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The World Beyond Blockchain – Part 3/3: After the Storm

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

My 2 previous posts on this topic described: the perfect storm that has brought things to this point (part 1/3), and explored current and emerging trends (part 2/3). This final post reflects on what will most likely play out after all the dust has settled.

After the storm – What’s next for the Blockchain
Given the current frothy state of most Blockchain based cybercurrencies, many people foresee a disastrous crash, or massive correction at least, and one may be forgiven for taking a skeptical view of the future of Bitcoin and it’s ilk. However, in light of the previously discussed factors, it is certain that the Blockchain is only starting its ascendence into every facet of human interaction with machines and with each other. When the dust finally settles, it is almost certain that the Blockchain will assume its rightful place as a key enabler of the fourth industrial revolution. A couple of indicators that clearly point the way towards this eventuality are:

1 – Moving from fission to fusion:
We are currently witnessing what can only be described as a period of explosive innovation based on / fueled by several disruptive and/or emerging technologies, including: AI, IoT, nanotech, biotech, robotics, 3-D printing, autonomous systems and vehicles, materials & energy tech, quantum computing and the Blockchain. This rapid outward acceleration of disruptive innovation is somewhat akin to nuclear fission, where each disruptive tech development sparks a chain reaction with other disruptive technologies and applications. However, even that pales in comparison with the potential disruptive power of emerging tech mashups which may be more likened to nuclear fusion. For example, a Blockchain powered Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) system running an IoT platform reeks of potential disruption overdrive. The recent 60 second $36M ICO of Singularity.Net’s Blockchain powered AI platform clearly shows that it’s just a matter of when, not if such an eventuality will manifest.

2 – Demographic expansion
Time and again it has been observed that teams with a higher diversity of people tend to produce more and better innovation, and this is something which can be seen with Blockchain and its myriad applications. For example, at an event I attended about Blockchain in developing countries, it was refreshing to see 50% of the panel were women in CxO roles, leading their organisations in navigating and deploying innovative Blockchain applications and disruptive use cases. Outside of a seemingly diversity challenged Silicon Valley, the Blockchain appears to be a magnet for diversity, with pools of entrepreneurs, users and disruptive use cases that cuts across traditional stereotypes and geo-political, socio-economic, demographic or even academic boundaries. It appears to be agnostic of age, gender, race or religious backgrounds, which is perhaps unsurprising given the multi-disciplinary influences and inputs required to create useful, successful Blockchain applications. Disciplines involved include: mathematics, psychology, philosophy, cryptography, computing, politics, economics and sociology. However, a lot still needs to be done in other areas because increased inequality represents one of the greatest concerns associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Weathering the Storm: How to avoid the deluge and ride the wave
Below are my top tips for surviving and thriving through the period of disruptive cultural evolution that is bound to accompany the advent of this fourth industrial revolution and one of its key enablers:

1. Education – Get up to speed with Blockchain, and other emerging technologies, read simple introduction guides and watch videos from reputable sources, but please beware the excessive noise and froth of F.U.D out there, as not everyone is an expert.

2. Analyse your own situation – What does Blockchain mean for you as an individual, and for your organization or communities? Try to define your own use cases according to your area of expertise, and perhaps help your organization or community define or contribute to their Blockchain strategy.

3. People come first – Always put humanity first. A good dash of human compassion and grace will go a long way in future, because all emerging technology will ultimately become part of the plumbing enabling humanity, but even super humans need the right values too.

Finally, I’m no investment expert and the following does not in any way constitute investment advice, but for specific instruments, such as cryptocurrency and ICOs, it may be prudent to adopt a risk averse strategy and avoid any speculation, due to their relative immaturity. Otherwise some common sense approach will be required to even consider dabbling. For example, never gamble what you cannot afford to lose, or invest in something you do not understand, and always keep an eye on the regulatory landscape!

In conclusion, I believe the Blockchain will continue to be a fascinating topic for a while yet, but as more and more use cases become reality, it will ultimately go the way of other great enabling technologies (e.g. the Internet and Worldwide Web) and become part of the background infrastructure upon which yet more life changing innovation will emerge. You can bet on that!

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The World Beyond Blockchain – Part 2/3: The Eye of the Storm

February 15, 2018 1 comment
Even as early as 2013, it was already clear the immense impact that Blockchain could have on: industries, individuals and society at large. Even as Bitcoin futures markets were launched in late 2017 (complete with cryptocurrency primer), and as the Bank of England considers introducing a UK cryptocurrrency, it is instructive to observe the speed at which things develop and evolve, almost on a daily basis. For example, the intense volatility of a major cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, with over 50% drop from a peak of almost $20,000 (in Dec 2017) to less than $8000 (in Feb 2018) is actually considered by some to be business as usual. Blockchain expert, Haydn Jones, at BlockchainHub, suggests that such highs and lows are actually indicative of active trading by buyers and sellers in a robust market. Besides, several other factors may also have exacerbated the huge price movement, e.g.: price manipulation (see allegations against Bitfinex / Tether), opportunistic short selling, tougher regulatory landscape, and even the Chinese / Lunar New Year!

