Past the hype – is it time for a reality check on blockchain?

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We have probably passed the peak of blockchain and cryptocurrency hype. It doesn’t, however, mean that nothing is happening with the technology and market at the moment. But it does raise the question, are we now approaching real blockchain business and more stable crypto solutions? And what is the status of public and private solutions? Can we really count on the security of blockchain-based systems? Can we have a generic blockchain or is it more to have application specific solutions?

We are now hearing fewer fantasies about blockchain and crypto finance than a couple of years ago. This is a positive sign after the first peak of hype. At the same time, we can say that blockchain development hasn’t stopped. There are a lot of developments with the technology and a large number of pilot projects. 

Blockchain and crypto finance pilots include projects for supply chain, settlement, clearing, cryptocurrencies and voting models. There are also several projects including the tracking of coffee beans; smart contracts for beverage logistics; money transfers and international telco settlement. However, most of the pilots are quite limited, i.e. include a few parties that are committed to the pilot.

The real target of blockchain is to be a multi-party system without an authority. Some blockchain activists also see that real blockchain must be always an open system, but some others see that private closed blockchains can still be relevant and valuable for many needs. But whichever approach we take, it is very important to get from low number party pilots to systems that include multiple parties.

The next important target of blockchain pilots and PoCs (Proof-of-Concepts) is to get different companies and parties to work together with one system. It is technically an important step and really tests the capacity and technical compatibility of any solution. Just as important, if not more important, is that the blockchain and smart contract solutions should offer a non-authority, trustless system.

There is not enough proof of a pilot’s viability if it only includes a few parties that know and trust each other. For example, JPMorgan has talked about its own cryptocurrency, but many parties see it purely as a digital currency, because it is a private system that only works between a lender and its clients.

Many claim that it is hard, or even impossible, to have generic blockchain and smart contract solutions that can be used for all kinds of applications and contracts. It is felt that we need tailored solutions for different applications and business needs. Can we really expect blockchain solutions to take off with these limitations? 

Part of the complexity is that we have to create contract models with software, including special terms and conditions of the contracts in the software code. If we compare this to development of hardware and software solutions, one could claim that big breakthroughs happen only when it is possible to create layers for solutions, and properly isolate different layers and keep them generic. A clear layer model would also help with the security issues. If it is possible to use tested and better-known lower layers for contracts, then only the details and terms of the contracts would be case specific.

There has also been quite a lot of discussion about the security of blockchain solutions. Especially for voting and identity systems where one realistic threat is plutocracy. Parties that have enough money and resources can basically buy votes. There seems to be several ways to do this depending on the implementation of the voting system, but it still appears to be hard to prevent this with the existing solutions. This is definitely one area, where new solutions are needed.

A more acute threat now comes from 51% attacks – where a party can control enough (over half) of the computing capacity to mine a crypto coin and then basically create its own blocks. Only a few months ago this was seen mainly as a theoretical threat. A theoretical example touted was that some parties in China could coordinate such an attack in extreme situations. But now we have seen the first 51% attack on Ethereum Classic so it is no longer a theoretical threat!

This has led to the development of more advanced versions of the proof-of-work algorithms. This is taking solutions more towards proof-of-stake algorithms. It is quite typical in all systems, including critical financial systems, to have vulnerabilities and updates for the software are constantly needed. But with blockchain this is more complex, when it is impossible or hard to undo transactions. The solution, for example to return stolen money, is to rewrite history and go back to the point before the attack occurred and recreate all ‘legal’ transactions after that so that all parties agree on those transactions and create new blocks. It is also a complex legal and ethical question, if the community has the rights to rewrite history.

A strength and weakness of blockchain and smart contract solutions is that different parties can see and investigate the software core. It means different parties can also find potential bugs and vulnerabilities. If a party finds a problem, then it is up to this party, to determine how it wants to use the information, i.e. to either hack or improve the system.

The blockchain hype also included theories that blockchain had no security issues and could solve all the issues of traditional financial systems. Of course, this is a naïve belief. All systems have their issues. The positive side is that many developers and parties are already active in the blockchain community constantly developing improved solutions. However, as with any system, it is a continuous race between threats, problems and better solutions. But blockchain is different from traditional centralized systems, and the risks and new solutions are different, and different competence is needed to handle them.

Banks, stock exchanges, telcos, logistics companies and many startups are already working with blockchain solutions. Nothing, it seems, can stop this development path. As yet, we don’t know which blockchain solutions will make a real breakthrough and rule in the future. Maybe those solutions will be unlike existing blockchain solutions, or other distributed ledgers because computing and data are now distributed in many different ways. They must first solve the issues of existing solutions, especially getting from private pilots to multi-party transaction models. 

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