Why blockchain is kinda cool

I sometimes get asked to explain what blockchain is all about and I go, “Hmmm”. Then I explain that if a consultant said blockchain, then run screaming from the room!

The term Blockchain is simple enough. It is just atomic data blocks that have a cryptographic signature to the previous block. The cryptographic signature chains them together to the first block which is called the genesis block. The chain of blocks proves what order they are in and each additional block shows how much effort was put into creating a ledger. The most famous blockchain these days is Bitcoin but there are a number of projects out there based on blockchain technology. The second rated blockchain is called Ethereum and it implements smart contracts that could replace standard lawyery contracts. It can also administer those contracts automatically as defined by the contract programming.

Most people think of Bitcoin and blockchain as some sort of magic internet money free from governments. That is mostly true. But the true magic is that these systems are decentralized and controlled by no one. That enables a number of non-currency applications. One that Ethereum is famous for is ICOs (or Initial Coin Offerings). In reality, Initial Coin Offering is a dumb name because you’re issuing a token that is akin to a share of stock and not a coin at all. Which means you can issue stock in your company without involving a bank, stock exchange, etc. Most of the recent ideas about blockchain are about replacing current financial functions (aka Bank in Your Pocket). That’s great but what happens when we look at other areas.

Right now big corporations have control of all your personal information but what if you could control all your information online and only give them cryptographic proof that the information exists but the actual data to a third party (like Facebook or Google). Instead of that information being stored on a central server that can get hacked (looking at you Equifax), you could store it on a decentralized blockchain where you control private keys that secure the information. Due to fact that you control this store of information, it becomes your defacto identity online. This identity could be a person or it could be an organization like a business. This to be a completely anonymous identity or you could link it to an email or phone number to become a public identity.

Now that we have established this unique decentralized identity what can we use it for? One idea that gets tossed around is voting online without political/government interference. An organization could publish a national or international referendum and everybody could freely vote on the referendum or delegate that vote to another identity for this issue (say you trust a scientific organization that will research the issue completely and vote accordingly). You can also use this new identity to cryptographically sign something published online. Let us say you publish a video on youtube and you cryptographically sign it before you upload it. It works both ways, if it has the signature then anybody will see that you authentically published it but if somebody takes your video and alters it then the signature will be destroyed. In the age of deepfakes, this could go a long way to determine what is real or a fabrication.

There are many more applications for blockchain and a lot of great people putting forth ideas for disruptive applications. Check out Andreas Antonopoulus (@aantonop) for great talks on the subject.

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