Blockchain’s evolution is already written in history and science. It will fuel a major change in human habits, a great clash of ideology and ultimately, become the way AI propagates on its own.
Money took about 2000 years to evolve from sea shells and metal coins to paper. Before that, it was all barter trade and hoarding precious objects like gold.
But even after paper money was invented in China around 800–900 AD, and Marco Polo introduced it to Europe in 1290 AD, it didn’t go into the mainstream until Sweden started printing it in 1661 AD. In between this period, commoners still trusted gold and silver coins more, since paper money could be forged or excessively created by regimes.
It then took almost three more centuries before the modern credit card was invented in 1950 by the founders of Diners Club.
Blockchain as a habit
Today most folks in the developed world has a credit or debit card. Clearly the evolution of money had quickened in pace. But it still took decades before people had faith in transacting with something that required only a signature and a plastic card that could be lost quite easily.
The point is this — any major innovation will take a while to replace old habits.
Examples abound in history of how game-changing inventions existed side-by-side with older solutions for a long time before complete displacement: printing press versus hand copied manuscripts, electricity vs gas lamps, cars vs horses.
Adoption of any new technology is also a matter of investing in scale so that cost goes down and affordability goes up. Brilliant inventions dazzle, but still require practicality and patience to commercialize and dominate.
Now think about this.
The first Bitcoin was created in January 2009. In the 10 years that has passed since, the cryptocurrency has seen its fair share of adoption ups and downs.
But like most other modern inventions, its commercial evolution is quickening due to technological progress and globalization. So I expect that cryptocurrencies could see stable values and mainstream adoption by 2030.
That said, it is worth noting that blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies, has only just begun to see serious experimentation on commercial applications beyond cryptocurrencies in the last few years.
There are still a number of practical issues that blockchain technology needs to overcome before going mainstream— scalability, cost and regulations etc. Not all uses cases may make commercial sense. But where it does, it may take much longer to completely replace old systems that rely on centralized servers and ledgers.
Indeed, technological and commercial challenges aside, one of the greatest hurdles facing blockchain and cryptocurrencies today is regulations. And it isn’t just blockchain exchanges or Facebook’s Libra that are suffering from this.
300cubits is a blockchain pioneer in the shipping business. It is struggling to gain traction due to regulations. It has been live since March 2018 and is still struggling to gain traction.
“The lack of clarity in regulatory regimes surrounding digital currencies has proved to be the greatest hurdle in the 300cubits’ marketing efforts. Many potential users simply shied away from trying, being not sure about what regulatory measures the authorities may take.”
— “Early shipping blockchain pioneer sinks”, Spash247.com
Regulations is a human issue. And behind this human issue are governance and control philosophies that have perpetuated for most of mankind’s history. The adoption of blockchain is creating a new era of ideological clash — the scale of which hasn’t been seen since the Cold War.
Blockchain as an evolution of trust
The invention of Bitcoin was, unlike past innovations in money, not driven by convenience or practicality. In fact, a Bitcoin transaction could take anything from 10 minutes to over 16 hours to process. It also requires a large amount of computing power.
The invention of Bitcoin was driven by an evolution in the concept of trust — an evolution that proposes to replace humans with mathematics and technology in the placement of trust.
“ The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”
— Satoshi Nakamoto, online forum post in February 2009
To put it bluntly, bitcoin was invented to replace centralized authority and control over money. It was no coincidence that its inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, created it shortly after the 2007 financial crisis caused by subprime mortgages.
In essence the entire cryptocurrency and blockchain movement is a movement to replace trust in human authority and governance with computer networks and cryptography.
Unfortunately that challenges the status quo; the people currently in control. And human nature does not give up power easily. Such changes usually involve conflict, and in extreme cases — revolutions.
Human civilization has experimented with choosing the best ideology and system for controlling societies and resource distribution since the dawn of time. We’ve tried tribal chiefs, monarchies, dictatorships, communism and democracy.
Now we are turning to machines.
Will this new philosophy take hold? It seems to be an increasing yes. While developed countries hold back the evolution with regulations, the push to adopt is growing stronger in developing countries.
Blockchain saves lives
Cryptocurrencies are helping citizens in poor countries combat corruption and hyperinflation, as well as transact faster and cheaper.
