Researchers and technologists alike are talking about how blockchain technology is the next big thing across industries from finance to retail to even healthcare. According to Gartner, their client inquiries on blockchain and related topics have quadrupled since August 2015. This article attempts to provide a short executive summary on what blockchain technology is, how it works, and why has it captured everyone’s fancy.
First things first, what is blockchain technology?
Blockchain is the underlying technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Unlike physical currency, digital cash and cryptocurrencies come with a very real problem called Double-Spending. Let me explain what that is. When I email you a picture of my cat, I’m sending you a copy and not my original picture. However, when I need to send you money online, as much as I would love to send you a copy of it, it’s a bad idea if I really do that! With Bitcoin, there was a risk that the holder could just send copies of the same bitcoin token in different transactions, leading to double-spending.
Blockchain technology helps counter issues like double spending. The simplest way to think of blockchain is as a large distributed ledger of sorts that stores records of transactions. This “ledger” is replicated hundreds of times throughout the public network so it is available to everyone. Every time a transaction occurs, it is updated in all of these replicated ledgers so that everyone can see it.
Every time a new transaction is initiated, a block is created with the transactions details and broadcast to all the nodes. Every block carries a timestamp, and a reference to the previous block in the chain, to help establish a sequence of events. Once the authenticity of the transaction is established, that block is linked to the previous block, which is linked to the previous block, creating a chain called blockchain. This chain of blocks is replicated across the entire network, and all cryptographically secured which makes it not only challenging, but almost impossible to hack. I say almost impossible because it would take some significant computational power to even attempt something like that.
In the context of security, both transparency of the system and immutability of the data stored on blockchain comes into play. Immutability in computer science refers to something that cannot be changed. Once data has been written to a blockchain, it becomes virtually immutable. This doesn’t mean that the data cannot be changed – it just means that it would require extreme computational effort and collaboration to change it and then also, it would be very difficult to cloak it.
Blockchain technology can really be applied to not just a cryptocurrency like bitcoin but to any “asset” that can be stored, distributed or transacted – property titles, music, insurance, physical goods and assets, even your data.
This technology has great implications for the financial services industry as well. On implementing a decentralized database or a public registry like blockchain to verify the identities of all parties, no longer will we need to have our transactions stay “pending” for three days. Settlement would be instantaneous since the transaction and settlement would happen simultaneously once the ledger is updated. There are many such use cases.
Perhaps the biggest use of blockchain technology is in identity management, as described in this insightful TED talk by Don Tapscott.
According to him, as we go through our lives, we leave this trail of digital data crumbs behind us. These are then collected and created into a digital profile of us – which is not owned by us! If we were to reclaim our “virtual” data and take control over how much and who we give it out to, wouldn’t that be a great step towards helping us protect our privacy?
Blockchain technology can fundamentally change how we exchange value and perhaps that’s why this has caught everyone’s fancy. This is still in its nascent stages but definitely a technology that holds vast promise and something to watch for, in the future.