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The downside of blockchain
by Robert Hillard

Imagine an invention that deliberately wasted resources. Maybe a car that burns oil just to create smoke that is easy to see or an electric light that uses twice as much energy to avoid burning out. That’s exactly what blockchain is doing, consuming large amounts of electricity for no purpose other than making fraud prohibitively expensive.

I recently had the privilege of collaborating with my colleagues from the Australian Deloitte Centre for the Edge on a report looking into distributed ledgers and the blockchain technology. Reading the result, it is striking how far we still have to go to invent our digital business future.

As a quick reminder, blockchain is a technology to support the exchange of value or contracts in an environment where anonymity is important and no one is to be trusted. The best known application of blockchain is in the exchange of Bitcoins, a virtual currency.

Business models for the future

In recent years, all of the talk of digital business has been the creation of new platforms as the success stories, like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon, wield increasing power and value. Of course, platforms aren’t new, banks and credit card providers have long played this role in our financial services sector.

One of the big questions for the future of the internet is whether we want to see more platforms with trusted parties or do we assume the worst of everyone and “trust no-one”. The potential advantage of moving away from platforms is the “democratisation” of business.

Instinctively, there is a lot to like about democratising business and taking the power away from a few platforms. The problem is that such a move comes with a tremendous cost. There are good reasons why consumers tend to gravitate towards these providers who have scale, even when it might not align to their view of an ideal world.

The downside of blockchain

There are usually good reasons to be worried when any technology is over hyped and this has never been truer than with the excitement that currently surrounds blockchain. There are two fundamental challenges that are particularly worthy of highlighting:

The first is that it relies heavily on the cost of electricity and use of computing resources to protect against fraud. Don’t be fooled, blockchain can be hacked allowing fraudsters to gain access to the payload. The most common payload of blockchain, and the product with which it is synonymous, is Bitcoin. The safeguard on the payload isn’t that it can’t be defeated but rather that the cost of fraud in electricity and computing resources is higher than the payoff.

Motivating anonymous participants, “miners” to expend computing resources sits at the heart of Satoshi Nakamoto’s clever invention of blockchain. Of course, Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym with the real author or authors choosing to keep their identity a secret.

Christopher Malmo, writing on the Motherboard site estimates that each Bitcoin transaction uses the same amount of electricity as 1.57 households in a 24 hour period. That is not a function of the immaturity of the technology, it is a feature that protects transactions from fraud.

The second issue facing blockchain is that far from being open, it is the ultimate closed system. While no-one takes ownership of the data, it is deliberately encrypted in such a way as to make transaction details virtually unavailable for aggregation. That means many of the advantages that platforms provide are simply unachievable using an approach such as blockchain. Some of the platform capabilities that are lost include recommendation engines, transaction aggregation and fraud detection.

Potential roles for blockchain

Despite these challenges, blockchain is an incredibly clever solution. The challenge is finding the problem that it best solves.

Faced with the issue of openness or processing overhead, some organisations exploring blockchain have looked at closed communities where there exists a level of trust between the participants. This approach will allow some of the overheads to be reduced and models to be devised to share transaction information. The problem, however, is that once there exists at least some trust in the network it is likely that a platform model will provide greater functionality at a lower cost and complexity.

The strength of the technology comes in low volume, high value environments where no-one is able to be trusted and there are complex rules. This challenge exists when managing assets of many kinds in jurisdictions where there is little trust in the integrity of government or other holders of records. A related opportunity for blockchain may also be to support the trading of new types of assets where there isn’t yet regulatory support.

Maybe the future of blockchain is as a bridging technology while a community waits for a trusted platform.

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