Without a doubt, 2017 was the year of cryptocurrency.
Drawn by the promise of huge returns, millions of investors around the world sunk their cash into this brand-new asset class, many of them amateurs with little or no understanding of the underlying blockchain technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible.
But, according to experts, this public lack of awareness is to beginning to change, and 2018 is shaping up to be the year in which blockchain comes to the forefront of public consciousness and its many uses showcased to the world.
Put simply, blockchain technology is a continuously growing and open digital ledger. While the technology is still, by far, most often associated with cryptocurrencies – most famously Bitcoin – the same technology is being applied to a dizzying array of other purposes, ranging from the healthcare sector to job seeking and even the distribution of humanitarian aid.
Speaking at the recent Dubai International Blockchain Summit, fintech professor, Forbes Technology Council member and TEDx speaker Sally Eaves – named by social media tracking company Rise Global as one of the most influential people in blockchain – believes 2018 will be a “year of transition” when it comes to public perception of blockchain.
“I think there will be less focus on the crypto and more on the underlying technology. Most importantly, people want to see real world applications, [not only] in financial services but far beyond that,” she says. “People want to see how this technology can benefit their daily lives, so there will be more of a focus on everyday applications from transport to health. They want to see tangibles.”
Among the reasons for the general lack of awareness about blockchain’s possibilities, Eaves notes, is that many people are still unclear what exactly it is. “The name isn’t the most helpful in terms of building awareness of what something is. It’s not obvious, and that’s a barrier,” she says. “But everybody in this space has a collective responsibility to break down the barriers and make it transparent. That’s key to this technology – we need to be transparent about what it actually is. It’s a question that comes up all the time. But I think the more we get the applications right and out there, that, by its very nature, solves that issue.”
When asked where she expects to see the practical applications of blockchain, Eaves answers without hesitation: health tech. In her own case, Eaves is currently involved in a project called Shivom, which seeks to collect massive amounts of genomic data which will be shared among stakeholders using blockchain technology.
“We’re going to see a lot of things that bring together the best in science innovation with blockchain as an underlying and paired technology,” she says. “Genomics and blockchain go very well together, in terms of sharing sensitive DNA data and using that with machine learning to develop patterns for research, to get better understanding of diseases, but also to give personalised advice so people can make better healthcare choices.”
Another example is UK-based service MedicalChain, which seeks to use blockchain technology to enable patients around the world to allow a chosen medical professional to access to their personal records, with the blockchain-based platform being used to ensure the secure and fast exchange of the medical data.
Notably, the use of blockchain in the medical sector is already picking up steam in the UAE. In 2017, UAE telecom company du and NMC healthcare announced plans to add a layer of security to electronic health records using the technology. “Today, [the] majority of heath records are on paper, such as blood test reports, x-rays, etc. Most hospitals don’t have shared access [to] patients’ records, which is inconvenient to the patient and time consuming at the end for the doctor or caregiver,” du’s chief new business and innovation officer, Carlos Domingo, said. “By digitising all health records, and putting them in blockchain technology, data can be shared and distributed across all hospitals.”
While the various potential applications of blockchain technology in the healthcare sector – which also include claims and billings management, drug development and supply chain integrity – are by no means common, data suggests that a significant portion of healthcare professionals around the world are already figuring out ways to implement them.
A 2017 study from IBM, for example, found that 16 percent of surveyed healthcare professionals planned to implement blockchain into their practices in a year’s time – while more than half (56 percent) said they planned to do so by 2020.
Among the most commonly advocated non-cryptocurrency uses of blockchain technology are decentralised “smart contracts”, which, essentially, automatically perform a certain function when pre-defined conditions occur. But what does this mean in practice?
Many industries have begun adopting smart contracts, or plan to do so in the near future. ConnectJob, a Gibraltar-based company, is currently working on plans to use blockchain technology to help facilitate the gig economy, building upon an already-existing centralised app that will soon be rolled out in several cities around the world.
“We aim to be the Uber of services. If you’re looking for a masseuse, you can find a masseuse. If you’re looking for a babysitter, you can find a babysitter. If you’re looking to find someone to cut your lawn or an accountant, you’ll be able to find them based on your geographical location,” explains Daniel Reynolds, partner success manager at ConnectJob. “Labour is moving to freelance. People are not working for companies the way that they have historically, and they need a way to market themselves, send invoices and get paid.”
