We’re now in the midst of another quiet revolution: blockchain, a distributed database that maintains a continuously growing list of ordered records, called “blocks.” Consider what’s happened in just the past 10 years:
- The first major blockchain innovation was bitcoin, a digital currency experiment. The market cap of bitcoin now hovers between $10–$20 billion dollars, and is used by millions of people for payments, including a large and growing remittances market.
- The second innovation was called blockchain, which was essentially the realization that the underlying technology that operated bitcoin could be separated from the currency and used for all kinds of other interorganizational cooperation. Almost every major financial institution in the world is doing blockchain research at the moment, and 15% of banks are expected to be using blockchain in 2017.
- The third innovation was called the “smart contract,” embodied in a second-generation blockchain system called ethereum, which built little computer programs directly into blockchain that allowed financial instruments, like loans or bonds, to be represented, rather than only the cash-like tokens of the bitcoin. The ethereum smart contract platform now has a market cap of around a billion dollars, with hundreds of projects headed toward the market.
- The fourth major innovation, the current cutting edge of blockchain thinking, is called “proof of stake.” Current generation blockchains are secured by “proof of work,” in which the group with the largest total computing power makes the decisions. These groups are called “miners” and operate vast data centers to provide this security, in exchange for cryptocurrency payments. The new systems do away with these data centers, replacing them with complex financial instruments, for a similar or even higher degree of security. Proof-of-work systems are expected to go live later this year.
- The fifth major innovation on the horizon is called blockchain scaling. Right now, in the blockchain world, every computer in the network processes every transaction. This is slow. A scaled blockchain accelerates the process, without sacrificing security, by figuring out how many computers are necessary to validate each transaction and dividing up the work efficiently. To manage this without compromising the legendary security and robustness of blockchain is a difficult problem, but not an intractable one. A scaled blockchain is expected to be fast enough to power the internet of things and go head-to-head with the major payment middlemen (VISA and SWIFT) of the banking world.
This innovation landscape represents just 10 years of work by an elite group of computer scientists, cryptographers, and mathematicians. As the full potential of these breakthroughs hits society, things are sure to get a little weird. Self-driving cars and drones will use blockchains to pay for services like charging stations and landing pads. International currency transfers will go from taking days to an hour, and then to a few minutes, with a higher degree of reliability than the current system has been able to manage.
These changes, and others, represent a pervasive lowering of transaction costs. When transaction costs drop past invisible thresholds, there will be sudden, dramatic, hard-to-predict aggregations and disaggregations of existing business models. For example, auctions used to be narrow and local, rather than universal and global, as they are now on sites like eBay. As the costs of reaching people dropped, there was a sudden change in the system. Blockchain is reasonably expected to trigger as many of these cascades as e-commerce has done since it was invented, in the late 1990s.