Once viewed with fear and uncertainty by lawmakers, bitcoin and blockchain technology were heralded as innovations by US Congressman David Schweikert (R-AZ) at an industry conference yesterday.
The inaugural DC Blockchain Summit, produced by industry trade group the Chamber of Digital Commerce and held in Washington, DC, saw Schweikert and Natalee Binkholder, deputy chief of staff for Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), speak openly about the technology for the first time.
Representative Schweikert, in particular, presented an optimistic vision for blockchain, discussing how the technology could bring "unbankable" people across the world into the global economy.
Schweikert told the audience:
"This is going to create a revolution. It's so much more than moving microcurrency."
Throughout the day, panelists and attendees alike took the event as an opportunity to further dialogue about blockchain tech between the government and private sector professionals.
Schweikert identified himself as a vanguard in DC for his early advocacy of cryptocurrency, noting that he was the first to mention the term 'bitcoin' on Capitol Hill. Calling out the knowledge gap between technologists and policymakers, he encouraged the audience to help ensure the blockchain did not fall victim to "control freaks" who may harbor misconceptions about the technology.
Standing in for Congressman Mulvaney (who was scheduled to speak but cancelled due to illness), Natalee Binkholder remarked that the Congressman is a "key advocate" for blockchain and had planned to give a "high-level regulatory speech" about it.
Despite the impromptu nature of her appearance, she communicated Mulvaney’s message, stating: "The blockchain regulates itself".
Politically aligned with Representative Schweikert, Mulvaney is evidently more interested in fostering development than in creating barriers that may prevent unforeseen breakthroughs.
Binkholder also noted that he’s in it for the long haul: "Mick would like to be a leader in this regulatory space," she said, indicating that when Congress is called to act, he’ll be on the front lines.
In the first keynote speech, innovation expert and author of "Blockchain Revolution" Don Tapscott struck a visionary tone."The technology genie has been released from the bottle," he said, comparing blockchain tech’s disruptiveness to that of the early web.
Remarking on the digital revolution's financial impact, he stated that although technology may have contributed to economic growth, the number of jobs has not necessarily increased with it.
The value-distributing model of blockchains might even this asymmetric development, he said. He went on to clarify that blockchains do not re-distribute value, but rather can be harnessed to financially assist individuals across the world.
Singling out cases such as musician Imogen Heap's initiative to create a blockchain for musicians and Suber, a concept for a collectively-owned Uber, Tapscott noted that blockchain’s wide variety of applications can help create a "true" sharing economy.
As his speech drew to an end, he mentioned the ideal of "collective self-interest" multiple times, implying that blockchain tech can and should aid private interest to the greater benefit of society.
The first panel session introduced the audience to smart contracts, a technological advancement that’s been steadily gaining traction among startups and industry leaders.
Vitalik Buterin offered his own snappy, one-line definition of 'smart contract': "a computer program that protects an asset," the Ethereum inventor asserted, before the panel turned to its various use cases.
Panelists soon touched on a well-worn blockchain debate: the question of private versus public blockchains. The overall consensus was that the notion of the argument sets up a false dichotomy.
Speakers agreed that there are benefits and drawbacks to both, and although private chains may feel more comfortable (and be more marketable) to certain businesses, there are unique advantages to the openness of public chains.
This panel was followed by a keynote address from Chain CEO Adam Ludwin, who spoke about why institutions are beginning to develop their own blockchain databases.
Ludwin's company Chain provides enterprises with a blockchain platform, and he was enthusiastic about its variety of uses and encouraged creative thinking about how blockchains can be used.
The business buzz was soon tempered by a panel on law enforcement.
Featuring members of The Blockchain Alliance, a public-private forum created to combat criminal uses of virtual currency, panelists noted the willingness of blockchain companies to comply with government agencies.
"The level of outreach and coordination is eye-opening," said John Beccia, chief compliance officer and general counsel at Circle.
The FBI's C Alden Pelker went on to note that "there’s nothing inherently illicit about bitcoin," though peer-to-peer exchange seemed to elicit anxiety among speakers, particularly international transactions. Noting that some countries ignore virtual currency altogether, Homeland Security Investigations' Kevin Abar spoke of a need for laws to be developed across international boundaries.
On the subject of general compliance with crime-prevention agencies Coin Center’s Jerry Brito indicated that blockchain enterprises are “trying to prevent another Apple vs FBI.”
A later panel found Bill Hartnett of Citi indicating that they were getting "more questions than answers" from regulators thus far. At this point “it’s more about education,” said Dominick Paniscotti, associate vice president of Nasdaq.
Indeed, dialogue with federal agencies, clarification, and technological experimentation seemed to be more on the minds of financial service professionals than concerns over regulation, at least for now.
IBM, Digital Asset take stage
The Summit then turned back to business, with Blythe Masters offering a "fireside chat" moderated by Chamber of Digital Commerce founder Perianne Boring.
Masters, who is CEO of Digital Asset Holdings, reflected on her career at JPMorgan and the unique opportunities and challenges of working in financial tech.
"I wouldn’t have left a highly regulated industry to work for a startup that sells products to a highly regulated industry if there weren’t a way through the regulatory maze," she said.
Masters and Boring also discussed the need for greater gender diversity in FinTech, with Masters emphasizing that education is critical if young women are to become more actively involved in the industry.
The closing keynote was given by Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. Krishna took the opportunity to reaffirm IBM’s leadership role in blockchain enterprise solutions, stating that the Hyperledger Project has received "the biggest response ever for an open source project".
Later, Don Tapscott offered closing remarks that drove home a unified message to both government officials and industry professionals, concluding:
"Leadership isn’t necessarily from the top. Leadership is everybody’s opportunity."
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