A Blockchain Problem

Blockchain has been hailed as the next ‘big thing’, a term thrown around in social gatherings with the likes of ‘big data’, ‘cloud computing’ and ‘Internet of Things’. A crucial understanding of the true value of blockchain is sorely lacking in many minds, leading to wasted resources by some of the world’s top banks and tech firms.

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Blockchain has been hailed as the next ‘big thing’, a term thrown around in social gatherings with the likes of ‘big data’, ‘cloud computing’ and ‘Internet of Things’. A crucial understanding of the true value of blockchain is sorely lacking in many minds, leading to wasted resources by some of the world’s top banks and tech firms.

Having been dubbed another ‘solution without a problem’ by some of its critics, the hype surrounding blockchain appears to oscillate between inflated expectations, and the trough of disillusionment, never quite hitting the slope of enlightenment, and thus never approaching anything quite like a product.

So what good is it really?

If you’re not familiar with the Byzantine Generals problem, here’s a quick overview:

Nine Byzantine Generals are entrenched around a city. They are divided upon their current course of action: do they attack, or do they retreat? Failing to reach consensus, they decide to cast votes, each general sending a messenger to relay their choice to the other generals, where the majority decision will be the action to take.

Four of the generals vote to attack and four vote to retreat. The group is split in two: those in favour of retreating, who begin to strike down their tents, and those in favour of attacking, who gather on the frontlines. What of the last general? Well, he’s been bribed by the city’s leaders*. Rather than vote one way or the other, he dispatches two messengers; the first states that he will attack, the second states that he will retreat.

Four of the generals thus lead their troops into battle and suffer a stunning defeat. The other four generals retreat, dishonoured, with a significantly weakened army.

This story is an allegory of a concept we have come to know as double-spending. In traditional markets, every merchant keeps their own ledger of all transactions. This is also true in the world of digital payments. Some clever customers have been known to make multiple transactions to different vendors, essentially issuing IOUs without the actual means to make good on every transaction. Come time for settlement, vendors have delivered their items, banks are short and the clever customer has high-tailed it through a proxy**.

This is the main problem Blockchain is intended solve: a distributed ledger network in which all vendors and customers share the same record of transactions and balances. Incentivised ‘miners’ add new transactions to the pool, where only one block of transactions is accepted at a time, based on mutual consensus by other parties, effectively solving the double-spend issue.

Too bad the Byzantines didn’t have blockchain.

Perhaps we need to go back to basics and focus on utilizing blockchain for its original intended purpose. All the pieces are set for us to begin digitizing financial instruments, ushering in a new era of trusted peer-to-peer transacting. The only question remains; what happened to the early adopters?

by Stuart Allen

The Evolution of Money – Part 2

The emergence of crypto instruments has allowed digital monetary value to be held without the need for a trusted intermediary for the first time in history. Crypto currencies – the most common type of crypto instrument today – such as Bitcoin, Ether, and many others demonstrate this fact.

(This is a continuation of my earlier blog: The Evolution of Money – Part 1)

The emergence of crypto instruments has allowed digital monetary value to be held without the need for a trusted intermediary for the first time in history. Crypto currencies – the most common type of crypto instrument today – such as Bitcoin, Ether, and many others demonstrate this fact. Anyone who owns crypto currency has a unique private key (akin to a password) that allows the owner (and only the owner) to mathematically “unlock” or spend the value at an associated public address (akin to an account number). The ledger that records the amount of crypto currency at any particular public address is maintained by a network of computers (called nodes) that run a consensus algorithm to ensure that they are all synchronised.

The ingenuity of this network of nodes working together to validate transactions (and reject any double-spending) is that the multitude of nodes ensures that there is no dependence on any single one to ensure the integrity of the ledger. This is a powerful concept – the way to remove a trusted intermediary is not to get rid of the intermediary, but to increase the number of intermediaries that are maintaining the same ledger so that trust in any particular intermediary is no longer needed. Dependence on any single intermediary reduces as the network grows, and indeed the term “intermediary” starts to become inappropriate and even inaccurate.

