The potential of blockchain technologies outside of its financial heartland have long since been intriguing, if overshadowed by the continued ruckus around Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. With this in mind Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, has taken to Twitter to discuss non-financial applications of blockchains, which he describes as becoming ‘a bigger and bigger part of the story.’
Describing an ‘underappreciated’ definition of blockchain as ‘an extension of cryptography that does different things’, Buterin outlines several promising use cases about which regular readers of this publication will already be aware.
One particular example is focused around university degree verification. Regarding the issue of revocation of degrees, Buterin argues putting revocations on a chain can solve a problem which cryptography on its own can’t. “To check that a degree was not yet revoked, you simply scan the chain and check all of the logs of the revocation contract,” he wrote. “If a given degree was signed, and the revocation is not found on chain, then that means it’s still valid.”
Another example can be seen through supply chains, which Buterin mentions as ‘use cases where different applications need to be on a common database [which is] more convenient (or less risk of capture) if it’s a credibly neutral platform.’
Indeed, various research studies and pilot projects have shown this potential. Last month a survey from Hermes found a quiet confidence among logistics decision makers that blockchain, alongside ERP and RFID, could improve the supply chain process going forward. Plenty of produce, from beef to wine, has been tracked from source to plate – or glass – on a blockchain.
There are issues with this vision, however; not least the major problem of scalability. Speaking to this publication last month Dirk Kanngiesser, CEO of Cryptowerk, argued that context needed to be added to the conversation going forward. “When people discuss blockchain scalability problems, they are often actually discussing using blockchains for purposes for which they were not designed to operate at scale,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to use blockchain technologies only where they are appropriate – for example, combining them with existing applications and platforms to help ensure data integrity.”
Buterin noted blockchains with proof of stake and sharding would be ‘thousands of times more efficient.’ “The efficiency sacrifices of putting things on a chain will become more and more acceptable,” he wrote. “Blockchains are not about cutting computational costs – [they] are about incurring a sacrifice in the form of increased computational costs to achieve a decrease in social costs.”
Ultimately, the Ethereum co-founder noted one key advantage of non-financial blockchain use cases. “There is less at stake if they break, so [there are] fewer reasons to fear deploying them fairly quickly,” Buterin wrote. “So they could be the first applications deployed widely, especially in institutional contexts.”
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