A blockchain is essentially a distributed database of records or public ledger of all transactions or digital events that have been executed and shared among participating parties. Each transaction in the public ledger is verified by consensus of a majority of the participants in the system. And, once entered, information can never be erased. The blockchain contains a certain and verifiable record of every single transaction ever made. To use a basic analogy, it is easy to steal a cookie from a cookie jar, kept in a secluded place than stealing the cookie from a cookie jar kept in a market place, being observed by thousands of people.
Bitcoin is the most popular example that is intrinsically tied to blockchain technology. It is also the most controversial one since it helps to enable a multibillion-dollar global market of anonymous transactions without any governmental control. Hence it has to deal with a number of regulatory issues involving national governments and financial institutions.
However, Blockchain technology itself is non-controversial and has worked flawlessly over the years and is being successfully applied to both financial and non-financial world applications. Last year, Marc Andreessen, the doyen of Silicon Valley’s capitalists, listed the blockchain distributed consensus modelas the most important invention since the Internet itself. Johann Palychata from BNP Paribas wrote in the Quintessence magazine that bitcoin’s blockchain, the software that allows the digital currency to function should be considered as an invention like the steam or combustion engine that has the potential to transform the world of finance and beyond.
Current digital economy is based on the reliance on a certain trusted authority. All online transactions rely on trusting someone to tell us the truth—it can be an email service provider telling us that our email has been delivered; it can be a certification authority telling us that a certain digital certificate is trustworthy; or it can be a social network such as Facebook telling us that our posts regarding our life events have been shared only with our friends or it can be a bank telling us that our money has been delivered reliably to our dear ones in a remote country. The fact is that we live our life precariously in the digital world by relying on a third entity for the security and privacy of our digital assets. The fact remains that these third party sources can be hacked, manipulated or compromised.
This is where the blockchain technology comes handy. It has the potential to revolutionize the digital world by enabling a distributed consensus where each and every online transaction, past and present, involving digital assets can be verified at any time in the future. It does this without compromising the privacy of the digital assets and parties involved. The distributed consensusand anonymityare two important characteristics of blockchain technology.
The advantages of Blockchain technology outweigh the regulatory issues and technical challenges. One key emerging use case of blockchain technology involves “smart contracts”. Smart contracts are basically computer programs that can automatically execute the terms of a contract. When a pre-configured condition in a smart contract among participating entities is met then the parties involved in a contractual agreement can be automatically made payments as per the contract in a transparent manner.
Smart Property is another related concept which is regarding controlling the ownership of a property or asset via blockchain using Smart Contracts.
The property can be physical such as car, house, smartphone etc. or it can be non-physical such as shares of a company. It should be noted here that even Bitcoin is not really a currency--Bitcoin is all about controlling the ownership of money. Blockchain technology is finding applications in wide range of areas—both financialand non-financial. Financialinstitutions and banks no longer see blockchain technology as threat to traditional business models. The world’s biggest banks are in fact looking for opportunities in this area by doing research on innovative blockchain applications. In a recent interview Rain Lohmus of Estonia’s LHV bank told that they found Blockchain to be the most tested and secure for some banking and finance related applications.
Non-Financial applications opportunities are also endless. We can envision putting proof of existence of all legal documents, health records, and loyalty payments in the music industry, notary, private securities and marriage licenses in the blockchain. By storing the fingerprint of the digital asset instead of storing the digital asset itself, the anonymity or privacy objective can be achieved.