To understand the financial world’s fascination with crypto currency and blockchain, we have to examine the nature of money. The traditional textbook definition of money refers to its three major functions in society: a means of exchange; a unit of account; and a store of value. Interrogating this further, however, it becomes apparent that all three functions relate to the concept of money representing value. After all, why accept money as a means of exchange for something else of value unless one believes the money has at least the value of what it was traded for? And a unit of account that measures the value of other products needs to possess value itself, otherwise it would be abandoned as a unit of account (as we have seen in any economy that has witnessed hyperinflation). So if the functions of money boil down to the value it possesses, what determines the value of money?

Six characteristics determine how effectively money performs the functions mentioned above and in turn determine its value. These characteristics are:

  1. Durability – if money is meant to store value and does not last long itself, it cannot function as a very good store of value;
  2. Portability – to facilitate trade, money needs to be very portable, and costs associated with transferring it from one party to another diminish its function as money;
  3. Fungibility – a unit of money should be exactly the same as any other unit, otherwise time and energy would be consumed in comparing tokens rather than promoting trade;
  4. Divisibility – the smallest unit of money must be worth less than every other tradable asset, otherwise another token of money would need to be used to trade something worth less than the smallest unit of money;
  5. Scarcity – the oversupply of any commodity brings its value down, and in the extreme case, where something is overly abundant, it cannot be used to trade for other scarce resources; and
  6. Acceptability – money is accepted because the recipient believes it will be accepted by others when he/she wants to spend it. Without the belief that money will be accepted by others in the future, it would cease to be money.

Crypto currency is a better performing form of money (versus physical cash and digital money) in two significant ways: (1) It is more durable (it’s backed up by many more servers across institutions than traditional digital money that is backed up only by the servers of an individual bank); and (2) it is more portable (as it is more seamless to move money on a single decentralised ledger than across different centralised ledgers). Money is supposed to be the most frictionless asset in society, and crypto currency is the most frictionless form of money to date.

The Evolution of Money – Part 3 coming soon!

by Farzam Ehsani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blockchain in Finance: From Buzzword to Watchword in 2016

In this feature, Farzam Ehsani looks back at the evolution of blockchain development – and nomenclature – in the finance space over the course of 2016. Further, he anticipates the introduction of central bank-issued cryptocurrencies that will truly usher in the age of the blockchain.

If 2015 was the year when many first heard about blockchain, 2016 was the year when many pretended to understand what it was – it was just too embarrassing to admit ignorance of a term that had become such a buzzword.

After all, everyone else seemed to know what it was. “It’s a distributed ledger!” became the battle cry to fend off those that came close to uncovering our lack of understanding.

http://www.newsbtc.com/2016/12/25/blockchain-technology-multidisciplinary-need/
http://www.newsbtc.com/2016/12/25/blockchain-technology-multidisciplinary-need/

Yet, the truth is that we’re all learning. Whether it is figuring out what a “node” is or understanding the intricacies of homomorphic encryption and zk-SNARKs, we are all witnessing the unfoldment of this beautiful technology and its implications for the world.

I like to compare blockchain to an extraordinary vehicle that we’ve heard can travel from Cape Town to Cairo in a matter of seconds.

As news spreads of the discovery of this amazing vehicle, more and more people imagine new possibilities, and announcements proliferate: the vehicle will be used to transport maize, coal, sunflowers and more. But when asked what this vehicle looks like – whether it has wings or wheels, belts or brakes – few can offer satisfactory answers.

Such has been the state of blockchain in 2016: a magnificent technology has been discovered, and numerous use cases abound, however, much work needs to be done to better understand and build the underlying platform or “vehicle”.

Protocol growth

While we fell in love with bitcoin and the genius of Satoshi, we also realized that the bitcoin vehicle wasn’t designed for all terrains.

The financial services industry requires a multi-asset platform which is not what bitcoin was designed for. Furthermore, in a regulated environment, actors are known to one another and a breach of trust has punitive consequences. As such, a consensus algorithm such as proof-of-work, intended for trustless participants, serves little purpose except to increase costs and transaction times in a permissioned network.

With this recognition, 2016 saw the emergence of several open-source platforms for the financial services industry, from Hyperledger to Chain Core to Corda (adding to other open-source platforms such as ethereum and Monax released in previous years).

Several more platforms exist in the proprietary space, and many of these will head into open-source territory in 2017. I believe their proprietors will come to acknowledge that any chance of long-term success at the protocol level lies in the network effect, which is hindered by any attempts of monetization.

After all, no one makes money from TCP/IP or HTTP.

