Blockchain -- what it is and why breaking down its barriers will unleash untold potential in ... everything

Not since the Internet itself has a technology shown such promise and elicited such excitement as blockchain. It is predicted in the next few years, much of our digital consumption will be run via a blockchain foundation without us even realizing it.

But more often than not, when I am speaking with CEOs of Fortune 500 enterprises or Members of the UK Parliament or even mainstream media – the core question that keeps coming up is what exactly is it and why should I care?

Blockchain was invented in 2008 to be the public ledger for bitcoin because of its inherent security advantages.  Information on a blockchain cannot be manipulated.  Blockchains are not centralized. Information is shared across users so there is not a vulnerable place for hackers to attack.

Each block in a chain is a standalone unit users cannot go back and alter.

In terms of the implications of this technology, FedEx Chief Executive Officer Fred Smith said at a blockchain conference in New York just last month: “We’re quite confident that it has big, big implications in supply chain, transportation and logistics. It’s the next frontier that’s going to completely change worldwide supply chains.”

While the potential of blockchain technology might seem endless and the time for mass adoption is now, barriers remain, particularly with regards to interoperability and formal standardization.

A fundamental problem is that blockchain is being developed in a proprietary, isolated way.  

In the 1990’s, online service providers created their version of the Internet, but users could only see content they provided. It was only when the networks were modified to communicate that the Internet flourished.

As it stands now, blockchains on different networks are unable to communicate with one another. That’s a big deal.

For example, in the not too distant future, self-driving cars will be common.  If one car company builds its technology using a blockchain from X, and another car company builds its technology using Y, the two cars will be unable to communicate, and that failure will have dire consequences.

The lack of interoperability also creates risk for businesses and hinders widespread usage.  Once a business starts on a system, it is effectively locked in.  IF they start at all – given the isolated way in which this technology is being built it is leaving enterprise decision makers confused and uncertain as to which technology to adopt.

For us to fulfill the tremendous potential of blockchain technology, we must achieve interoperability. 

I am now leading a team to create what we call an “Overledger” that will serve as a meta-gateway for the various blockchains available. The platform will ensure effective communication among the various options.

This will unleash the creativity of programmers by allowing them to design applications that can function across all blockchains.

To address standards, I founded the Blockchain International Organization for Standardization (ISO) project that now has 46 countries working together to develop practices by 2020.   Partners include companies such as Sony, IBM and Microsoft, multiple startups, academia and governments around the globe.

We recently hosted a meeting in London on ISO standards with the highest turnout so far with 300 attendees from more than 40 countries. 

This is exciting for someone who has been working on cybersecurity issues for 20 years, protecting governments and companies from threats.  I am also the Chair of DLT1, the United Kingdom’s national committee on blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.

In addition to the security benefits of blockchain, it also has the power to connect data and therefore optimize the efficiencies of any endeavor.

For instance, when I worked for Australia’s Department of Health, I saw firsthand what blockchain information-sharing could do to enhance patient care. Many important challenges in the health care industry stem from how inefficiently and ineffectively data is shared from organization to organization, jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  It is hard to connect the participants in a large health care network.  By fixing that, we can literally save lives.

Blockchains also can be an important tool in the fight against opioid addiction, by providing the global supply chain with the transparency needed to track the drugs.

What’s more, blockchains are going to revolutionize financial services transactions.  I recently served as the Chief Information Security Officer for a Mastercard company. Mastercard is firmly committed to identifying and implementing a blockchain strategy, and I’m looking forward to continuing our collaboration.

And supply chain management will be transformed by interoperability that enables companies to immediately interact with numerous blockchains and better manage modern complexities.

Government regulators will benefit as well when it comes to enforcing compliance by being able to see across multiple blockchains. 

The promise of blockchains, once they are connected, is profound.

In the 1990’s, online service providers created their version of the Internet, but users could only see content they provided.  Proprietary networks like Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL couldn’t connect and have interoperability between them.  It was only when the networks were modified to communicate that the Internet flourished. 

Enabling cross-chain communications - including the recognition and transfer of transactions - is not dissimilar to opening borders to allow for international trade.  It will usher in a new era of digital economic growth and prosperity not unlike the industrial revolutions of the past.

Policy makers should embrace the mass adoption of blockchain technology as the questions of standards and interoperability are answered.

When blockchains are able to fluently converse with each other, we will have the opportunity to harness the full power and potential of…everything.

Gilbert Verdian is the CEO of Quant Network, and founded the International Standards Organization blockchain effort in 2015.  Verdian is also the Chairman of the UK’s national committee on Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies  (DLT/1). A 20 year Cybersecurity veteran, he has been tasked with protecting countries and governments around the world.  He received the Cyber Security Awards CISO of the Year in 2017.