Blockchain tech takes off

These are some of the scenarios being mooted by an increasingly excited blockchain community.

The technology that underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin is nothing new – it’s been around for decades. It’s just an encrypted database that’s distributed across a computer network.

But what makes it different is it can only be updated when everyone on that network agrees, and once entered the information can’t be overwritten, making it extremely secure and reliable.

And trust, as we know, underpins most business transactions.

“Blockchain, for perhaps the first time, presents a legitimate threat to the status quo,” says Terry Roche, head of financial technology research at financial advisory firm, Tabb Group.

The tech has spawned a new generation of start-ups looking to find new, related applications, from peer-to-peer lending to smart contracts.

No restrictions

For example, OpenBazaar is a way people can sell anything to anyone, anywhere in the world using bitcoins.

Unlike with eBay or Amazon, users don’t visit a website but download a programme that directly connects them with other potential buyers and sellers.

“Our goal is to unbundle the incumbent marketplaces around the world by offering a more private, secure and flexible option that isn’t controlled by any one corporate interest, but rather, by the users themselves,” developer Brian Hoffman tells the BBC.

According to OpenBazaar, cutting out the middleman means there are no fees, no restrictions, no accounts to create, and you only reveal the personal information you feel comfortable sharing.

The software is now in its testing phase and has been downloaded nearly 20,000 times in the last three weeks. Other decentralised marketplace concepts include Syscoin, which is also a digital currency.

Smart contracts

Another major development exciting the industry are smart contracts, programmes that can automatically verify that contract terms have been met, and, once that has been done, authorise payment – all in real time without any need for middlemen.

The results are then indelibly recorded in the blockchain database. Some believe – perhaps fancifully – that such contracts could remove the need for lawyers one day.

Companies like San Francisco-based SmartContract and Hedgy are already building businesses based on the concept, which could have applications in the financial, property and commerce markets.

By incorporating smart contracts with the “internet of things” (IoT) – smart devices hooked up to the internet – blockchain tech could have uses far beyond the financial sector, says Emmanuel Viale, a managing director of Accenture’s Technology Labs.

“You could have a wearable fitness tracker that would send the number of calories or steps taken to the blockchain. The data is encrypted and my identity is anonymised. The same with home medical devices,” he says.

“The Blockchain would create a link with health professionals – whether coaches, doctors or healthcare institutions – and the smart contract could trigger needed services – whether it’s a fitness regime or treatment for a chronic disease.”

In another example, start-up Hellosent thinks smart contracts and IoT devices could be used to monitor deliveries of fine wines.

Sensors would continuously measure the temperature and humidity of the wine in transit, then if either fell below agreed levels as recorded in the smart contract, the purchase would be automatically cancelled.

‘Crypto renaissance’

Some firms are even developing their own version of blockchain. Ethereum, for example, is a blockchain-based decentralised platform that developers can use to create their own applications, cryptocurrencies and virtual organisations.

Co-founder Mihai Alisie says giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Samsung have already started researching its possible uses.