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Blockchain World Congress: Taking blockchain beyond financial services

We recently attended the Blockchain World Congress conference in New York City. Bitcoin and implications for financial services were a major focus, but a lot of attention was dedicated to blockchain’s implications outside of the financial services realm, with multiple presentations and discussions around blockchain’s application in utilities, supply chain, health care and a wide range of other internet of things use cases. Blockchain is a distributed database technology that enforces security, trust and peer-to-peer exchanges of information (and of course, powers bitcoin). Some of the presentations and discussions were sci-fi, but some were realistic, and the most interesting ones are summarized below.

Shishir Vadhavkar, a director of industry solutions for Dell, gave an interesting presentation on a distributed computing experiment that leveraged blockchain. The goal was to find a way to utilize the combined processing power from IoT devices, many of which spend most of their time dormant. For example, he explained that Nest devices have powerful processors, but rarely use them; he said the same of ADT security cameras, which have decent compute capabilities, but only access them when something crosses their field of view. Dell wanted to see whether it could use this processing power when devices were idle, without compromising their necessary functions, and perhaps find a way to crowdsource distributed compute capabilities with demand, the same way that Amazon Web Services scales and distributes compute and storage as users require more. The solution was to create an auction place for computational power, where compute loads were sent to individual devices, and device owners received micropayments for their compute loads via blockchain-enforced smart contracts. Dell claimed a small pilot with this approach proved successful, and that it was considering how to scale the concept to create an enterprise-grade auction place for distributed compute (or as Shishir called it, a “distributed crowdsourced supercomputer”). Dell is considering use cases for freight contracts, commodities trading (focused on ag), and the sharing economy.

Iliana Oris Valiente, strategy and execution lead for Deloitte, provided another window into the use of blockchain in IoT — she leads a unit at Deloitte (Rubix) that specializes in building smart-contract powered decentralized applications, with expertise in Ethereum compliant infrastructure systems. She made a strong case for blockchain in electronic medical records (EMR), noting a pain around patients who move to new countries frequently and have trouble corralling records from years of previous medical care they’ve received. Her group is experimenting with the concept of leveraging blockchain to create a more decentralized medical system, where record ownership and control moves closer to the patient, rather than the medical enterprise. She mentioned that Deloitte is working with several large health care providers, several of whom are eyeing blockchain as an enabler for entering the EMR space. Beyond health care, she explained that she is working with several auto and pharma manufacturers to develop blockchain prototypes for supply chain and inventory management.

In addition to keynotes from industry leaders (those mentioned above, and several others) at Blockchain World Congress, numerous blockchain developers gave pitches and circulated product info at breakouts:

  • Loyyal is a loyalty and rewards program platform that helps enable loyalty program providers to collaborate using blockchain. The CEO explained that the average U.S. household has 22 loyalty programs, but is satisfied with less than 20% of them — he claimed that blockchain-enabled program collaboration and interoperability may improve customer satisfaction.
  • The International Blockchain Real Estate Association is a “nonprofit, member-focused trade organization dedicated to implementing bitcoin and related blockchain technology in real estate transactions.” The founder explained that the platform enables users to transfer value for real estate and publish ownership data on a public forum, making property tradable the way that stocks are tradable.
  • Blockchain of Things is a startup that has developed a solution for secure messaging, simplifying blockchain integration for enterprise industrial IoT sensors, devices, systems and applications. The platform allows decentralized systems and processes to communicate in a peer-to-peer way with each other with the assurance that the data can only be accessed by the intended receiver.
  • SolarCoin is a global rewards program for solar electricity generation, whereby generators of solar electricity receive one token of value (specifically one SolarCoin) for each MWh of solar electricity generated. The tokens can be traded and claimed, with a similar function to renewable energy credits.

There were a few schools of thought on the utility of blockchain technologies: many conference participants believed that blockchain was as revolutionary as the internet itself, and that it could solve virtually every problem in every industry. Others felt that most existing database approaches were entirely effective at solving most problems, and that blockchain was the best option for only a handful of specific use cases. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and the message that resonated with us is that blockchain is a promising development that will provide many valuable solutions, but that it is dangerous for stakeholders to take a blockchain-first approach, one in which they throw blockchain at everything. The right approach is to start with problems and apply blockchain where other methods have failed and where blockchain makes the most sense. This is a common risk whenever new technologies garner hype and press, and many venture groups and industry stakeholders will waste precious time and money getting sucked into inappropriate blockchain projects.

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