From fine wine to lotteries: Blockchain tech takes off

  • 29 March 2016
  • From the section Business
Crate of fine wine Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Blockchain tech could be used to verify fine wine deliveries, according to one start-up

Imagine a world where you can vote in an election with your phone, where you buy a house in a matter of hours, or where cash simply doesn't exist.

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.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Blockchain is the technology underpinning the Bitcoin digital currency

"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.

Image copyright OpenBazaar
Image caption OpenBazaar lets people sell directly to each other

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.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Some think smart contracts could speed up property purchases

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."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Smart contracts could cancel orders automatically if shipping conditions fall below standard

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.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Some developers are using blockchain platforms to run digital lotteries

"These new applications put users in full control over their data, privacy and funds, making possible an ecosystem of web apps that can be trusted... since the code powering these applications is transparently running on the Ethereum blockchain," he says.

There are developers on Ethereum creating all sorts of new projects, from lotteries to financial options exchanges, peer-to-peer home-produced energy trading platforms to games.

"From financial systems to governance systems and everything in-between, there is a brave new world awaiting to be imagined and built. I call this the crypto renaissance," says Mr Alisie.

Predicting the future?

One intriguing piece of software based on the Ethereum platform is Augur.

Sounding somewhat reminiscent of the Borg from Star Trek, it harnesses "the wisdom of crowds" - collective intelligence - to predict the outcome of future events.

"The goal is to create a global prediction market platform that would enable the expertise of anyone to be utilised in markets, creating what we believe will be the most accurate forecasting tool in history," says Tony Sakich, Augur's director of marketing.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Are there better ways of trying to predict the future?

Still in its development phase, it has now been released for Beta testing.

Of course, many of these blockchain start-ups may never get off the ground and some of the predictions for the technology seem far-fetched, to say the least. At Davos earlier this year, one head of a European bank thought blockchain could sound the death-knell for cash.

As venture capitalists pile in, increasing investment in blockchain-related firms from $3m to $474m (£335m) from 2011 to 2015, there is the risk of a dotcom-style bubble.

There is also the issue of diminishing network capacity - blockchain database management takes up a lot of computing power.

Blockchain boss Peter Smith has warned that the technology could "run out of rocket fuel before the ship reaches orbit", as complaints about slowing transaction speeds reach record levels.

That said, there is a lot of innovation going on and Peter Loop, head of innovation and disruptive technologies at Infosys Finacle, concludes: "Blockchain as a commercially viable technology remains on an unclear path.

"But it's coming quickly. It's not 10 years away. It's coming within a few years."

Follow Technology of Business editor @matthew_wall on Twitter.