Co-CEO, Fluree PBC. Co-founder, Silk Road Technology.
Technology may be powerful, but it’s also fragile. In recent years, a series of events--from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal to Equifax’s massive data breach--have eroded the public’s trust not only in large companies, but in the Internet itself. The proliferation of fake news has us doubting every article we read. Deepfake photos and videos leave us wondering if we can trust our own eyes, or if what we see is just AI-generated.
When it comes to the veracity of what we read and see on the Internet, we’re truly at a turning point. Luckily, we’re also on the verge of a solution: widespread implementation of the semantic web, powered by blockchain. The semantic web is literally a new version of the Internet, and blockchain’s famous public ledgers are perfectly positioned to help keep data verifiable and unhackable. If implemented correctly, the blockchain-powered semantic web can help us learn to trust technology again.
In 2019, Oracle’s Vice President of blockchain product development Frank Xiong predicted that between 50% and 60% of companies will use blockchain in the next few years. From preventing counterfeit products to improving food safety, blockchain is quietly enabling enterprises to rebuild consumer trust.
It hasn’t been an easy road. The hype around bitcoin led to a blockchain adoption stampede. Only after the ‘first mile’ of the implementation have enterprises come to realize that solutions designed for cryptocurrency can’t support big-company use cases, which require data storage, trackable transactions, governance and other capabilities.
Now the foundation of true enterprise blockchain is finally being poured. Over 100 billion-dollar companies now use blockchain tools in their everyday business practices. Amazon uses blockchain for AWS. Mastercard built its own blockchain platform from scratch. Walmart uses blockchain to track food product origins to stay on top of concerns over E. Coli and other contaminants. Blockchain, the former avant-garde technology, is turning into an industry standard.
Despite the permeation of better blockchain, the cultural Zeitgeist is still stuck in hype mode. Bitcoin will make a comeback! Blockchain is hitting prime time! Fueled by adrenaline, the popular discourse hasn’t been motivated to focus on the quiet evolution going on beneath our very eyes.
The string of successful enterprise blockchain implementations are helping to wire together a new kind of internet that will antiquate the one we know and (dis)trust today. Alternately called the semantic web and Web 3.0, this new internet centers around AI and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. It will make possible self-driving vehicles, automated employee management and smart personal assistants, among many other innovations.
Blockchain wires together the M2M-driven semantic web by enabling trustworthy data. As internet 2.0 reminds us almost daily, data is a double-edged sword: powerful in the right hands and dangerous in the wrong ones. Through decentralization and complex cryptography, blockchain injects security and permissions at the data layer, as opposed to at the API level. Its public ledger offers a native audit trail of every data change ever, easily offering proof of integrity to customers and regulators alike. Those data layer security capabilities also allow developers to thin out bloated APIs in favor of a more data-first approach. Lastly but perhaps most importantly, users have clear visibility and ownership over their own data, instead of surrendering it to a faceless central authority.
Ernest Hemingway once said that “[t]he best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” As the 2020s pick up steam, many of us are putting that idea to the test as we lean into technology: our voice assistants are getting smarter, our cars are learning to steer on the freeway, and we can control our thermostats and our security systems from our phones. We’re agreeing to let our phones use all kinds of tracking information in exchange for the convenience of real-time directions, finding our friends, and getting more accurate search results.
At the same time, we’re not ready to put our doubts away just yet. We approach technology with a healthy skepticism; we still struggle to figure out whether images are deepfakes or real, and whether news articles are coming from someone with an agenda.
If blockchain permeates the internet, it will make our online world more reliable. Audit trails will become normal, even expected; they’ll also be unhackable. That means that we’ll be able to better understand the origins of photos, discover the original node of a fake news broadcast, and ultimately avoid the spread of untrustworthy information.
With the passage of time and the power of blockchain, we may finally learn to trust, not doubt, the machines around us.