“…in emerging and frontier nations in Latin America and Africa, cryptocurrencies are making inroads… enabling local businesses to own, transact and store something of value that isn’t at the whim of an unstable government.”
— “This is where cryptocurrencies are actually making a difference in the world”, Marketwatch.com
It makes perfect sense. Regime changes in human societies are often driven by those with little to lose and lots to gain.
And blockchain isn’t just making a difference in commercial transactions. In the documentary “Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain”, filmmaker Alex Winter highlights how blockchain is enabling NGOs to provide refugees with identity records — literally saving them years stuck in limbo trying to obtain immigrant status — as well as facilitate more efficient food aid to alleviate world hunger.
The critics will always point to the abuse of cryptocurrencies for money laundering and selling illegal goods, but in human history any new technology has always been subjected to use by both good and evil.
My personal contention is cryptocurrencies and blockchain will create an alternate global economy that will run in parallel with traditional banking and fiat money for some years to come.
During this period the world will be divided between government issued money and digital currencies. It will be the greatest standoff since the Cold War on ideology.
The ones who stand on the side of blockchain will be those who have more faith in technology than humans to be impartial and trustworthy.
But once the majority of human beings have learned to trust blockchain and its commercial applications, that’s when its ultimate evolution — beyond distributed ledgers and cryptocurrencies — will come into play.
Blockchain as the DNA of AI
As we trust software more and more, we would want to ensure they survive and improve. The former is enabled by blockchain, and the latter via machine learning. The amalgamation of these two cutting edge technologies will form a union that constitutes the ‘DNA of AI’.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the chemical inside the nucleus of all cells within an organism that carries the exact genetic instructions to recreate it. It contains four different chemical bases — represented by the letters A, T, C and G — arranged in a double helix structure.
The particular order of the four bases defines how an species should look like, and slight variations gives individuals their unique traits. Bigger gene mutations enable a species to adapt and survive to changing external conditions.
Conceptually the blockchain isn’t very different. It uses crytopgraphy mathematics to parse information represented in 1’s and 0’s (binary code) into a long chain of records that keeps extending as new information is added. This chain propagates exact copies of itself throughout its network to ensure it is hard to lose or corrupt.
Machine learning, on the other hand, allows us to build computer programs that constantly adjusts itself to optimize its response accuracy to a desired outcome. Combine the two together, and you get the ability of a software that continually adapts and improves itself based on external inputs; and is so widely replicated across a network that it is extremely difficult to wipe out completely. Sounds like evolution doesn’t it?
Wait, hang on…
But isn’t blockchain just for transactions and record keeping? Can it contain enough digital instructions to replicate an AI the same way DNA enables the replication of an entire living organism?
Enter Ethereum, an open source platform for creating new blockchains. Ethereum was created for developers to come up with new blockchain applications without having to rebuild the whole cryptographic and network computing elements essential to setting up a blockchain system from scratch.
Think of it as giving users lego blocks to imagine and put together new lego models without having to fabricate the lego blocks themselves first.
The applications that Ethereum users build using the platform are called smart contracts, because they are typically designed to perform an action autonomously after predetermined conditions are met.
At the moment Ethereum smart contracts are built for simple tasks, like executing transactions or verifying asset ownership. This is because far more powerful computers and networks are needed to process the cryptography involved if the desired actions require complex logic and codes.
But in theory the Ethereum platform was built as a ‘Turing complete’ computing language, which means it can perform any sort of computing instructions or algorithms. An entire software can be written on it and parsed into a blockchain if so desired. To utilize it efficiently however, may require the capabilities of quantum computers.
The Oracle is a software
Both IBM and Google have announced commercially available quantum computers in 2019. But right now the state of quantum computing is similar to how early computers took up an entire room. Experts reckon quantum computers are at least still a decade away from practical usage.
But again, history and science tells us that technological progress will happen. It’s just a matter of when. And when we do combine the self-improvement ability of machine learning with the self-preservation design of blockchain, will we then create a digital version of machine DNA, in order to preserve and protect the AI’s we will come to rely on to run our lives and economies?
Mankind may be facing our greatest ideological challenge yet in the coming decades.
Do we trust machines as the incorruptible source of truth?