Use case among use cases

As vehicle designs (permissioned blockchain protocols) emerged this year, the proclamation of use cases grew louder. One use case in particular will allow all others to reach their highest potential: money.

Moving the most common asset in our economies – fiat currency – onto a blockchain is currently the most significant use case of all. This is because nearly all transactions in our economies involve two parts, one of which is virtually always money.

Money is the lubricant of our economies and its value is in being the most frictionless asset of all (currently, it is not). Unregulated cryptocurrencies have outperformed fiat currency in this regard and the financial world has woken up to this.

Central banks from Canada to China, England to Europe, Sweden to Singapore, USA to the RSA, and many more, are researching, testing, or actively pursuing the establishment of a central bank issued cryptocurrency* (CBCC).

The issuance of CBCC on a sovereign blockchain will allow other financial instruments such as bonds, equities, derivatives, and even land and car registries, to be migrated to the same blockchain and permit a plethora of use cases to come to full fruition.

Without CBCC on a sovereign blockchain, most use cases are stymied. For example, reducing the settlement time of equities to zero isn’t very helpful if the money used to buy those equities still takes a day or two to settle.

Catalyst for the future

The issuance of CBCC on a sovereign blockchain would not only catalyse other use cases, it would also transform the very nature of the banking industry itself.

In the paper “The Advent of Crypto Banking”, I describe a future in which banks might not be deposit-taking institutions, in which bank runs could not exist, and in which banking systems could be more stable and inclusive. The case for fiat currency on a blockchain is indisputable for central banks and regulators.

As we move into 2017, we will see the transformation of blockchain from a buzzword to a watchword. We will see the custodians of our fiat currencies, central banks, move closer to harnessing the power of blockchain technology for the benefit of entire economies.

The amazing blockchain vehicle that once only existed in Satoshi’s imagination will soon benefit the lives of all. Humanity awaits.

*I intentionally use the word “crypto” and not “digital” as central bank-issued digital currency has existed for several decades already.

by Farzam Ehsani

 

Farzam Ehsani is the leader of the Blockchain Initiative for the FirstRand Group (Africa’s largest bank by market cap).

This piece was originally published on CoinDesk.com on 20 December 2016 here

 

The Evolution of Money – Part 1:

Any monetary value in our society exists in one of two ways: bearer instruments or registered instruments. A bearer instrument is an asset that is assumed to be owned by the holder of the instrument for which no transaction record is kept.

CRYPTO INSTRUMENTS – THE NEW MONETARY INSTRUMENT

Any monetary value in our society exists in one of two ways: bearer instruments or registered instruments.  A bearer instrument is an asset that is assumed to be owned by the holder of the instrument for which no transaction record is kept.  An example is physical cash.  You do not need to prove to anyone that the physical cash in your wallet is yours.  You have it and so you are the presumed owner.  Society keeps no record of who previously had the $20 dollar bill that now sits in your wallet.  Registered instruments, on the other hand, are assets whose ownership is determined by referencing a ledger managed by a trusted institution (e.g., properties at the Deeds Office, bonds and equities at the Central Securities Depository, or digital money in a bank account).  While all assets can be categorised as either bearer or registered instruments, assets can also be categorised as either physical or digital assets.  Overlaying asset form (i.e., physical vs. digital) onto instrument type (i.e., bearer vs. registered) helps us understand the evolution of monetary instruments in our society.

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Figure 1: The evolution of monetary instruments in society

 

Physical bearer instruments were the first monetary instruments of humanity (e.g., animal hides, shells, salt, etc.), but communities came to realise that such forms of monetary value had their limitations.  Land, for example, would be a disastrous bearer instrument.  If you left your land to hunt, and came back to find someone else standing on your land claiming it as theirs, one of two outcomes could result:  The loss of the land to the new “owner”; or violence to resolve the dispute.  Furthermore, there would be an incentive to remain on your land to maintain ownership and avoid any potential disputes.  None of these outcomes is conducive to an advancing civilisation.  So as communities came together, physical registered instruments emerged where the community collectively agreed on a trusted intermediary to keep the record of ownership (the source of truth) of a particular asset and update it on the community’s behalf.

As computers became more widely adopted, many of these physical registered instruments migrated from physical to digital registers.  The birth of digital registers also gave rise to digital registered instruments – instruments that have no physical form, and are defined purely by an entry onto a digital register (e.g., a government bond or money in a bank account).  Physical forms of value are easy to understand in this framework.  Digital instruments are less intuitive.