 

 

Regardless of ongoing cryptocurrency price fluctuations, the above diagram depicts several key industries and activities which are currently or imminently undergoing, significant disruption by the Blockchain.

 

According to Blockchain researcher, Bettina Warburg, the Blockchain “provides a shared reality across non-trusting entities” which helps to: reduce uncertainty (via transparency), assure identity (via trust authentication), enforce asset tracking (via auditing) and guarantee execution / delivery (via smart contracts), all powered by mutual mistrust. Therefore, any industry or institution that relies on trusted 3rd party mediation is open to disruption by solutions that remove the need to know or trust the other party in a transaction. The Blockchain’s distributed, decentralised ledger of immutable transaction blocks is the trust platform upon which such transactions can occur. The successes of Bitcoin, and other cybercurrencies, attest the fact that the Blockchain is indeed the protocol that drives the so called Internet of value. It truly brings to life Professor Niall Ferguson’s assertion that “Money is trust inscribed”, even in the digital realm.

 

So many examples abound of new and pre-existing use cases for cryptocurrencies, smart contracts and DAOs (aka Decentralised Autonomous Organisations). They encompass diverse areas and players too numerous to mention and a recent CBInsights Webinar presentationoutlines the use of Blockchain in the enterprise.

 

The rising star du jour is the use of ICOs (or Initial Coin Offerings) for fund raising, which enables teams to raise sometimes eye watering amounts of money over a short space of time in exchange for coins or utility tokens at the launch of their solution. One recent ICO raised $36 Million in 1 minute! In comparison, you can probably see why the dot com bubble could be considered a sedate walk in the park.

 

Another emerging trend are faster, more scaleable, and fee-less cryptocurrencies which can be used to facilitate the low value and high velocity / volume transactions needed for the Internet of Things (IoT). These are next generation networks designed to get even faster through-put as the size of the network increases – in true to life network effect. Key players include IOTA, RAIBlocks and the proprietary Hashgraph. However they are all very much bleeding edge propositions, with many questions as yet to be answered.

 

Several concerns or potential roadblocks exist on the runaway expansion of the Blockchain, such as:

 

  • Increased regulation – There’s a looming threat or promise of tighter intervention by regulatory bodies and governments, especially for ICOs due to their conceptual proximity to the highly regulated securities industry. Other drivers include: reducing tax evasion, fraud, money laundering, anti-terrorism, as well as impact on PII (Personally Identifiable Information) data vs. the right to be forgotten and GDPR.
  • Security – Also, many security concerns persist, particularly in light of regular headlines about hacking, outright theft and other malfeasance. Increased Cryptojacking, i.e. the practice of stealing other people’s device processing power to mine cryptocurrency, is also a concern.
  • Scalability and fragmentation – it takes significant computing effort to mine Bitcoins, or to verify transactions, which has long raised concerns over its long term performance and scalability. The resulting splits or ‘ forks’ in that cryptocurrency have provided a vast array of competing coins (e.g.: Bitcoin! / Bitcoin XT / Bitcoin Unlimited / Bitcoin Cash / Segwit / Bitcoin Gold). Furthermore, there are myriad cryptocurrency wallets and exchanges to chose from, which can be rather daunting. Also the aforementioned next generation networks which use: Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAG) / voting algorithms / gossip protocols to deliver more flexibility, scale and performance.
  • Energy Consumption – Furthermore, the high cost of energy required to mine proof-of-work cryptocurrencies is another growing area of concern as it contributes to the spectre of global warming.
  • Privacy – Finally, the early association of Bitcoin with illicit and subversive activities on darknet sites (such as the defunct Silk Road and Alphabay) hasn’t really gone away, especially with the rise of privacy focused cryptocurrencies such as: Monero, Dash, zCash, Verge and DeepOnion. Contrary to popular belief, Bitcoin itself does not guarantee privacy because transactions can be linked to individuals (albeit with some effort), and all Bitcoin transactions are recorded for posterity on a very public Blockchain.

 

In light of the above opportunities and challenges, it is plain to see that the Blockchain technology is just at the starting line on a lengthy course of disruption and upheavals as yet unimagined. However, in the third and final part of this blogpost series, we’ll take a look at key scenarios and likely outcomes and conclusions after the storm has passed and dust settled.

