Everyone talks of it having been “a few years already” since they have been into crypto and / or blockchain, I could too, and it wouldn’t even be an outright lie, but I’ll be straight with you. Here’s how I got involved.
It was my son, 16 at the time, who started pestering me about crypto-mining in mid-2016. I was slow to get up to speed, and it took almost six months to fully understand what he was talking about so I could have my own Eureka moment, realising that blockchain really would change the world.
We didn’t get the mining rig up and running until May 2017 and just over a year on, the rig has paid for itself (€3,5k) and the power with even a token profit. But it is only barely profitable at the moment, mining ether, and as we’re going through a heat wave here in Paris, I’ve temporarily turned it off, unfortunately along with the full bitcoin node we run.
In the last two years, I’ve become an aficionado of Andreas Antonopoulos and follow a bunch of other YouTubers on Blockchain and Crypto spending an hour or two each week clicking from video to article to website. Beyond the coins we mined, I’ve set up a small crypto portfolio with a friend currently performing at -15% after having reached a height of +300% in January.
I’m involved with a few startups working with the Blockchain (it seems the jury is still out on whether you need a ‘the’ in front of the word blockchain), helping them with my modest knowledge, but more often learning from them. I have started public speaking on the Blockchain’s significance in some verticals, e.g. advertising and blockchains.
The blockchain and crypto conference scene is so crowded that it’s hard to decide which conference to invest time into. I ended up going through my network as Blockchain Expo is organised by Ian Johnson who I used to work with at the very beginning of IPTV World Forum series, too long ago to remember.
Preamble on the importance of Smart Contracts
I had coffee before the start of the show in Amsterdam with a guy from one of the big sports apparel companies, the one obsessed with Greek gods, that hasn’t given me the authorization to mention them. He enthusiastically told me he’d come to the show to get an update on the latest logistics projects using the blockchain. He explained how the current end-to-end lifecycle, from sports shoe production to final delivery, is addressed by multiple stakeholders that each run their project from their data. Smart Contracts, he explained to me, turn the whole process into a single project, with a unique data-set, from factory to last-mile blue-bike delivery from store to home. But even just for inventory management, he was excited that blockchain technology will improve things as the warehouse manager would now know precisely when ordered items would actually turn up. He pointed to the example of Israeli customs who insist on detailed descriptions of all components of anything entering the country. When leather is, for instance, involved, they even need to tell them what kind and where it’s from. For products that have a digital twin on the blockchain, that’s a quick and easy problem to solve. In another example, he told me that he hopes to get logistics blockchain-enabled in-time for next March — maybe + 2 years — because Brexit threatens to add 9 hours at customs, otherwise killing any same-day delivery options.
Impressions from the trade-floor and snippets from the conference
Despite assurances to the contrary, one could sense that Bitcoin’s price, hovering around 6k USD weighed on people’s minds, especially when they were asked about their (usually impending) ICO. There was no sense of despair, just a feeling of resignation and perhaps some impatience too. The evaluation of cryptocurrencies is driven by irrational emotion, so that’s fine. “When Lambo?” (when will my crypto investment let me buy a Lamborghini, “to the moon” (when will my investment shoot up tenfold) or Hodl (let us just HOLD or crypto investments even if the price is lower) references were still occasionally visible, but they were usually in jest otherwise seemed lame.
Walking around a trade-floor in Holland, I was surprised at how blatantly other EU countries namely Malta and Cyprus flaunt their friendlier regulations. I suppose that where tax havens are justly frowned upon, crypto & blockchain friendly regulations should be smiled upon as forward looking. However, the dozen blockchain companies I spoke too were all headquartered in other friendly places in particular Switzerland and Singapore.
From a higher or perhaps more historical viewpoint, I had it pointed out to me that our societies and economies were moving from an era where the means of production were critical to one where it was the means of connexion that counted, and where else does the blockchain make more sense?
Amongst the themes of the AI part of the show and conference, personal voice assistants were so prominent that they drowned out anything else. I heard an Amazon evangelist reassure us the Echo devices don’t record or analyse anything until they hear the key word ‘Alexa’, that ended up one of my most popular tweets from the show. If privacy concerns are a vital issue for AI and IoT, then blockchain has some answers.
Despite there being some “pure” IoT applications, where the Blockchain has no role and vice-versa, many of the booths in the IoT or the Blockchain parts of the show could have been swapped to the other part. It will be telling to see how the ratio changes over the next few shows. I would expect the sections might merge quite soon.
As a technologist, when I get deeper and deeper into a new field, I often get a feeling of déjà vu, that things aren’t all that different or unique. I was struck by a venture capitalist explaining that his approach to Blockchain companies was no different than to any other type of company.
Some of the Doh! moments I had, when I felt I should have realised things on my own, included when a #Smartgrid presenter pointed out how electric cars offer an excellent means to store electricity that our existing electrical grids have been crying out for decades. I understood that the “Smart” part of Smartgrids is really about decentralisation, as existing grids are quite sophisticated already, just in a centralised way. The key challenge is how to move from centralised to distributed production. The “Smart” in Smartcontract, however, is more about automating the contract — again old-fashioned contracts can also be smart, they just need to be executed manually. “Peer-to-peer” may actually be a better way of referring to them than “smart”.
A lot of the companies I saw are still OK with being called Blockchain businesses. That shows just how young the market still is. Imagine calling a company an Internet business! We’ve still got some growing up to do.
One area where some maturity has already arrived is in the evaporation of the imperative we all felt, that crypto had to be useful as an exchange of value. The SEC’s insistence that just about any crypto they look at is a security might have something to do with that.
Amongst the open issues, I heard raised, was how to measure blockchain-based application’s performance. The jury is still out on the subject of regulation with one expert speaker saying “it’s fixed” (again SEC seeing everything as a security, and the EU starting to converge on regulation), and others seeing this as still the key risk to the whole industry.
But generally — and subjectively — I had a positive feel from both the trade floor and the conference with many big names like KLM, IBM, KPMG, Unilever, or Boston Consulting sticking their heads out and reassuring us that this industry is here to stay.
Ideas for where the blockchain could be most useful (or not)
A generic use case that came up time and time again was about verifiably telling a product’s story. Where it came from, who made it, who transported it, how sustainable the value chain is and whether the cold-chain was maintained are typically addressed. In a follow-up blog, I’ll tell you what I learned about two examples for a Made-in-Italy and slavefreetrade brands.
Many pre-blockchain success stories, like for example the MySugar app for diabetics will benefit from integration with the blockchain, to share sensitive data with health professionals.
It is a stretch to understand some use cases that seem to have the blockchain in their business case just so there will be a lucrative ICO. I heard for example of a project to calculate the value of football players in real-time.
Industry dynamics create new needs, like for example in the labor market that is becoming candidate-driven, creating the blockchain-dream opportunity of eliminating intermediaries.
Unifying health records is a blockchain use-case that has been around for a while, but there are still new startups planning to ICO in that space like for example the Grapevine project promising to reduce medical errors and increase medical innovation.
A compelling use-case I hadn’t heard about before was the French smart HAB black box project, which aims to emulate an airplane’s black box functionality for critical IoT data. In the event of an incident, investigators could have better data to determine what went wrong. One such device would have been useful in the aftermath of the Greenfield fire for example.
In a follow-up blog, I will describe what I learnt from the dozen or so companies I spoke to at Blockchain Expo (Soluna, ICBF, ECO2, Riddle&Code, Bitsong, Azhos, GAEX, Rocker Coin, Pithagoras, 1nce, Myralab, Scantrust, VeMotion, slavefreetrade).