In the last few years, you may have heard some buzz about blockchain technology. In a recent report from the World Economic Forum, it was estimated that by 2025, 10 percent of the GDP will be stored using blockchains or within related technology.1 With this in mind, it is imperative to understand this technology so you can take the jump on what will certainly be an abundance of opportunities.
What is blockchain technology?
Blockchain technology has been described as “the internet of value.”2 The internet is where we share information, and while we can transfer value (money) online, it requires intervention by financial institutions like banks. Currently, all online payment methods (like Paypal or Venmo) require connection to a bank account or credit card. Blockchain technology is intriguing because it offers the potential to eliminate the need to involve banks in transactions. Blockchain technology records transactions, confirms identity, and arranges contracts, all of which previously required a financial institution. Currently, blockchains, also known as “distributed ledgers” or “digital ledgers”3, are used to keep track of economic transactions of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies; however, this technology has the potential to revolutionize far more than financial services.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies
The blockchain was invented by a person (or group) who goes by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto,” the creator of bitcoin.4 Bitcoin are a kind of digital currency that is exchanged directly between two people in a transaction; no bank is necessary as an intermediary.5 Bitcoin was invented in response to the 2008 financial crisis; the mysterious Nakamoto, whose real identity has not been established, published an essay outlining the problems of the traditional fiat currency and presented bitcoin as an alternative.6 When it was first released, bitcoin excited people because it offered the possibility to escape the credit bubble cycle that is a staple of traditional currency. However, financial institutions also keep track of every transaction to ensure that no dollar is spent twice, and clearly, with paper currency, you can’t keep reusing the same bill over and over. With digital currency, there was the potential issue of someone using the same bitcoin again and again. Nakamoto created blockchains to combat this issue. This innovative cryptography is so advanced that it has proven impossible to attack, leading many to believe that either Nakamoto is a complete genius or is the pseudonym for a team of advanced programmers and economists. However, it is unlikely that the true identity of this brilliant innovator will be publicly known anytime soon; after all, it makes sense to hide when it comes to experimenting with currency too publicly. After all, when Hawaiian resident Bernard von NotHaus produced and sold “Liberty Dollars” in 2009 he was arrested and charged for breaking federal law. Nakamoto’s anonymity allows him (or her, or them) to provide this astounding digital currency to the world without repercussion.
How it works
In the context of bitcoin, the blockchain serves as a database that holds the payment history of every single bitcoin, serving as proof of ownership.7 The blockchain is then broadcast to a network of thousands of computers, which are known as “nodes.” These nodes are all over the globe and publicly available. Despite how open it is, it is also incredibly secure and trustworthy. How is that possible? Through its “consensus mechanism.” This is how nodes work in tandem to update the blockchain in response to transfers from one person to another.
For example: Jill wishes to use bitcoin to pay Bill for his services. Jill and Bill both have their own bitcoin wallets, which is software that is used to store bitcoin by accessing the blockchain without identifying a user to this system. Jill’s wallet communicates with the blockchain, asking that her wallet loses bitcoin and Bill’s gains them. To confirm this, there are a number of steps the blockchain must go through. Upon receiving the proposal, the nodes work to check whether Jill has the bitcoin necessary to make this transaction. If she does, a specialized group of nodes called miners combine this proposal with other similar transactions, creating a new block for the blockchain. To do this, miners must feed data through a “hash” function, which simplifies the block into a string of digits of a certain length. This is a one-way process: while it’s simple for data to go to hash, hash cannot go back to data. While hash does not host this data, it is entirely unique to it. If a block is changed in any way, whether entirely or by a single digit, a different hash will result.
The hash is then put into the header of the block. This header is used for a mathematical puzzle that again uses the hash function. This puzzle can only be solved using trial and error. Miners go through the trillions of possibilities to look for the answer to this puzzle. Once a miner discovers this solution, it is checked by other nodes (while solving takes time, checking is a simple process), and the solution is confirmed and updates the blockchain. The header’s hash becomes the new identifying string of the block, and it is officially part of the blockchain. Jill’s payment to Bill is confirmed and reflected in their bitcoin wallets.
This method introduces three factors that ensure the security of bitcoin. The first is chance. There is no way to predict which miner will find the solution to the puzzle, so it is impossible to determine who will update the blockchain; this makes it difficult to trick the system. Next, the extensive history within the blockchain serves as security. Within each header, there the hash of the previous header, which contains hash from the one before that, and so it goes on to the very beginning. This is what composes the blocks of the blockchain. Therefore, making any change in any of the headers, even back to the earliest blocks, changes the subsequent headers. As the blockchain no longer matches the latest block, it will not be accepted.