A purely digital bearer instrument (e.g., a digital coin) cannot function as a monetary instrument due to the double-spending problem.  Think of a photograph on your smartphone.  Sending this photograph to someone else does not delete it from your phone – you retain a copy.  This poses a problem for anything digital that is meant to represent value.  What is critically important in any monetary system is that when someone spends their money, they no longer have it.  The ability to copy and paste the digital coin ID mentioned above ad infinitum – the ability to double-spend it – reduces its scarcity and ultimately debases its value.  To avoid double-spending of digital monetary instruments, society has established trusted institutions (such as banks, deeds offices, CSDs) that ensure that when someone receives digital value, someone else must by definition no longer have it.  This is a fundamental principle of our double-entry accounting system where every debit must be equal to a corresponding credit.

In summary, three types of monetary instruments have been described:

  • Physical bearer instrument;
  • Physical registered instrument; and
  • Digital registered instrument.

These three instrument types were the only ones available to humanity until 2009.  That year, Satoshi Nakamoto’s seminal paper “Bitcoin: a peer-to-peer electronic cash system” combined advances in computer science, cryptography and game theory to develop what has now become known as blockchain technology.  This technology has allowed the emergence of a fourth type of monetary instrument:

  • Crypto instrument

The crypto instrument is a digital hybrid instrument with characteristics of both bearer and registered instruments.  It’s like a bearer instrument because the holder of a digital private key is the presumed owner of the value it controls, and a registered instrument because that value is recorded on a ledger (albeit a distributed one).  The presence of both bearer and registered instrument characteristics are necessary for the existence of a crypto instrument.  All assets issued onto a blockchain are crypto instruments.

The Evolution of Money – Part 2 coming soon!

by Farzam Ehsani

Why did we choose Ethereum?

We’ve always said “You can’t spring a blockchain on anyone”. Blockchains by their nature are more secure, more reliable and therefore more useful as more nodes connect to them.

 

As a banking consortium why did we choose Ethereum over other blockchains?
We’ve always said “You can’t spring a blockchain on anyone”.  Blockchains by their nature are more secure, more reliable and therefore more useful as more nodes connect to them.
In the consortium space, the same is true.  You can’t build a blockchain on your own.  As financial institutions in South Africa, we came together several months ago to start working on a blockchain that we could all use to test concepts, experiment with technology and understand the implications of working across a number of institutions on a distributed shared ledger.

The first question we had to ask ourselves was “What blockchain do we use?”  This is not a trivial question.  There are a number of options that we looked at.  We used various questions to build a filter through which we examined the blockchains on offer.

Is this a “free to use” (i.e. open source) product?

While we as banks generally don’t use open source products and look for licensed products because of the support, quality etc that is included with those products, this project was different:

  1. We were not looking to build a production system, we were looking to pilot a number of concepts.
  2. The licensing costs become prohibitive as the number of institutions wanting to get involved increased.
  3. This is such a new technology that we felt that paying for a product that was still being developed was not ideal.

This ruled out a number of solutions that were technically sound but either had prohibitive licensing costs and/or limited access to the source code.

Can this be used for banking transactions?

While bitcoin is the biggest blockchain network out there, the bitcoin protocol is not designed for banking transactions.  The bitcoin network works brilliantly for bitcoins.  It is a single asset blockchain and does payments extremely well.  The problem is that the majority of banking transactions involve more than one asset.

  • Bank 1 purchases a bond from Bank 2 for x million.
  • Bank 1 places a Treasury Bill with the Central bank on repo for 1 week and then settles with interest on maturity of that repo agreement.
  • So we ruled out a few blockchain solutions where there was limited support for contracts and/or no multi-asset features.
  • Blockchains like MultiChain, while they are simple to use, did not have contract support.
  • There was an option to look at Counterparty style assets on the bitcoin blockchain, or use coloured coins, but these were not ideal solutions and there is limited smart contract support.
  • We needed a blockchain that supported contracts and multiple asset types.

Are there development tools that support the blockchain?

While there are many blockchains out there, not many have a mature set of development tools to support them.  As a developer, building on top of blockchain, you still need to be able to:

  • Create code (contract code in the case of blockchains).
  • Test that code.
  • Put the code into source control.
  • Deploy the code (core blockchain code as well as contract code) into a test environment.
  • Deploy the code into a production environment.
  • Monitor the blockchain and monitor the contracts running on the blockchain.
  • Most blockchains are still new (the bitcoin blockchain has only been running since 2009 and it is the oldest blockchain out there).  The tools supporting those blockchains are even newer and in many cases are non-existent.

