Fake news usually gets outed once it hits the mainstream. It does damage along the way. If you throw enough of it about and then ask everyone what they think, it can have an effect. But at least within science and engineering we can get to the bottom of stuff pretty quickly and declare something to be bogus. Sure, there are actually people who don’t think the planet is getting hotter because of human activity. And there are many more, myself included, who consider the real problem facing us is pollution and mismanagement as a whole. But the accepted position by most is that The Earth is getting hotter because we’ve simulated excessive volcanic activity for over half a century.
Well not in the world of commercial computing it seems. Blockchain propaganda broadcasts proclaiming that this fascinating technology will be “bigger than the internet”  are accepted business mantras without question. We all know that “Blockchain will change the world”  right ?. Just look at that Bitcoin graph slow coach and get with the program. Go find yourself a Blockchain use case and stick that word on your company’s mission statement and never look back.
Yesterday I was presented with a paper from NIST, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s technology and standards body . The abstract concludes with “this document explores some specific blockchain applications”. It’s the US government, talking about computing. There’s got to be some valid, in your face use cases, right ?
So let’s go to the trouble of reading it. The first section of the paper is a “high level blockchain overview”. It is a well written compilation of what’s going on, but without going into any gory detail. There are also several checklists you can use to validate your newly acquired crypto genius. It’s implication, indeed purpose, is to enable you to go off into the world and deploy blockchain solutions in your own and other people’s businesses. This is misleading. Blockchain is a complex mesh of cryptographic technology built with a specific goal in mind. Fiddling with the architecture is possible though fraught with difficulties and certainly not for anyone who isn’t a capable cryptographer, let alone someone who isn’t even an engineer and doesn’t even know how the crypto actually works. Changing the core goal, which is to run a cryptocurrency, isn’t actually possible because it needs one of those to function, and the pattern it solves is fundamentally a currency. You can’t take the money out.
The back end of the paper lists by name the top projects. All of which have money at their core. Some of them don’t even have a real blockchain as such in them, namely Ripple. Though they may be the ones to have the most success in the end, which is ironic. If you are going to build something to improve the banking system, then it’s probably a good idea to get the banks involved.
At section 7, sub-section 2, sub-sub-section 1 we get to the coveted use cases. This first batch is of “permisioned” blockchains. These are ones where we have mucked about with the consensus mechanism to get rid of the unpalatable proof of work algorithm. For the pure, these are no longer blockchains, you broke it already. If you are going to secede trust to a handful of institutions, then just let them host the stuff too and corroborate with each other as to the result. Well that’s what Ripple are doing in essence, you just don’t need to fork the cryptocurrency code to do it.
First up then is Banking. Blockchain is money, so if there isn’t a home in the banking industry then we really are in trouble. If you are a banker and want to know what’s going on, go talk to Ripple and the best of luck to you. Oh deary me, R3 didn’t even make the shortlist in the list of stuff-to-use later on in the paper. What on earth are they going to do with the stupendous amounts of cash they raised and have been paying each other. I wonder if they will sue. Note that these companies openly declare that they’ve moved on, because blockchain proper isn’t what the banks need. They are catering to a closed group of financial institutions who already have a basis of trust. At the very best you would only be able to apply this stuff where you have similar levels of trust. There are much simpler ways of doing this.
Next up, Supply Chain. It’s got “chain” in it, this has to fly surely. It’s described as “appealing” and “could be used”. As usual, nobody is actually using it.
We already have end user goods tracking services you may have noticed. This isn’t about that. It’s about irrefutable proof that one party in the supply chain has accepted delivery or executed shipping. You simply do not need blockchain to achieve this. An irrefutable shared record, or contract, between all parties on the supply chain, would suffice. Furthermore, any deployment of a global solution using blockchain would need to ensure a high degree of privacy, otherwise your competitors are going to know just how much business you are doing, with who and when. They may not know if it was electrical goods or lingerie if your company sells both, or access any other detail, or even exactly how many times you connect, but this connectivity information alone is golden and it can be retrieved.
The next sub-sub-sub-section, rather bizarrely, is titled “Insurance and Healthcare”. Well why only have one humongous industry in your use case when you can have two. The insurance industry is plagued with issues of data alignment, recapture and verification. Surely a job for blockchain. These people have been all over the stuff for years. I wrote my solution to tackle this very industry two years ago. It’s not blockchain. Everyone making decisions within the highly politicised world of insurance IT is, or at least was then, besotted with blockchain. It’s the future, get with the program. The love is starting to fade, but ever so slowly. The London market alone screwed up to the tune of 100 million in the last decade as everyone tried fobbing the issue off onto someone else, usually hired from one of those crack management consultancies that you can ask to lead your cutting edge software engineering projects. I fear that once this current cycle of facile pilot projects that they’ve all been fibbing to each other about gets pulled, we will have to wait another decade before they have the stomach to try and work this out again.
