I had a lot of fun at the FinTech Storm event in London last week. Having been dragooned into being the Q&A ringmaster by the very persuasive Arifa Khan @misskhan), I found myself really enjoying the range and depth of questions coming from the audience. And I had a fantastic panel to work with, with Safello, Coin Sciences, Barclays, Everledger and Coinsilium joining in an open and entertaining (and informative) debate.
I was particularly interested in Gideon Greenspan’s (Coin Sciences) presentation of private blockchains, a subject dear to the heart of many of our clients and the focus gof a great deal of activity at present. The well-known venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote about this recently, noting that financial institutions might be early adopters of private versions of blockchains for specific, industry-wide applications. As he notes, financial institutions may not be entirely comfortable with the blockchain as it is now.
One concern I hear, though, is that banks like to know who is managing their infrastructure and they are uncomfortable with miners they don’t know, located in parts of the world that make them nervous, providing the transaction processing infrastructure for these applications being built on the blockchain. To me, that is the perfect reason for banks and brokerage firms to take a bit of their data processing infrastructure and point it to the blockchain and start mining it. They could even create a mining pool among the large money center banks. And it is relatively simple for a blockchain application to route its transactions to certain miners to process.
Why would they create such a pool? It would not be to profit from the mining process, a process that (as Gideon pointed out) is enormously expensive and hugely inefficient, because it was created to deliver a specific kind of robustness and censorship-resistance in order to deliver a form of digital cash substitute. But, as he said, some people want to use the blockchain as a tool, not as an ideology.
If you think of the blockchain as an open source, peer to peer, massively distributed database, then it makes sense for the transaction processing infrastructure for it to evolve from individuals to large global corporations. Some of these miners will be dedicated for profit miners and some of them will be corporations who are mining to insure the integrity of the network and the systems they rely on that are running on it. Banks and brokerage firms are the obvious first movers in the second category.
I don’t think this is necessarily the way forward though. It seems to me that “mining” presupposes a particular blockchain architecture. That architecture has been developed, as noted, to deliver a modus vivendi unrelated to the world of financial services, where banks are supposed to trust each other and to know their customers (and their customers’ customers). Financial services do not want, or need, any such thing. This is why it is not at all surprising to see this kind of proposition emerging.
ItBit has revealed new details about its formerly top-secret Bankchain project, a private consensus-based ledger system aimed at appealing to enterprise financial institutions […] without using bitcoin or its blockchain.
The chap from ItBit who is being interviewed in this article goes on to say that their architecture is “inspired by” the blockchain even it is not actually the blockchain (or, for that matter, a blockchain at all). I love this, and I expect to see more of it in the near future, because there must be a lot of people who think that a replicated, distributed shared ledger is an excellent architectural concept but they don’t want to use a cryptocurrency and nor do they want to use a proof-of-work protocol to defend against subversion by unknown actors since all of their actors are already known and trusted. In fact, I think it may be possible to be argue that most financial institutions, even if they don’t realise it right now, will want to use a different kind of ledger. Blythe Masters of Digital Asset Holdings, who really does understand financial markets in a way that I really do not (she was rather impressively called “the woman who invented financial weapons of mass destruction” by The Guardian) said when speaking at the recent American Banker conference on “Digital Currencies and the Blockchain” that “It’s important to be aware as you think about this that there is more than one distributed ledger technology, not all of them share the same strengths and weaknesses and furthermore, that the thinking in this space is evolving very rapidly” (my emphasis). Absolutely.
In her book “Blockchain“, Melanie Swan points in the same direction. She says that even if all of the infrastructure developed by the Bitcoin blockchain industry were to disappear then its legacy could persist. The blockchain has provided new larger-scale ideas about how to do things. She goes on to say that even if you don’t buy into the future of Bitcoin as a stable long-term crypto-currency, or blockchain technology as it currently is conceived, there is a very strong case for decentralised models. I strongly agree with her view here that “decentralisation is an idea whose time is come” and her characterisation of the Internet as a new cultural technology that opens up techniques such as distributed public ledgers that could allow more complicated coordination across society than those through centralised models. Whether this will, as she says “speed our progress toward becoming a truly advanced society” I cannot say (although I have my doubts!).
So why, I can hear you asking, bother with the replicated shared public ledger formerly known as the blockchain at all if financial institutions already have databases and such like? I think you can see three broad lines of reasoning that add up.
The first is robustness. If some or all of the participants in some marketplace each has an instance of the complete ledger, then the system as a whole might be expected to be more resistant to individual failures, errors and attacks. Think about the recent ATM and debit card system crashes that plagued one of the UK banks.
The second is innovation. When innovative and imaginative people have access to ledgers built from post-1960s components (e.g., APIs and XML), then they will no longer create accounting packages (and laws) that use the virtual world to simulate paper. They will use shared ledger technology to create a new kind of accounting not to do conventional account quicker.
Common sense dictates specialized distributed ledgers will better address specific assets via specialized algorithms and specialized scripting frameworks.
The third is transparency. As I mentioned in the discussion about the “glass bank”, transparency may be the defining characteristic of the new financial order and I expect this to be a focus of our clients’ attention in the near future. I advance the theory here that the next generation of financial applications will focus on transparency as the key to the new way of doing things: the robustness and the innovation are great, but it is in area of transparency that new cryptographic techniques make it possible to create a new kind of ledger. I’ll write more about this in the future, but I will exploring the idea that transparency may be the lasting legacy of the financial crisis in my keynote at Next Bank Barcelona on September 22nd.
You might add a fourth line of reasoning, which is to do with marketing, herd investors and fast-talking consultants, but we’ll put that to one side for the time being. So for now, let’s just focus on applications that can be “inspired by” the blockchain.