While a number of other apps exist that can perform similar functions, Reynolds notes that ConnectJob does so using the blockchain as a platform, allowing users to exchange value directly without relying on a third party. Using an Ethereum-based smart contract, ConnectJob plans to create an escrow payment system to pay “jobbers” once a task is completed.
“Philosophically, we’re a blockchain company, and what we’re seeing with cryptocurrencies today is not the philosophy with which blockchain was born. Our philosophy is that ‘I earned a dollar today, and it’s up to me how I spend that dollar’. I should not have to pay someone to hold my money, or to take my money back, or to give it to someone else,” Reynolds adds. “We know there are 2.9 million people that don’t have access to a banking system, and the future is not getting them a bank. The future is making them their own bank.”
In the UAE, companies, particularly start-ups, are increasingly looking to smart contracts to facilitate their operations. In October 2017, UAE-based start-up WaveX – a renewable electricity and peer-to-peer solar panel financing platform – became the first local company to adopt the smart contracts and development studio of ArabianChain, a UAE-based blockchain start-up.
“As the field is rapidly evolving, many far-sighted start-ups and organisations in the region are already exploring the potential of blockchain to not only enhance their capabilities, but also process transactions and exchange information in effective, secure and reliable manner,” says ArabianChain CEO Mohammed Alsehli. “This is central to the UAE Blockchain Vision which aims to reduce approximately 100 million paper transactions annually.”
Increasingly, blockchain technology is also being put to work confronting the various humanitarian crises that the world faces today. Among the best examples is 2017’s successful test of a UN World Food Programme (WFP) project designed to help Syrian refugees living in Jordan by providing them with cryptocurrency-based vouchers that could then be redeemed for goods such as olive oil, pasta and lentils. More than 15 other UN agencies are also experimenting with the technology.
According to Yoshiyuki Yamamoto, the special advisor for UN engagement and blockchain technology at the UN’s Office for Project Services, the decentralised ledger technology of blockchain has the potential to eliminate many of the problems that plague humanitarian efforts around the world, such as duplication, wasted resources and “the age old problem of corruption”.
“From skimming money from the top of aid funds, to demanding kickbacks, to re-directing aid funds entirely, common forms of corruption are almost impossible to perpetrate on a blockchain,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Anonymity can be maintained, which is not new in the sense that much of the currency used today isn’t tied to the name of users. Also, an individual user’s privacy can be better protected from a third party’s intervention, be it a centralised authority, a bank, or criminal usage in a blockchain.
“Even though it’s in its infant stage, the momentum for blockchain technology in the UN system is growing. The potential benefits far outweigh the risks,” he adds. “Blockchain could not only make aid distribution more efficient. It could change the way we approach international assistance for the better.”
According to Mohammed Alsehli, the potential of blockchain has been given a boost by the government’s Dubai Blockchain Strategy – an ambitious roadmap to use the technology to improve efficiency, go paperless and eventually shift all government services to the blockchain.
“It’s done a lot [in terms of awareness]. These kind of mass scale changes don’t just happen in a day and a night, if just the small people are trying to make it work,” he says. “But when the head of the system [referring to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] comes in and tells you we’re adopting a new thing, it’s different.”
“As they say,” he adds, “why wait for the future when you can just design it, make it and implement it?”
The technology was a major talking point at the World Economic Forum
The recent World Economic Forum in Davos included dozens of sessions on the potential uses of blockchain, ranging from remittance payments to the use of blockchain in human rights advocacy efforts and in providing proof of land ownership. Among the “real world” applications of blockchain unveiled was the Canadian government’s announcement that it will partner with Accenture to test a blockchain-based traveller ID scheme that “utilises biometrics, cryptography and distributed ledger technology to give travellers control over, and the ability to share their information with authorities in advance of travel for expedited clearance.”
Other applications discussed at WEF were the use of blockchain-enabled scanning of tuna packaging to reveal when, where and how the fish were caught in a bid to enforce sustainable fishing practices, and the use of blockchain to reward recycling with crypto tokens as part of programmes such as “Recycle to Coin” and “Plastic Bank”.
Additionally, at the event George Soros noted that blockchain can be used to help “migrants to communicate with their families and to keep their money safe and carry it with them.”
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