“The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet“. Those were the words of Tim O’Reilly, owner of O’Reilly, producer of many of the definitive books on software systems and associated conferences. His company’s Radar blog is also noteworthy for it’s excellent peeks into the future of high technology related products and services. One subject seems to pass it by, and I can’t help think the implications are much more significant than people really comprehend yet; that of the technology that sits behind Bitcoin (Bitcoin itself is but a small part of it).
The mechanics of Bitcoin are described in the original Satoshi Nakamoto paper here. Alternatively, an earlier introductory blog post from me.
The main truly disruptive innovation with much wider utility is that of a Blockchain. A public record that is stored across many hundreds or thousands of machines, in hundreds of different legal jurisdictions, but together forming a definitive record of activity without any central control. A sort of ledger that lives in the worlds commons, and operable in a way that ensures a single digital object cannot be “double spent”; only transferred between entities.
Much of the economic activity in the world is currently served by institutions who possess “choke points” through which activity is carried and who charge (in some way) at the gate. If I want to send cash to someone, I typically pay commission or transaction charges to a number of institutions to do so. There are many areas that could be unleashed when transaction costs tend to zero and the record of some activity is stored in a publicly accessible entity without any central control:
- Proof of Existence. One of the innovations of GIT (the Source Code Control System written by Linux author Linus Torvalds) is that every individual document/file is recorded in it’s database as a “hash”. When any piece of Digital material is passed through this piece of maths, the hash is a 8 byte “signature” that is effectively unique (the change of two random documents having the same hash is circa 1 in 83 million). So, you can immediately see, with very little comparison work, whether two documents are exactly the same or different. Manuel Araoz, a 25-year-old developer in Argentina, uses a blockchain to prove authoritatively that you had a specific document in your possession on a specific date, without having to publicly publish it’s content. The fact that electronic signatures can be part of the document being held (and hashed with the rest of its surrounding content) means that you have a distributed contract “system of record”.
- Namecoin. The current Domain Name System (DNS) is effectively the web’s telephone directory that translates memorable names (like www.bbc.co.uk) into the Internet Protocol Address(es) at which that web site resides (in this instance, 184.108.40.206 and 10 others). However, the central repositories where this information is stored can be systemically blocked or willingly corrupted by owners of the various choke points, or the governments under whom they operate from a legal jurisdiction perspective. Namecoin is an attempt to mirror the DNS in a widely distributed blockchain, with domain names ending “.bit”, and hence operationally difficult to corrupt or censor. Although I have no useful application for it at this stage, I have already registered “ianwaring.bit” to reserve my presence there.
- Music Distribution. Following a Kickstarter type model, would you like to buy shares in a specific musicians new song? That way, you’d see a return on your investment if it proved popular and you managed to help promote it widely to a bigger audience. Piracy in reverse! The Blockchain protocol does have the ability to run such Assurance Contracts (ie: this project is funded only if pledges of a specific value are achieved by a certain date, or annulled if the target is not met by then), so there are similar precedents for Venture Capital, or even what has to date been tax funded Government projects for the public good. I sometimes wonder how HS2 would do if the UK Government ran the whole thing as a Kickstarter project, and see if the beneficiaries were willing to put money where their political mouths are!
- Voting. One of the ultimate choke points where MPs act as a proxy for the voters in a geographic area they represent for a multi-year term. The act of multi-year elections is probably an edge case; it’d be more radical if I could choose when I want my MP to act as my proxy and when I wish to register my share of the decision making process personally instead. I somewhat doubt that folks currently in Westminster would wish to put their constituents in control of their own interests, despite how refreshing and re-engaged we’d feel as a result.
- Vendor Relationship Management. This is the ultimate result of Doc Searl’s work on VRM, where we ask commercial entities to bid for our business. Given the low or zero transaction cost, you could delegate a lot of the associated work to software agents if the product or service was a commodity. Like a Taxi or self-driving car, as given in this excellent 25 minute talk by Mike Hearn, an ex-Google employee (it is a great talk to listen to – not least the effect when some of the actors in transactions are machines themselves, complete with their own bank accounts and long term trade related decision making). Even Yelp, TripAdvisor or Social Media recommendations would be more plausible if subjected to the authoritative “someone I can trust” standards that the underlying technology can provide.
I’d thoroughly recommend this article on Business Insider, which does a great job of highlighting some of the possibilities.
There are many challenges ahead. Some regulatory (I hope Politicians and our Public Servants do act in our long term best interests, without being victim of the lobbying of interests rendered on the wrong side of , or distorted out of shape, by a drive for our mutual good). Some technology (things like Bitcoin will need improvements to bring down the current 10 minute delay to provide definitive authentication, and to handle an increase in Blockchain size to handle the transaction volumes currently seen by Mastercard and Visa networks). But the potential applications are dizzying both in number and of disruptive impact to everyone.
As Fred Wilson, notable VC, said recently: Let’s go back and revisit the big innovations on the commercial Internet over the past twenty years. TCP/IP, HTTP, The Browser, Search, Social, Mobile, Blockchains. Each one of those innovations drove an investment cycle. Our 2004 fund was built during social. Our 2008 fund was built during social and the emergence of mobile. Our 2012 fund was built during the mobile downturn. And our 2014 fund will be built during the blockchain cycle. I am looking forward to it.
Bitcoin (which I described in greater detail here) was only the start. The main challenge now is one of identity, and protecting it from interlopers. You have to keep your private key insanely private (even to the extent of keeping it off Internet connected machines), as that is your definitive personal identifier that someone else could use to masquerade as the real you everywhere online. At least until something can check your own physiology (it is really you), and your state of mind (you haven’t been sectioned, frail nor threatened), prior to any transaction being authenticated. Or is that what the Apple iWatch will be all about?