Is there any way to cheat the system? Technically, but it is highly unlikely. Say Jill decides she wants to rewrite the history so that instead of the bitcoin goes to Bill, they actually stay in her wallet. If she knew how to mine well, she could potentially solve the puzzle and produce a new blockchain. However, in the time it took her, the rest of the nodes would have added more headers to the blockchain, lengthening it, because nodes always work on the longest version of the blockchain. This is to stop issues from occurring when two miners find the solution at the same time; with this measure, it just causes a temporary fork. This also prevents Jill from cheating the system. In order to get the system to accept her version, Jill would have to lengthen the blockchain faster than the rest of the system is working on the original. In order to do so, she would have to have control over more than half of the computers, making cheating pretty much impossible.
The final way the security of bitcoin is ensured is through incentives for the nodes. When a new block is forged, it makes new bitcoin. The miner who solves the puzzle earns 25 bitcoin, which currently is worth roughly 7,500 dollars.
However, as clever as this system is, bitcoin is still not an extremely attractive currency. Its value is unstable and the amount currently in circulated has been intentionally limited. However, the blockchain technology functions so well, it has created a lot of buzz about its potential uses outside of bitcoin. Clearly, there is great potential for this technology to disrupt the financial services industry. Blockchains will likely help improve existing processes, making them more secure, inexpensive, and efficient. Additionally, new products that are beyond what we can even conceive of right now will be invented, turning financial institutions on their heads. However, the applications of this technology go well beyond the world of banking.
In the world of defense, blockchains show promise due to their incredible security. Currently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking into ways to use blockchain technology to secure military systems and ensure safe storage of nuclear weapons, among other potential applications.8 Because blockchains are near impossible to hack, the military is interested in using this incredible technology to maintain the integrity of highly sensitive data, and has contracted computer security company Galois to verify a blockchain technology created by Guardtime.9 If the project goes well, blockchain technology could soon begin to be implemented into military technology. What is particularly attractive about blockchain is not only that it is nearly impenetrable, even if a hacker were to enter into a security military network, they would be unable to make any damaging changes to the code, as only authorized users can.10 This is ideal for military use as it would prevent anyone from being able to hack in and gain control over military satellites or nuclear weapons. Today, even if a hacker couldn’t gain direct control over a weapon, they could interfere with military communication without being noticed. This is why they are particularly interested in using blockchain technology to develop a new messaging platform that would allow for completely secure communications.11
Blockchains have clear applications for the financial services industry and the military, but it can also be used to enhance the experience of consumers. The widespread use of blockchain has the potential to enable a shared economy.12 A movement towards this can be seen through companies AirBnB and Lyft, but by enabling peer-to-peer transactions on a wider scale, blockchain technology could create a sharing economy that doesn’t require a middleman (and therefore, transaction fees). Consumers could also benefit from blockchain technology because they could have greater access to information about what exactly goes into their products. More and more, consumers want to verify claims companies make about their products, and through the transparency that blockchains create, it would be far easier to either verify or disprove lofty claims. This would mean that reputation would be more important than ever for businesses. Additionally, people will be able to feel more comfortable using the internet for financial transactions, as blockchains make identity management quite simple; by being able to verify identity online, both the business and the consumer can trust the transaction. This is truly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to commercial applications of this technology.
One place people are started to buzz about blockchains is in the world of governance.13 Blockchain could usher in an era where voter fraud and government corruption could be exposed through code. Traditional voting systems would have to be altered to be online, which would then ensure more transparency because it would hold the voting system accountable. Additionally, the extensive history that blockchains provide would prevent outright lies from being spewed by politicians, as there would be hard data to the contrary that everyone could accept; the public would be more intimately knowledgeable about the truth because the blockchains could serve as a built-in lie detector. It could even come to be that the decision-making process is streamlined through code, meaning necessary changes in law could occur at a much more accelerated pace.
Blockchain technology is set to revolutionize financial institutions, the military, the private sector, and the world. The potential uses of this technology are coming to light more each day as more industries become aware of the security and reliability of this technology. Though initially created for bitcoin, whichhas faced controversy and may not stand the test of time, blockchain technology has the potential to change the entire world.
Want to learn more about blockchain technology? Read further with these links below.
What is Blockchain Technology? – Blockgeeks
5 Ways to Invest in the Blockchain Boom – Investopedia
The Great Chain of Being Sure About Things – The Economist
Bitcoin Blockchain Technology In Financial Services: How The Disruption Will Play Out – Forbes
Block Chain 2.0: The Renaissance of Money – Wired