How do you call heads or tails on a bitcoin? Just as baffling: How much will bitcoin's distributed-ledger blockchain tech shake up every branch of commerce and government?
Quite a bit, if the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor's report is on target. The report begins by declaring, "Algorithms that enable the creation of distributed ledgers are powerful, disruptive innovations that could transform the delivery of public and private services and enhance productivity through a wide range of applications."
It's fun to visualize what tech trends the future of blockchain might produce—but that future might arrive sooner than you expect.
Understand the blockchain allure
The love affair with blockchain began with bitcoin. Unlike coins stamped at the US Mint, this cryptocoin is anonymous, decentralized, and not backed by a central authority or regulated by any agency. Investors saw bitcoin as a monetary utopia, and gangsters saw it as a vehicle for money laundering, terrorist financing, tax evasion, and fraud.
Shed of its cryptocoin cloak, the basic blockchain ledger consists of a digital record, or "block," encrypted and linked together with the blocks coming before and after it, creating a perpetual and tamperproof "blockchain." The tightly linked chain has no single point of failure, so hackers would have to attack the majority of blocks on the network at the same time to compromise it, rather than breaching just one server. For that reason, many experts see it as a big part of the future of data security.
The rush to the blockchain frontier is on. Here are a few of the first movers:
Pharmaceuticals can end the chaos
Counterfeit drugs—complete fakes, reduced dosages, original products that have expired, etc.—cost the pharmaceutical industry $200 billion annually. More importantly, patients are dying. The World Health Organization estimates that one in 10 medicines in poor countries are counterfeit and likely responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of children every year.
A pharmaceutical supply chain built on blockchain tech could slam the lid on counterfeit practices. The blockchain could provide a chain-of-custody log, tracking each step of the supply chain. Imagine the benefits of being able to trace every drug back to the origin of the raw material. The technology could also deter theft: If a drug shipment fell into a black hole, you could see who touched it last. Additionally, blockchain could address issues around regulatory compliance, provenance of raw materials, quality control during transit and storage, as well as improve data collection for clinical trials by providing researchers with secure, real-time patient data.
Autonomous cars can be taken miles ahead
Google put an autonomous car on the road in 2009, and more than a dozen other auto manufacturers, including Toyota Research Institute (TRI), have been working on their own versions. In January 2018, Toyota unveiled the Lexus LS 600hL test vehicle, equipped with radar, camera arrays, and LIDAR (or "light detection and ranging," which measures distances with pulses of light).
But TRI and its partners have set their sights on more than an autonomous car. Using the blockchain platform, they're hoping to influence an entirely new open mobility ecosystem. Businesses and customers would share the driving and autonomous vehicle testing data, manage ride-share and car-share transactions, and store vehicle usage information that could be used to set insurance rates.
Finance can finally be overhauled
"Blockchain has ignited curiosity among industries and sectors, especially in finance, and has been called 'the future of financial services infrastructure,'" states an article on Nasdaq. "While banks were among the first to hop aboard the blockchain bandwagon, stock exchanges—an integral part of capital markets—are quick to keep pace."
Goldman Sachs put the potential blockchain savings in stock trading at $2 billion in the United States alone and as much as $6 billion globally. Australia is leading the way, though: The Australia Stock Exchange (ASX) will become the first to use blockchain technology to clear and settle trades. It has been testing the system for more than two years. ASX expects the new technology to cut the cost of transactions while making them faster and more secure.
The navy can even use blockchain for 3D printing
Additive manufacturing, commonly called 3D printing, is pushing the production of critical pieces of military gear and equipment closer to deployed forces. Consequently, the US Navy Innovation Advisory Council (NIAC) is anxious to secure the integrity of 3D printing files, seen as especially vulnerable to cyberthreats and intrusions.
NIAC believes it has found a solution in blockchain technology, which can secure the entire data flow chain—including design, prototyping, testing, production, and disposal—thanks to its cryptographically secure, traceable, and immutable platform.
Humanitarians need the innovation
Blockchain is taking root in the world of humanitarian aid, too, and charities have begun experimenting with digital ledgers to offer refugees a virtual identity, reassure donors their money is well spent, and rush funds where they're needed most.
The Humanitarian Blockchain Summit, held in November 2017, delivered a packed agenda covering an array of topics, such as higher education (fighting credential fraud); global social entrepreneurship (bringing transparency to nonprofit and social efforts); sustainability (ensuring a green supply chain); United Nations (achieving its 17 sustainable development goals); biometric IDs (combating human trafficking); and more.
Blockchain tech has outpaced the traditional innovation rate of most finance tech trends. It's inspiring ventures to improve not only businesses but the lives of people around the world. With so many exciting developments just over the horizon, the blockchain future is looking bright.