When the world has gone corrupt, who can you trust? Blockchain is stepping up. The word might ring a bell for its connection with Bitcoin, but internet pioneer Brian Behlendorf is looking at this technology beyond its use in cryptocurrency. Blockchain is an open ledger system where transactions are irreversibly recorded and immediately shared to a distributed network of witnesses (companies, agencies, individuals). The beauty of this idea is in its decentralization—if no one person or institution holds power, then that power cannot be abused. The potential for this technology is enormous: it could significantly lower corruption and eliminate fraud in many industries like banking, freight, construction, and even trace the provenance of goods like diamonds. “Blockchain technology allows us to build these same kind of systems but in a world where we don’t want to or we can’t trust central actors,” says Behlendorf. Here he describes how a blockchain system is being used to protect civilian land titles in developing nations, and demonstrates how blockchain could have prevented or severely lessened the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.
Transcript: What are the strengths of the blockchain technology? The strengths are that we can take many business processes today—and by business processes you might even include land titles and buying and selling a home, you might include provenance tracking of products like diamonds and food supply, that sort of thing. One of the real strengths is being able to take these systems that today depend very much on bureaucracy and paperwork—very human processes for sure, but processes that get bogged down—and actually automate them and cut the cost of a lot of this, but also, by automating them, improve the auditability of them.
People pay a lot of money to have third-party auditors come in and make sure that the claims that are in their books are actually real. It’s a tremendous burden and it’s why bureaucracy often requires three signatures to do anything interesting. To send a shipping container, for example, from Asia to the United States, about half the cost of that is in the paperwork involved in coordinating between 20 to 30 different organizations for sign off, from the biller materials all the way to the person it’s delivered to.
If blockchain technology can help us automate these systems, make them more efficient, it may also ensure that we keep the opportunities for fraud and the opportunities for corruption to a minimum. If we make it hard to steal people’s land, or to ship illicit product in shipping containers—or simply in approving a permit for construction on your home, holding that up for days or months until you pay me an expediter fee—which all too often happens in home remodeling—if we can make these processes a bit more automated, more transparent, then I think we can do a lot to improve society in these ways.
And that kind of wraps together two or three different advantages of this. The other advantage is: it’s a fun space to be in. There’s a lot of dynamic thinking going on, a lot of new companies, a lot of technologists talking about very far-off concepts, and it’s finally a place to get people excited about technology, especially as it is so much about decentralization.
What are the challenges? One of the challenges right now for sure is that it’s early days with the technology. There are a couple of places where there’s clearly a lot of value being created, there’s clearly a lot of activity, say, in the cryptocurrency space, but in many ways, again, like the early days of the web we don’t yet know what the big winners will be from the technology, but we know that this is something everybody will need in one way or another.
So the challenge right now is that there are a lot of options, and many of them are fairly immature when it comes to actually building and running them for big systems. That’s one reason we’ve chosen, at Hyperledger, to focus on: what are the simplest things we can do now and ship out as product that people can use that they can actually run?
And the second thing is really understanding that—and this is really hard for many industries and many actors in industries—every use case I could give you around where blockchain technology is applicable, you could always come back to me as a technologist and say, “Wouldn’t this be more efficient, faster, cheaper to do as a central database?