You’ve most certainly have heard about the hype surrounding cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (BTC) hitting records for all-time highs and turning “imaginary” digital money into major assets for those who have invested in it.
A cursory online search and you will find many opposing viewpoints on the value of cryptocurrency—whether it’s a bubble, say, or if it’s the future of money. However, all this hype around cryptocurrency has caused a lot of people to look past the actual underlying technology: the blockchain.
Blockchain technology has a variety of applications beyond just cryptocurrency; it can be used in healthcare, supply chain management, and even cloud storage. Whether you think Bitcoin is an investment bubble that’s about to burst or if you believe cryptocurrencies are the future of finance, likely blockchain will continue to evolve into a technology we’ll all use in some form or another in the future.
Let's take a look at how blockchain technology could affect you in the not-too-distant future, even if you're not investing in cryptocurrencies.
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is a decentralized “ledger” technology—in extremely basic terms, a blockchain is a record of transactions. This record is visible and accessible by a decentralized, peer-to-peer network. Every time a transaction occurs, the network will either "agree" or "disagree" with it. If more than 51% of the network agrees the transaction has happened, then that transaction is permanently added to the blockchain and all nodes in the network will update to reflect that. This is why mining can be a profitable venture: a mining fee (or a small payment) is given in exchange for verifying and adding blocks to the blockchain.
The hashing function to encrypt the next block in the chain comes from the most recent block on the chain, which is hashed by the block before that, and so on. This aspect also makes it difficult to falsify blocks, since to successfully do so requires going all the way up the chain and having the network confirm it.
Blockchain infographic courtesy of BlockGeeks.
This also prevents double spending from occurring, since all nodes will see whether or not the block in question has been spent or not.
There is also a privacy aspect that affects cryptocurrencies. Each transaction in the blockchain is committed by someone using a pair of cryptographic keys: one that is public and acts as the identity of the user without giving away any actual information about them, and the other that is the private key which empowers the user to send cryptocurrency.
There are different flavors of blockchain technology which may have various features, but the core concepts are similar. This secure, decentralized record-keeping is what makes the blockchain such a novel and interesting concept.
Blockchain in Healthcare
So, if blockchain is so useful for privacy and information verification, how else can we use it?
If you work in the medical profession—or have had to deal with transferring prescriptions, medical information, or anything else between clinics and doctors—you will know it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile records. Often, health records are not stored on any sort of centralized database that can be accessible to any healthcare provider you see. This can be due to privacy regulations, lack of a consistent filing methodology, or a resistance to adopting electronic record keeping in general.
Blockchain is already being looked at as a possible solution for healthcare record keeping. For example, every time a patient checks in to see a healthcare provider, their visit could be recorded and added to the healthcare blockchain. An API used to update this blockchain could give permissions to different organizations on how much information people or institutions could see about each block. The patient’s full information could be restricted without that patient’s private key. Changes to each visit record could also be closely monitored and reviewed, and new information could be appended to the patient’s block. This would help prevent duplicate or incorrect information from being added. Essentially, a medical care blockchain system could provide solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing medical record keeping: privacy, consistency, and accuracy.
Blockchain could also be useful in tracking pharmaceuticals as they move from manufacturers to pharmacies to patients. It could even help organize information for customized care that's developed for a patient based on genetics and other specific factors.
Healthcare blockchain infographic courtesy of Deloitte.
Blockchain in Supply Chain Management
Because blockchain is so useful for record keeping, it isn’t surprising that it can also be a powerful tool for supply chain management. IBM is already offering blockchain supply management, including in partnership with Wal-Mart which conducted a pilot test of tracing the origins of produce.
In the pilot, they tracked the movement of food from the farm to the packaging plant, through shipping, onto the shelf, and then eventually to the consumer. The information that can be acquired along the way includes the origin of the food, how it was processed, how it was shipped, and how long it’s been on the shelf for. This would be valuable for manufacturers, engineers, marketers, and consumers alike.
Most importantly, this information would help manage food safety. In the event that there was information indicating some food might not be safe, it would be easy to identify exactly which food items were impacted and track where it had been delivered. It would also make it easier to identify what went wrong in the supply chain to make the food unsafe in the first place.
Blockchain in Cloud Storage
Currently, cloud storage depends on a centralized database or servers which you can sync with to manage your data. Because so much data is now being constantly moved and stored, there has been some interest in figuring out ways to move away from this centralized model. After all, a centralized cloud datacenter can be subject to slow access during pique traffic hours and data can be lost if something happens to the datacenter.
Blockchain cloud storage would use a peer-to-peer, distributed network to encrypt data and store it across nodes. This could speed up access and remove reliance on being able to connect to one single centralized entity.
As you can see, there are many ways that blockchain technology can be used. Even if you don’t believe in the cryptocurrency craze, there are still important features in the underlying blockchain technology that could impact many industries. Any industry that processes data, especially sensitive information that could require security, could see blockchain implemented in the near future. And if the IoT has taught us anything, it's that any industry can evolve to include data collection and processing.
What's your experience with blockchain? Where do you think it will be used in the future?
Feature image courtesy of MIT News.