The Exponential Finance 2016 conference, organized by Singularity University and CNBC, was held in New York on June 7 and 8. Once again, distributed ledger technology and applications were extensively featured, with MIT Media Lab director Brian Forde giving attendees a glimpse of current initiatives.
Singularity University, based at Moffett Federal Airfield in California and sponsored by high-profile high-tech firms including Google, is an educational center dedicated to world-changing applications of disruptive, exponentially accelerating technologies.
The Exponential Finance conferences explore how rapidly accelerating technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, cybersecurity, quantum computing, crowdfunding and distributed ledgers are rapidly disrupting businesses throughout the financial industry. Other Exponential conferences cover medicine and manufacturing with a similar approach.
Last year, Exponential Finance 2015 featured distributed ledgers and blockchain technologies prominently. In particular, Blythe Masters, the former JPMorgan star who now leads Digital Asset Holdings, stated that financial blockchain applications will be measured in the trillions. Exponential Finance 2016 continued the exploration of the upcoming, disruptive impact of distributed ledgers.
Forde, who is director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, gave a keynote titled “Business Decentralized,” focusing on the rapid transformations that are being driven by the blockchain and how this technology has the potential to change the financial services industry as we know it.
Forde is also a former senior adviser for mobile and data innovation at the White House. He is persuaded that blockchain technology and digital currencies will impact society to the same degree the internet has, SingularityHub reports. “The Internet has exponentially increased the frequency of our communication; cryptocurrencies will exponentially increase the frequency of our transactions with others,” he said, adding that this is an opportunity for the developing world to “leapfrog” to the forefront of innovation.
Forde called attention to some interesting blockchain use cases that MIT is exploring, PC Magazine reports. An interesting pathfinder is MIT Media Lab’s Digital Certificates project recently covered by Bitcoin Magazine. It is an open-source project that builds an ecosystem for creating, sharing and verifying blockchain-based educational credentials. Certificates openly and transparently registered on the blockchain allow schools and employers to issue digital proof of membership, achievement or completion in a shareable format, which students can use when applying for work or further education.
“We live in this world of the rubber-stamp authentication protocol,” said Forde. “What’s powerful about this project is that all of a sudden, we can start to look at ways to be more reliant on digital certificates. And it’s not just about where you’ve studied; state and city governments have licensed contractors and all sorts of professionals. What if your LinkedIn had a little green check next to your degree, saying it’s blockchain-validated? You could trust that information a lot more.”
Forde also mentioned MedRec, a system built on a private Ethereum network that is a decentralized content-management system for patients’ health care data. It empowers patients to have access to their records across health care providers.
Another interesting project is Enigma, a peer-to-peer network being built by MIT students that uses secure, multiparty computation to enable different parties to jointly store and run computations on data while keeping the data completely private. Enigma wants to enable developers to build “privacy by design,” end-to-end decentralized applications, without a trusted third party.
Other innovative applications of distributed ledger technologies presented at Exponential Finance 2016 include Abra, Augur, Bitwage, BlockCypher, Bluzelle, Credit Dream, Dwolla (which now has an increased focus on the blockchain), Everledger and Mycelia.
Since the Digital Currency Initiative has become a central Bitcoin hub and the MIT Media Lab seems to seek a de facto leadership in Bitcoin technical development, it isn’t surprising to see that Forde defends the open, public, permissionless Bitcoin blockchain against the closed, private, “permissioned” blockchain concept, which is now fashionable among mainstream financial players.
“Finance is hard to understand on its own, never mind adding blockchain to the mix,” said Forde. “A private blockchain is an intranet, and a public blockchain is the internet. The world was changed by the internet, not a bunch of intranets. Where companies will be disrupted the most is not by private blockchains, but public ones.” Forde noted that public blockchains such as Bitcoin were the open-source movement that started it all, and private blockchains such as R3 are taking that technology and commercializing it for businesses.
The Bitcoin blockchain “is the most secure blockchain in the world,” said Forde in an interview on SingularityHub. “Mining Bitcoin, which is kind of like payment processing and validation, secures the blockchain. The most important aspects to keep an eye on are the quantity, diversity, and compute power ‒ or ‘hash rate’ ‒ of independent miners competing to do this every ten minutes.”
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