as asset-backed digital currencies start to enter the trading system, micro-investments and trading, long out of reach of the most feckless of society now have the potential to lift millions out of poverty.
Boring is Good, Boring Works
While many of the developments surrounding blockchain technology or the application of cryptocurrencies will no doubt be anathema to the ideology behind the techno-anarchists who envisage a decentralized utopia, free from centralized control and intervention, societal shifts tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
According to Orcutt,
“Revolutions don’t always unfold the way the revolutionaries had in mind.”
But one thing is certain, now that the Pandora’s Box has been opened, blockchain technology has the potential to offer something for everyone. A Baskin Robbins if you will and certainly a flavor for every favor.
Whether one intends to live off the grid, transacting purely in Bitcoin or whether one desires to rely on existing institutional and legal structures to leverage cryptocurrencies and the power of the blockchain, options are available for individuals to decide for themselves how and what they intend to make of Satoshi’s gift to the world.
And perhaps that is the true gift of decentralization.