As for healthcare, well. Do you really want the fact that you’ve had an association with a rehab clinic engraved for eternity on an immutable and very public data store ?. May be you only went for a check-up, and you are good to go now anyway. The fire hazard constituted by portacabins stuffed full of paper that populate the car parks of every hospital in the country is indeed a pressing issue. In the UK the state of IT in hospitals is a national disgrace with stupid amounts regularly dished out for projects that either break or never even appear. It may well be “appealing” to spray the whole lot with blockchain, but the problems are much deeper even if you waive the privacy issues.
At section 7, sub-section 2, sub-sub-section 2 we get some more use cases for “permisionless” blockchains. These are at least proper blockchains. Interestingly there is a disclaimer “inclusion neither validates or exclusion invalidates”. Well there’s only two, so exclusion would have to be an issue.
First up is “trusted time stamping”. This is a good one and at first sight you may think it has promise. It’s very close to what blockchain does, indeed it’s at its core. What blockchain does is order transactions universally. If we put our proof on the blockchain we wont have to argue about this, will we ?. Well yes, but. For this granularity to be that relevant, the only conceivable use case is back to money problems again. If it’s some cause and effect issue, all we need is irrefutable proof from A that allows B to proceed. An irrefutable shared record between two, or any double digit number of parties, doesn’t need blockchain. (but I know something that can help. Click White Paper in the top left corner).
And we’ve still got to fuel this blockchain somehow, we need an incentive. Bling may work, but I doubt it. Show me something that floats, I have seen none. Money definitely does work. People will join your Byzantine fault tolerant consensus strategy if you pay them. But now I have to pay every time I want to write a time stamp. Pay to play databases are a tough sell at the best of times. If there isn’t a hard business case, if we just don’t care that much if B’s clock is wrong and it’s not going to change who, what and when anyone gets paid, then I suggest you don’t have one.
There is also a bogus publication claim. That by posting proof on a blockchain it’s now public and irrefutable and so I have now done something that can’t otherwise be done by PGP+Twitter. You just post a signed copy of whatever you want to say to one or more super resilient systems that may or may not charge for the privilege of saying or seeing. If you use more than one twitteresque system, they can share signed acknowledgement of receipt amongst each other (see this White Paper he keeps going on about). We don’t have to float a BFT.
Next up: “The Smart Grid”. Very plausible sounding. A Blockchain of Things you might say (if that gets used I am going to cry with anger). The reference paper is from Finland in 2016. It comes with another of these handy blockchain checklists. The other one thrown in there is certification. Again, I would need more detail, but it just sounds like IT systems and paper-work in a muddle. Getting the world to use a universal data system does sound appealing, surely we can standardise now. But if the the problem can be resolved by just two parties sharing irrefutable proof between each other that one has said something and the other acknowledges that they heard them (see white paper) then it’s overkill and most probably not commercially viable.
The opening line in the same section of this paper reads:
“Blockchains are a significant new avenue for technological advancements”
Note the plural. Like we’ve got loads of these. We’ve got umpteen cryptocurrencies, all of which are in danger of being made illegal. We haven’t got a single non-currency based instance of them anywhere that is running for real. BFT certainly is a burgeoning faculty within computer science, and so it should be. But it’s worth remembering, this stuff didn’t directly come from a university. They’ve had ten years since anyone at that end of the department went “holy cow, someone has a real cryptocurrency”. Come on guys, work it out!, or at the very least give me a hand making this a fair playing field.
This work was quite blatantly commissioned by NIST under the premise that is stated on their conclusion. It does cover some critique and pitfalls, but these are virtually in the appendixes. The conclusion that anyone who hasn’t been at the coal face is that this is a racing certainty. The result on investment, or even a fair hearing, from anyone at the other end of the argument is severe. The paper work in all the above use cases continues to pile up while billions are being spent on this self serving army of prophets.
I know to The Converted this just reads like I am picking holes for the sake of it. Well someone has to don’t they ?, or do we now live in an intellectual autocracy ?. We’ve voted for Blockchain and that’s what you are going to get, even if it doesn’t add up, doesn’t solve the issues and wont deliver. This “money is just the start” pipe dream has been about for years now. Somebody somewhere must have something that they’ve floated. And I don’t mean a pilot where those of the One True Faith are all nodding furiously. Show me one of your real easy spray it with blockchain examples that isn’t a currency and is in revenue earning service, just read our government sponsored paper and you are ready to go. They don’t exist.
This stuff is complicated. If it wasn’t we’d have seen something by now. The deluge of propaganda, all of which is void of any genuine content, just menacing language like “threatening the validity of businesses that refuse to adapt”. is giving shelter to hyperbalists selling miracle cures. Greed can consume any of us, and that bitcoin graph could lure all but the most wary. My beef is not that it wont work for all this other stuff. I made my mind up on that issue once I’d ploughed through what this is and what it was built to do. It’s the sterilisation of development in this area that is costing us the most..
There is a positive side to all this. The issues and use cases that have been exposed are for the large part genuine. If we can have a more open discussion on how we solve the matter, and not have everyone dreaming of an IPO/ICO and getting dirty rich in seconds, then just may be we can start producing viable solutions.
If you found these views at least something different and a worthwhile counterpoint, you may also like Blockchain Is and Only Ever can be Money