 

The World Beyond the Blockchain – Part 1/3: The Perfect Storm

January 28, 2018 1 comment
In 2016, when my last article about the Blockchain and Bitcoin was published, the cryptocurrency was valued at about $400, which at the time seemed the result of fever pitch speculation and media hype. Fast forward to December 2017 and the order of magnitude increase, with over 1300% ROI in 2017alone, appears decidedly hallucinatory, but even that is nothing compared to the estimated $200,000+ peak valuation predicted by the time the last of 21 million possible Bitcoin has been mined. According to the maths, even if you were to invest in Bitcoin at $10,000 or $20,000 you’ll still stand to make an order of magnitude return on your investment well before that last bitcoin is mined! Such irrational exuberance, fools gold and / or mega bubble surely challenges previous examples, (e.g.: the infamous Dutch tulips, South Sea bubble or dot com bubble), for supremacy in foolhardiness, or does it?

Anyway, instead of all that hand wringing speculation, this three part post (from a forthcoming article for ITNow magazine) will focus on the perfect storm that has brought things to this point (in Part 1); it will explore current and emerging trends (in Part 2), and discuss possible scenarios that will likely play out after the dust settles (in Part 3), before concluding with a few recommendations on the way forward to the world beyond the Blockchain.

The winds of change – key Ingredients for the perfect storm:
We can acknowledge that Bitcoin is the first and perhaps most disruptive application of the Blockchain, at least for now. The following factors have combined to drive its emergence as a jaw dropping speculative investment opportunity, and the underlying blockchain technology as a revolutionary engine for hyper-charged innovation:
1 – Technology drivers:
  • According to CBIsights Research, Bitcoin is the first decentralized, censor-proof, portable, secure, durable, and scarce digital asset.
  • The underlying Blockchain is built on a solid foundation of proven technologies including public key cryptography, hashing and TCP/IP (aka the Internet protocols).
  • The Blockchain is one of several disruptive technologies that will enable and drive the so-called fourth industrial revolution.
2 – Global socio-economic, political and demographic drivers
  • Following 2008’s financial meltdown, with subsequent financial reforms and various other aftershocks, many institutions, including banks and governments, are suffering a major ‘crises of legitimacy‘ which is eroding their traditional role as trusted middlemen for many transactions
  • Global unemployment, hunger, terrorism, wars, natural disasters and mass migration all highlight and exacerbate inequality, xenophobia, mistrust and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
3 – Geometric scale disruption
  • The speed and scale of disruption and adoption of Blockchain applications is phenomenal, and it challenges existing systems of production, managment and governance
These key ingredients combine and contribute to the current frenzied interest in cryptocurrencies as well as the development of new, disruptive applications, business models and emergent behaviours powered by the Blockchain. In the second part of this blogpost series, we’ll take a look at the emerging opportunities and challenges to be found in the eye of the storm.

Block Bits and Chain Coins: The Trust Machine Jigsaw

April 1, 2016 3 comments

The topic of Bitcoin, and other cyber currencies, as well as the underlying Blockchain technology is still top of mind for various industries, with frequent: events, blog posts, articles and sundry news items firmly focused on them.  I have also contributed to the deluge with a recently published article in the BCS ITNow magazine, as well as a forthcoming event on the “darker side of Internet technology”, but more on that later.

Last week I attended a BCS London Central event about Bitcoin technology “that could change the world”, featuring Simon Taylor, VP Entrepreneurial Partnerships at Barclays bank. As you might imagine, banks and other financial institutions are at the cross-hairs of any impending / potential disruption by Bitcoin and its Blockchain technology. Given the history of other similar disruptions in other industries, many financial institutions have been quick jump into the ring in order to figure out the best way to take advantage of the new challenge / opportunity rather than just sit back or ignore it.

To this end, Simon did a great job shedding some light on key initiatives by members of the financial services, (including banks and Barclays in particular), on the topic of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. My top take-aways from the event include:

