If you ask a room full of blockchain enthusiasts how the technology will affect the internet, the answers range from “a lot” to “more than you can even imagine.”
Such responses were easy to elicit at the Ethereal conference in San Francisco on Friday. The gathering is a a day-long event for the founders, engineers, and enthusiastic users of a blockchain protocol called Ethereum.
Blockchain technology — also known as smart contract, or digital ledger technology — is the digital system behind bitcoin and a number of other unrelated applications. The technology isn’t yet in widespread use, but many experts and enthusiasts believe it will soon become a pervasive new layer of the internet, underlying everything from payments to legal contracts to users’ identities.
Many have pinned their hopes for the future impact of blockchain technologies on Ethereum. The protocol underlies a cryptocurrency called ether, which is bought and sold on many of the same exchanges where bitcoin is traded. But enthusiasts believe its real potential is as a foundation for new tools and services.
Ethereum has some obstacles to overcome before it becomes a world-changer. As of June, the protocol could only handle about 13 transactions per second. That’s far shy of what Visa can handle, much less the giant online networks. Facebook, for example, handles about 175,000 requests each second.
Still, people are routing around Ethereum’s limitations and are already developing unique and interesting projects using or related to the technology.
Here are five of those projects, as explained by the people behind them:
Organisation: ixo Foundation
What it's working on: CEO Anne Connelly and her team are developing a blockchain product that lets people log and then verify their volunteer jobs, charitable activities, and socially beneficial work, such as how many trees they planted, or how many hours they tutored a child. Once their activities have been verified in the system, the blockchain record of them can be used to apply for grants and subsidies.
How its system is being used: As a pilot project, ixo worked with UNICEF to build an app called Amply to help teachers in South Africa take attendance. The government there subsidizes preschool for lower-income kids, but the subsidies are based on attendance. Normally, teachers have to take roll on paper and then physically submit their roll sheets, a time-consuming process. The app allowed teachers to quickly and easily take attendance on their mobile phones instead.
The outlook on blockchain technology: 'I think it's going to be massively pervasive in a year or two,' Connelly said. 'Typically they say with this level of innovation it takes a lot longer to happen then we expect, but when it does, it's much more impactful.'
What it's building: Lead Architect Matt Walters and his team are developing a virtual energy grid that will sit on top of the national energy system. Once deployed, GridPlus will sell energy to consumers at a small premium to wholesale prices.
The energy will be distributed using tokens -- essentially, digital coins -- which can be saved or passed to other people if they're not used. Since tokens are easily divisible, Walters said users will be able to pay in smaller fractions than they can with dollars. For example, a consumer could use her tokens to just pay what it costs to illuminate a single lightbulb for 15 minutes, something that would amount to a small fraction of a cent.
How its system will be used: GridPlus will start off as a retail energy provider in Texas, whose deregulated energy market is easy for companies to enter. The company's goal is to eventually cover the entire country. It's also working with Tokyo on a similar project.
The outlook on blockchain technology: 'I think all of this will happen in the next two years. It's not even far out,' Walters said.
'Already we're seeing that blockchains, especially Ethereum, because of its ability to facilitate these token launches, is providing access to liquid capital for the purpose of building new businesses that far exceeded what existed before, be it in investment banking, venture capital or private equity,' he said.
Company: Omega One
What it's building: Chief Technology Officer Alex Gordon-Brander and his team are designing a professional-grade system that will allow investors to trade different kinds of cryptocurrencies through various exchanges in one central place and will show them all of their account balances.
How its system will be used: Omega One is aiming its system at professional traders, investors, and institutions to help them manage their cryptocurrency portfolios.
The outlook on blockchain technology: It will be 'five years or 10 years' before it's in widespread use, said Gordon-Brander.
'When you change fundamental things around, like how human beings organise and how human beings change value, that translates to changes in every sector of society,' he said. He added that the kinds of changes that blockchain technology will spur 'are, in some ways, as hard to predict as the current internet landscape would have been in 1995 or '98.'
What it's building: Michael Sena and his team are developing a kind of universal identification. At its most basic, it's just a unique address on the Ethereum protocol. But it's designed to function a lot like a Google or Facebook ID.
Instead of having to use a unique ID to log into every site or service they access, people would be able to use their uPort ID for each one.
How its system will be used:uPort is aiming its service at blockchain and Ethereum developers who need to a way to authenticate users that is more complex, yet easier to use, than the anonymous serial numbers blockchains typically assign them.
The outlook on blockchain technology: Sena said it will be 'a couple of years' before it has a significant impact on consumers.
What it's building: Co-founders Shira Frank and Raine Revere are developing an organisation that's equal parts consultancy, startup incubator, and training service, all focused on blockchain technology.
How its system will be used: Frank and Revere are focusing on women, people of colour, gay people, and members of other marginalized groups. They're hoping to educate such people about blockchain technology and help them set up their own blockchain-related startups.
The outlook on blockchain technology: 'I'm actually of the opinion that blockchain (technology) won't necessarily be that visible, that it's actually (an) infrastructural change,' said Revere. She continued: 'It will affect consumers more pervasively than they will ever realise.'
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