With bitcoin hovering around the $20,000 mark throughout December, “cryptocurrency” might just go down as the word of the year for 2017. Bitcoin and other decentralized currencies like Ethereum and Litecoin are climbing fast and attracting investors on both the individual and commercial scale. But despite thousands of new players hopping on board each day, consumers overall are still very skeptical.
Many people anticipate that the “bitcoin bubble” will burst any day, making investments in the currency worthless. However, the digital currencies themselves are not the only investment opportunities here. The blockchain—the payments technology undergirding these cryptocurrencies—presents the opportunity to revolutionize payments regardless of Bitcoin’s long-term viability.
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What is Blockchain?
A blockchain is a decentralized transaction ledger shared across a peer-to-peer distributed network. That sounds complicated, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Try to imagine the blockchain as being like Google Sheets—anyone with the link and permission can access a spreadsheet. Likewise, anyone running the blockchain software can access the ledger and record transactions. The ledger is automatically updated across the network to reflect changes, but any update must be approved by consensus of the machines involved in the chain.
Looking at payments, this differs considerably from existing centralized networks like an automated clearinghouse model. ACH payments need to be reconciled with the records of each individual party, opening the door for errors in recordkeeping. Plus, all the back-and-forth between multiple parties means there is always a level of redundancy inherent in the centralized payment process.
Blockchain makes it possible to enable faster, more efficient, and more accurate transactions of information. The transparency blockchain offers can lead to greater consumer trust in the system while simultaneously reducing the cost of administration and time needed to clear each transaction. Perhaps most importantly, the blockchain’s decentralized approach to reconciliation makes it very difficult for hackers and other criminals to breach.
It’s Not a Perfect Answer
Of course, blockchain technology is not completely foolproof. While its decentralized nature can minimize the risk of a security incident, that same decentralized, largely-anonymous model is what attracts criminals.
Hackers have attacked cryptocurrency exchanges in the past. If hackers can access the systems on which digital tokens are stored, they can steal them. Then there’s the possibility of a so-called “51% attack.” No one has ever pulled-off such an attack, but it’s still theoretically possible, and the consequences would be disastrous, jeopardizing the existence of the blockchain. These factors underscore the real problem: we don’t really know what would happen, and the uncertainty about it causes issues for consumers and institutions alike.
Uncertainty breeds skepticism, and the blockchain model is largely untested outside cryptocurrency, which means there’s plenty of uncertainty to go around. Blockchain’s perception isn’t helped by the dubious reputation of cryptocurrency as a concept. In many peoples’ imaginations, bitcoin is closely associated with stories about drug sales, terrorist funding, and other criminal activity carried out via the dark web. It will take a sustained effort to help blockchain technology shake that image.
Despite those concerns, blockchain still has applications in many business sectors that are too promising to ignore. Just a few examples include:
We’re already seeing banks venture into small-scale blockchain adoption. I think of these first experiments as proofs of concept; demonstrations of the potential for blockchain as a tool beyond cryptocurrency. Banks could save up to $20 billion a year by eliminating redundancies. Customers, in turn, would benefit from instantaneous payments clearing and removing bank errors cause by back-and-forth ACH payments.
Blockchain can be a vital asset to ensure the integrity and efficiency of elections. Rather than the current system, which is complicated and requires manual review to verify, adopting blockchain can make it an instantaneous process. Keeping voter information in the blockchain could also relieve concerns about hacking, fraud, or other issues in the current system.
Blockchain can relieve concerns about medical recordkeeping. Everything from worries about potentially life-threatening mix-ups to the loss of vital personal information can be minimized with blockchain technology. This will have the added benefit of greater efficiency in providing care, helping patients see doctors and get the care they need faster, while also reducing costs and complications with insurance.
Inventory and supply chain tracking is a major pain point for retailers, but blockchain technology may be able to help resolve that. The blockchain also has applications in market analysis, and tracking performance of different products, regions, or industries. Businesses could be more responsive to customer interest by weeding out products that do not sell and replacing them with products that do.
We Need to Help Consumers Understand Blockchain's Value
Blockchain technology has the power to revolutionize how we do business and store information. Early adopters understand it’s value, but most consumers are not yet sold on the idea. We need to push for greater education and understanding of the tool at our disposal to bring consumers on board. It’s not enough to “preach to the choir;” those who refuse to even consider blockchain are the ones to need to hear this information most.
We’ll see, though. With several banks around the world already looking into how they can incorporate blockchain into their operations, maybe a positive test case can help win some people over.
About Monica Eaton-Cardone:
Monica Eaton-Cardone is an entrepreneur and business leader with expertise in technology, e-Commerce, risk relativity and payment-processing solutions. She is COO of Chargebacks911 and CIO of its parent company Global Risk Technologies.