  1. Building Blocks – Bitcoin is great, but platforms like Ethereum have really made Blockchain relevant for organisations to build their own applications – i.e. by providing the Lego building blocks for creating useful applications for the banks of tomorrow.
  2. FUD still rules – Opinions differ and people argue as to just what is Blockchain. Is it just the underlying technology used for Bitcoin, or does it include other incarnations and applications of similar mechanisms? A lot of confusion is being caused by misconceptions around Blockchain – e.g. “people keep coming up with Blockchain ‘solutions’ for just about anything”. However, if you do use Bitcoin based solutions, you must beware of implications for data protection, Safe Harbour and industry regulations.
  3. Using a hammer to crack a nut – Simon questioned whether it was really necessary to put up with the immense overhead required for permission-less ‘proof of work’ systems such as Bitcoin, when the faster permissioned versions could be just as effective, albeit with a certain degree less end-to-end security, integrity and non-repudiation capability in comparison to Bitcoin.
  4. Bitcoin keys can also be lost or stolen – Blockchain does not provide a solution for key management, so How can this be mitigated. This could be a potential role for trusted intermediaries, such as banks.
  5. Q&A: How can other organisations (e.g. NHS) successfully leverage such tech? – Simon’s advice to the NHS Director in the audience was to get educated on the topic and then experiment like mad. Barclays does this by first creating an experiment script or hypothesis then outsourcing the work to local / friendly start-ups for rapid turnaround. The resulting outcome is then studied and pulled apart by multi-disciplinary experts from Barclays (e.g. compliance / risk / security teams) before a recommendation is made. Most other industries can follow this model.

Overall, I thought this was a good event which was well attended by a very engaged 100 strong audience. The chosen topic and focus also made a perfect setup for the aforementioned BCS “Darkside” event which is scheduled to take place on 26th April, and features some excellent speakers and their perspectives on the seamier sides and uses of Bitcoin and Blockchain technology. Don’t miss it!

 

Governing the Internet of Things.

February 28, 2015 Leave a comment
In light of increasing coverage about the so called “Internet of Things” (IoT), it is not surprising that sovereign governments are paying attention and introducing initiatives to try understand and take advantage of / benefit from the immense promise of the IoT. Despite the hype, it is probably too early to worry about how to govern such a potential game changer, or is it?


According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, the Internet of Things is hovering at the peak of inflated expectations, with a horizon of some 5 – 10 years before reaching the “plateau of productivity” as an established technology, so still fairly early days as yet, it would seem. However, that is not sufficient reason to avoid discussing governance options and implications for what is arguably the most significant technology development since the dawn of the Internet itself. To this end, I attended a recent keynote seminar on policy and technology priorities for IoT (see agenda here), and below are some of the key points I took away from the event:


1. No trillion IoT devices anytime soon –  According to Ovum’s Chief Analyst the popular vision of ‘a Trillion IoT devices’ will not appear overnight, for the simple reason that it is difficult, and will take some time, to deploy all those devices in all manner of places that they need to be.


2. What data avalanche? – Although a lot of data will be generated by the IoT, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the proportion of meaningful information will depend on the cost to generate, store and extract useful information from the petabytes of noise – there is a lot of scope for data compression. For example, the vast majority of data from say environment sensing IoT devices will likely be highly repetitive and suitable for optimisation.


3. Regulatory implications – OFCOM, the UK’s Data regulator, identified the four themes as most relevant for the future development of  IoT, i.e.: 1. Data privacy (including authorisation schemes); 2. Network security & resilience (suitable for low end devices); 3. Spectrum (e.g. opening up 700Mhz band and other high / low frequency bands for IoT); and 4. Numbering & Addressing (need to ensure there is enough numbers & addresses in the future for IoT).


4. Standards and interoperability – these remain key to a workable, global Internet of Everything (IoE) particularly because of need for data availability, interoperability (at device and data level), and support for dynamic networks and business models.


5. Legal implications – again the key concern is data privacy. According to Philip James (Law Firm Partner at Sheridans), in describing the chatter between IoT devices: “hyper-connected collection and usage of data is a bit like passive smoking – not everyone is aware of it”.


In context of the above observations, it may be easy to ignore the elephant in the room, i.e. how to manage unintended consequences from something as intangible as the future promise of IoT? What will happen if and when the IoT becomes semi-autonomous and self reliant, or is that science fiction?


Well, I wouldn’t be so sure, because it all boils down to trust: trust between devices; trust in data integrity; and trust in underlying networks and connectivity. However, this is not something the Internet of today can provide easily, therefore some interesting ideas have started percolating around scalable trust and integrity. For example, Gurvinder Ahluwalia (IBM’s CTO for IoT and Cloud Computing) described a scenario using hitherto disruptive and notorious technologies (i.e. Blockchain and BitTorrent, of Bitcoin and Pirate Bay fame respectively), to create a self trusting environment for what he calls “democratic devices”.


The implications are astounding and much closer to the science fiction I mentioned previously. However, it is real enough when you consider that it requires a scalable, trustworthy, distributed system to verify, coordinate, and share access to the ‘Things’ on the IoT, and that key components and prototypes of such a system already exist today. This, in my opinion, is why sovereign governments are sitting up and taking notice, as should all private individuals around the world.