With blockchain technology enjoying buzzword status in mainstream finance and technology circles, it is hardly surprising that TechCrunch Disrupt London, held earlier this week, hosted a panel to discuss the potential of bitcoin and the blockchain.
Led by TechCrunch editor and Freemit CEO John Biggs, the panel consisted of Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, Blockstream CEO Austin Hill and Steve Waterhouse, partner at the bitcoin investment firm and hedge fund Pantera Capital.
The discussion, which touched upon various areas of debate, was first sparked by Biggs’ questions about the possibility of separating bitcoin, the digital currency, from its underlying technology, the blockchain.
Private vs public blockchains
Hill, whose firm develops technology on the bitcoin blockchain, was first to answer, noting how the question rests on whether financial institutions ought to build their own private blockchains, or if they should use public decentralised ledgers such as the bitcoin.
With this in mind, Hill commented on how previous attempts to create decentralized protocols had failed in the past.
“I was involved in the early 90s in a company that worked on this, we spent millions trying to build e-cash, and all of the previous systems … they all failed because of a central concept, central trusted parties,” he said, adding:
“You had a single issuing agency and when that database or that agency fell apart then all of a sudden the tokens that they had certified or given value to by signing disappeared along with it.”
Hill also paid tribute to what the bitcoin protocol and the R&D behind it had done for the development of specialized chips as a whole, noting how the the digital currency’s mining industry had propelled it “forward three or four years”.
From a technical perspective, Hill explained how bitcoin served as a reward for participants in the network:
“We have this massive capacity that’s represented in the form of the global hashrate and the reason that people operate this massive decentralised trust machine known as the blockchain is because they are earning rewards in bitcoin.”
There are, he said, some instances in which issuing digital tokens in the form of a cryptocurrency is not appropriate, pointing to US dollars issued on a ledger as an example.
Buterin, whose Ethereum project oversees an open, public blockchain for decentralized applications, delved further into the debate, adding that, for him, the need to tie bitcoin to the blockchain rested on the types of applications that people were concerned with exploring or building.
“Do you actually care about the currency?” he asked. “Is the issue being about the Federal Reserve being corrupt and you wanting to replace the Federal Reserve?”
Through the eyes of investors
Having already invested in various notable startups in the bitcoin blockchain space, Waterhouse said that Pantera Capital puts a greater focus on bitcoin’s underlying technology.
“We’ve tended to look more at this as a a technology, as an infrastructure and I think it is important sometimes to take a longer view … I think that if you look at distributed networks, the Web, when it first, started off, it was not good for streaming real time video, but now we do it quite easily,” he told the panel, adding:
“As an investor, we’ve been looking at primarily what are the applications that are able to get out, in many cases being somewhat agnostic … I feel like things will be compatible with the bitcoin blockchain. I think the banks are very excited about this space.”
Waterhouse went on to call for public attention to shift from how the blockchain could not only disrupt existing technologies but also potentially replace them. Instead, he urged the industry to consider the endless possibilities brought by decentralised ledger systems.
“To me, it’s not important to think which industries are going to die or what banks are not going to work out. To me, it’s more interesting to think what are the new kind of things that you can start very easily because you have this open protocol of the network,” he added.
Banking on the blockchain
The comments by Waterhouse on how banks are interacting with blockchain technology did not go unnoticed and resulted in further queries from Biggs about the extent to which they were actively engaged.
“There are some that are way more mature in their development cycle. I know of a couple of banks that have more than 150 people working on blockchain technologies,” Blockstream’s Austin Hill said.
Picking up on a recent patent filing by Goldman Sachs for its own in-house settlement cryptocurrency, Hill added that the technology’s potential goes beyond financial technology and banking, putting forward transactional insurance for the peer-to-peer economies as an example.
Finally, Hill concluded by alluding to the robustness of the bitcoin protocol, hinting future development is to be expected.
“Frankly one of the best things bitcoin has done is that it painted a $1bn-10bn security bounty on the protocol which is out there, available to be stolen. So over the last six years, I don’t there is a system that has undergone more peer review or stress testing than bitcoin, and that gives people a lot of confidence to then build on that as a platform.”
Images via Yessi Bello Perez for CoinDesk