The blockchain, which was invented in 2008, remained in the relative obscurity of financial circles for a long time, along with its flagship, the bitcoin. Its heralded revolution is deciphered today. But just what are we talking about ?
If we must be tolerant of ambiguity, then so-called blockchain technology is meant for the apostles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Simply because non-one yet knows all the possibilities and consequences of its various possible uses.
So just what is the blockchain? It is defined as a computerised mechanism that can be used to transfer and save all the exchanges between the parties on the same network, who do not know one another, in an ultra-secure manner and independently of any central authority. The objective harks back to the beginnings of the free and united internet, where invisible operators would be replaced by a system of control distributed between the users themselves.
So is it a genuinely innovative technology, which is shaping up to change our socio-economic ecosystem, or just a passing trend that will vanish as slowly as it appeared? Abir Oreibi, Director General of the Geneva Lift Conference, the big European meeting of virtual start-ups and web visionaries in February 2016, showed a good sense of timing when she stated that “Something is happening, but we don’t know exactly what”. Vivek Wadhwa, professor at the prestigious Stanford and Duke universities in the United States, and a columnist in the Washington Post, reacts to the phenomenon.
IÑfluencia: Every year, a new technology arrives that will change the world. In most cases, this doesn’t happen. Three months ago, you said yourself that the blockchain will have a huge impact on our societies and our lives. You can you justify the predictions made by yourself, and others, of a blockchain revolution?
Vivek Wadhwa: A trend is clearly emerging, in which technologies progress exponentially and converge, making the extraordinary quite possible. Many technological advances are occurring at the same time and it is difficult to always choose the winners. But the possibilities of the blockchain are infinite. Beyond the controversial bitcoin, which gained in credibility in 2015 with retailers such as Overstock.com, the blockchain has now become the foundation of around one hundred innovations that are fuelling its development. But the blockchain is not only useful for finance. It is like a grand ledger of accounts that can be used to store just about anything that can be digitalised: birth, death and marriage certificates, deeds of property, official acts, qualifications, contracts, votes, health records, etc. The blockchain has the potential to transform the lives of billions of people who, today, do not have access to the legal and administrative infrastructures that we take for granted in developed countries.
IÑ: As you have already said, the blockchain forms the basis for the creation of technologies that are linked to it. Is this the reason why, for a vast majority of people who are not experts, it remains misunderstood and is perceived as a weapon of the darknet?
VW: People do not understand the difference between the bitcoin and the blockchain. General opinion will become clearer once more digital currencies and products implemented on the blockchain have been created. In its current form, the bitcoin blockchain faces a number of problems: it is not controlled or regulated, it is exposed to serious fluctuations in prices and has acquired a bad reputation because of all those who have used it without any ethical standards. Moreover, mining bitcoins consumes a lot of energy and its design is imperfect. Version 2 of the bitcoin may turn out to be a much better solution. The blockchain has a huge potential to create new currencies that are better controlled. If you consider the development of the web, many of the initial players did not last long and the tools have progressed immensely. The same is true of the blockchain.
IÑ: Exactly. Would it be right to say that the blockchain in 2016 is comparable with the internet at the beginning of the 1990s?
VW: Yes. That is a good way of describing it. Now, we have a new platform, on which we can build new solutions. We cannot even imagine the possibilities. There will be many failures and a few successes that, I repeat, will change the world.
IÑ: In a column in the Washington Post, you wrote that the blockchain is “incorruptible”. What exactly do you mean?
VW: I mean that it is difficult to hack and manipulate. Every user keeps a copy of the registry and it is difficult to make changes to the history of transactions. Even if it will be more complicated for them, governments and organised crime will obviously break into it. Every technology has a good and a bad face. People and companies misuse the internet to make ill-gained profits, spread viruses and spy on others.
The blockchain is not only useful for finance. It is like a grand ledger of accounts that can be used to store just about anything that can be digitalised.
IÑ: Will the blockchain ultimately become the perfect expression of our connected society?
VW: While I like your concept very much, society is much more complex than a distributed registry. To be quite honest, I still do not under the implications of its constructions and developments myself.
IÑ: We have already seen how brands, banks and even city and state authorities are interested in the blockchain. Is this good news for the general public, and does it herald the end of its original ideology?
VW: Here again, it just like with the web, which some people started using it in an innovative way. The same will apply to the blockchain and its successors. It is not the ultimate technology. It is a springboard towards other new future technologies.
IÑ: But can’t you see any dangers in the thousands of different ways to use the blockchain?
VW: I can see the same risks as for other technologies. When they are misused, they can all have a dark side. The problem here, is that if you lose the key, there is no other way of unlocking the padlock. Even our banks have the means to protect their customers and their money, using passwords and websites that can be reset at any time. But how can you do this with the blockchain? Who can you go to for help? And, contrary to what I have already heard, the blockchain is not the only digital control lever of its data for the public. It is just an implementation.
IÑ: to misquote Abraham Lincoln, if I said that it is “the technological democracy of the people, by the people and for the people”, would you agree? And don’t you fear pernicious misuse by major corporations in the near future?
VW: The blockchain is a force for democracy, because it does away with an intermediary and enables digital contracts to take effect. But yet again, non-one yet knows how it will be used: for good or for bad. This is how technologies evolve: they progress quickly, they are used to do things that even their creators never thought of, then they are overtaken by other technologies.