Consensus 2017: People and Machine Problems – Solved with Blockchain?

In sessions focused on global issues and IoT at Consensus 2017 yesterday, the possibilities and hurdles for blockchain tech took centre stage.

AccessTimeIconMay 23, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:22 p.m. UTC

On a global scale, blockchain solutions are being sought to tackle the word's most pressing problems, everything from identity to financial services for the unbanked, and even world hunger.

But on panels discussing those very issues at CoinDesk's Consensus 2017 conference, it became clear that these were complex problems that would take a long time to sort out. Several panelists put out a call for more data – not simply on blockchain solutions that are working, but those that aren't, too.

Surprisingly, obtaining the latter was more difficult.

"This is a nascent field, and the startups in the space are tight-lipped about failures," said Mike Pisa, policy fellow at Center for Global Development, a US think tank focused on international development.

Rose Chan, founder of World Bank's blockchain working group, agreed with his sentiment, telling the audience:

"We need more data, we need more pilots and more trials. It is better for the entire ecosystem to be honest about what is not working."

And, as some pointed out, even blockchain has its limitations.

As Niall McCann, lead electoral advisor at United Nations Development Programme, remarked, there are good reasons why some programs do not succeed.

"We are operating in countries where having enough electricity in a mountain village is challenging," he said. "Often, we are dealing with problems that cannot be solved by technology."

Formulating identity

Speaking of global problems, worldwide, some 2.4 billion people do not have a formal identity, keeping them from becoming part of the global economy. But even for those who do have formal identities, the current centralized systems that manage those identities are cumbersome at best.

For example, most of us have fragmented identities spread out across numerous apps, like Facebook or LinkedIn, or connected to physical documents, like passports and birth certificates. Reputations systems are equally split up.

The hope is that blockchain could be a way to tie all of that together.

"The vision here is that the user gets to create their own identity core," explained Ryan Shea, co-founder of Blockstack, a company focused on building a decentralized internet. "And then instead of Uber locking up their ratings about you in their system, it gets attached to your identity core."

That all sounds well and good, but for many, putting personal information on a blockchain may sound daunting.

Drummond Reed, chief trust officer of Evernym, a company building an identity network on a permissioned ledger, argued that people’s fears about privacy are unwarranted, saying:

"You do not put private data on the chain. You put public data on the chain."

Machines and money

Identity doesn't just extend to humans, but also devices. On a different panel, several experts came together to discuss the future of blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Interestingly, the discussion quickly veered into how to tokenize money, so that machines can not only communicate and interact, but also transact.

Julio Faura, head of R&D Santander pointed out that with tokens, it is possible to place value much closer to IoT devices.

He said:

"We are working on ways to represent fiat values as tokens. You send money to a bank account, and blockchain will issue a token. You segregate funds for the clients, machines, devices, whatever you want. Those tokens are not subject to market volatility, they are just recourse against fiat value."

When asked if he thought that Santander would put a fiat-backed token on the blockchain, Faura responded: "Yes, we are working on that."

"Of course it is easier to work with private implementations," he continued. "[L]ater on we can progress to larger permissioned blockchain, where you have many other corporate users. But we have to go one step at a time."

Dominik Schiener, co-founder of IOTA, a non-profit organization working on a distributed ledger technology for IoT, said: "The way we see banks, is like on- and off-ramping for the fiat tokens."

But others on the panel were cautious about moving too fast in that direction.

Allison Clift Jennings, CEO and co-founder of Filament, a decentralized IoT solution that enables devices to hold unique identities on a public ledger, explained that her company's typical customer is a Fortune 1000 company.

"Tokenization is a little strange for them in a IoT of situations," she said, suggesting that there needs to be a hybrid approach to arrive at viable solutions.

Jennings told the crowd:

"We need to help guide them – hold their hand, really – as they get comfortable with this brave new world."

Image via Amy Castor for CoinDesk


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