Blockchain – the distributed-ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – appears set to transform a wide variety of industries and perhaps fundamentally change the way business is conducted around the globe. While the technology is still taking off and its potential is not fully known, many emerging markets are hoping that it will allow them to leapfrog older infrastructure and tackle a range of challenges, including centralised database development, corruption and fraud, and persistently high transaction costs for electronic payments.
A blockchain is a cryptographically protected, distributed and decentralised ledger of transactions. Rather than existing on a single computer, the ledger is replicated across locations, all of which are interlinked so that a change by one user – validated by his or her public key or password – is copied across the entire ledger. No individual user controls the blockchain, but each can change it to the extent that their own key allows, for example, by spending their units of cryptocurrency. Changes cannot be reversed unless a majority of users agree to a so-called fork of the blockchain, which essentially restores it to the version before the alteration being rescinded was made. The technology is named after its structure: the ledger is made up of a series of files called “blocks” that each record transactions within the network, with every new block invalidating the previous one. For example, a Bitcoin block contains around 500 transactions. The technology rests upon various foundational elements, including the decades-old mathematical concepts of a Merkle tree and elliptical cryptography. However, the arrival of blockchain dates from the publication of a paper under the name Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, which allowed for the creation of Bitcoin, with the cryptocurrency made publicly available the following year.
While blockchain remains associated with cryptocurrencies, proponents argue that it has potential for considerably broader applications. The technology can be employed in any field that involves the recording of changing information – such as transactions – as well as the use of contracts. Interest in such non-cryptocurrency applications has spiked since 2015, when blockchain operator Ethereum released a platform allowing coders to build their own smart contracts without their needing to design one from scratch. A potential example of such a smart contract is a self-executing agreement that sees payment automatically made to a supplier when a certain good – tracked by a technology such as GPS – arrives at the purchasers’ warehouse. Proponents argue that this ability could allow for the reduction or elimination of various intermediaries that currently act as guarantors for transactions, including banks or notaries providing escrow services or letters of credit. This is due to the fact that payment is effectively guaranteed by the technology, eliminating the need for trusted third parties to underwrite a transaction, which could substantially reduce costs and time. It could also lower the potential for errors as multiple players work to reconcile their versions of a ledger.
Another advantage of blockchain is that it reduces the potential for fraud, as the technology does not allow the retroactive alteration of records. Blockchain also arguably boosts transparency, as it contains a record of all transactions made on it. This is generally accessible – in anonymised form – to all users on the network, making them easy to audit. These features could help transform many sectors of the global economy: automated payment on delivery, to take an example, could prove revolutionary for trade, logistics and supply chain management.
In finance, supporters similarly suggest that blockchain could eliminate the need for intermediaries involved in the settlement of share purchases. David Shrier, associate fellow at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, and CEO of psychometric business profiling firm Distilled Analytics, described digital identity as potentially the most important application for blockchain. “Over 1bn people in the world lack an official identity, and the recent hacking of government databases shows the potential perils of creating old-fashioned centralised electronic identity registries,” Shrier told OBG. He went on to argue that, while blockchain-based databases are not automatically secure, they could eventually be made to be more secure than centralised databases.
Many people are of the opinion that health care is another potentially fruitful domain. “Sharing data between different health care institutions and practitioners is a struggle in general for health care systems,” Casper Winther-Hansen, blockchain PhD fellow at Copenhagen Business School, said to OBG. “Due to its interoperable nature, blockchain may provide infrastructure that makes this much easier. In the field of clinical trials, blockchain could also enable pharmaceutical companies to gather and share data, and could help with tracking and tracing the movement of drugs.” Blockchain-enabled sharing of clinical trial data could cut the costs and time involved in bringing a new drug to market in half.
Proponents also argue that blockchain can help solve data-ownership issues, as highlighted in controversies regarding social media data transfer. “Blockchain-based social media options allow the user not only to own and control their own data, which is on an independent blockchain rather than controlled by a third party such as Google or Facebook, but also to easily monetise it,” Pandu Sastrowardoyo, spokesperson and member of the board of directors of Blockchain Zoo, an association of distributed ledger professionals, told OBG. In light of such advantages, many see the technology as having the potential to transform the global economy. For example, a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review compared blockchain and its potential to that of the transmission control protocol/internet protocol technology, which laid the groundwork for the internet’s development, stating that it “has the potential to become the system of record for all transactions”.
Nevertheless, not all are convinced by the claims of the technology’s applications. Aspects cited as benefits have also been criticised, including the lack of intermediaries and difficulties in reversing transactions. While a credit card company can, for example, reverse a fraudulent payment, it could be much harder to reverse a blockchain-based payment. Furthermore, while it could increase efficiency, some argue that blockchain is highly inefficient in certain respects: a given ledger is fully replicated across the computers of many or all users, with each instance taking up storage and requiring energy to process.
In addition to this, the technology, for the time being at least, is slower than some centralised transaction-processing technologies. According to international media, the Ethereum blockchain platform can process around 15 transactions per second, while credit card operator Visa can process 2000. Another common criticism is that blockchain can be a solution in search of a problem. “In health care there is always a drive towards promising progress in care and casting about for solutions,” Winther-Hansen told OBG. “However, some features of blockchain such as full transparency do not always benefit patients, and we need to ask ourselves detailed questions about what kind of problems we are trying to solve before treating it as the ultimate solution to data-sharing issues,” he said, adding that pharmaceuticals players would likely be reluctant to open their systems. Meanwhile, others argue that the technology does not need to replace existing institutions and infrastructure, but rather can serve to supplement them. “Blockchain is not a panacea; it is good for some things and not for others,” Shrier told OBG. “However, in instances where there is no trusted authority, blockchain can deliver trust.”
To date, the technology has yet to become widespread. According to “The 2018 Chief Investment Officer (CIO) Agenda”, published by business research and advisory firm Gartner, less than 1% of 3000 CIOs interviewed invested in or used a blockchain-based solution. However, many think it will take off soon. “The year 2018 is when everyone says blockchain will pass from proof of concept and experimental technology to actual deployment,” Shrier told OBG, though he added that the most interesting applications were still three to five years from widespread commercial adoption. Nevertheless, there are indications that the technology may be on the verge of a breakthrough, particularly in financial services. In May 2018 HSBC announced that it had carried out the world’s first commercially viable trade finance deal using blockchain, namely a credit letter for a soybean shipment. Furthermore, because of the technology’s connection with cryptocurrency, the blockchain development community has access to substantial amounts of liquidity, which could help finance the implementation of the technology in other areas.
Implications for Emerging Economies
It is widely hoped that blockchain technology will enable emerging economies to leapfrog infrastructure and institutions in developed countries, allowing them to reach similar levels of development at lower costs and higher speeds. Of particular relevance to many emerging markets is the potential application of blockchain technology as a tool to track resources, as well as combat corruption and fraud. “In developing countries in particular, benefits meant to flow to the needy are sometimes misappropriated,” Shrier told OBG. “Therefore, having an immutable transparent digital record becomes an attractive solution.” In addition to this, emerging markets could prove faster at adopting blockchain than developed ones, because there are often fewer existing technologies in place.
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