Is there a community around the technology?

This was probably the most important question we asked.  Because of the network effect of blockchains, the more people working on a blockchain, the more other people will want to work on that blockchain.

Many blockchains listed on coinmarketcap for example have small teams working on the technology.  Some of the bigger cryptocurrencies have larger teams (bitcoin and litecoin for example).

The one community that has really exploded in the last year is the Ethereum community.  It is also an extremely diverse community.

The Ethereum foundation is focused on the core technology.  There are multiple teams working on multiple client implementations (Geth, Parity, CPP etc).    There are language experts working on JIT compilers and interpreters.  Dr Greg Colvin for example has been working for years on various compilers and is now involved in fine tuning the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) interpreter

Companies like ConsenSys, Monax Industries (Eris) and IPFS are working on applications based on Ethereum.

Banks and banking consortia are using the platform and contributing back to the platform.

The community is vast, specialised and growing and was one of the main reasons why we decided to put Ethereum at the top of our list.

Conclusion

While this technology is still very new, the landscape is already starting to take shape.  In our view, Ethereum ticks all the boxes when it comes to a blockchain technology that can easily be used by a banking consortium.

  • It is free to use (with full access to the source code)
  • It supports multiple assets
  • It supports contracts
  • It has a great set of tools
  • It has a vast and growing community developing around it

by Peter Munnings

Blockchain: The Beginning

The advent of the Information Age in the 1970s allowed humanity to evolve to a point where information flowed freely, unhindered by national borders, and without the need for intermediaries such as post offices, libraries and universities. We’re now moving into an age where not only information, but value can flow freely without the need for trusted intermediaries…

HOW IT ALL STARTED

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Source: http://dribble.com

The advent of the Information Age in the 1970s allowed humanity to evolve to a point where information flowed freely, unhindered by national borders, and without the need for intermediaries such as post offices, libraries and universities. We’re now moving into an age where not only information, but value can flow freely without the need for trusted intermediaries such as banks, deeds offices and central securities depositories (CSDs). The technology that has allowed this digital peer-to-peer value transfer revolution is called Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) or, as it’s more commonly known, blockchain technology.

WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN?

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Source: http://strategy-business.com

Blockchain initially emerged as the technology that allowed Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, to operate without a trusted intermediary but through a network of participant computers (or nodes as they’re called), working together to validate peer-to-peer transactions. These transactions are time-stamped in a distributed ledger that all the nodes have access to and collaborate on. While blockchains are relatively new (the first was the Bitcoin blockchain in 2009), they are a product of technologies that have been developing over the last half century in the fields of computer science and cryptography. In essence, a blockchain solves the problem of “double-spending” – the ability to spend digital value more than once – without resorting to a trusted intermediary model.

WHY IS BLOCKCHAIN IMPORTANT?

The transfer of value – or payments – earns the global banking industry ~USD1.7 trillion , which is roughly 40% of total global banking revenues. Much of this revenue is earned due to the need to send payment instructions and reconcile ledgers where exceptions occur. To be sure, the cost of conducting payment transactions is a fraction of global banking revenues; however, many costly resources are still involved with clearing and settlement, exceptions and reconciliations. Blockchain technology portends to bring the marginal cost of transactions to almost zero, while eliminating many of the inefficiencies involved in the payment process, resulting in almost instantaneous and automated clearing and settlement.
Beyond payments, blockchain technology promises to revolutionise the transfer of any kind of value – from equities and bonds in a CSD, to title deeds managed by a government department, to currencies held in banks. Indeed, many trusted intermediaries understand that their roles are changing and are actively engaged in understanding what the new financial services ecosystem will look like.

WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT BLOCKCHAIN?

Our team is engaged in three main avenues of work:

  1. Understanding and education: As blockchain technology is nascent, we’re tracking all the latest developments and collating these learnings into a format that makes the content accessible to everyone. Our biggest obstacle right now is ignorance.
  2. In-house research: We have built our own blockchain prototypes, issuing mock assets (such as NCDs and a digital currency), trading these assets and deploying smart contracts. While most discussions about blockchain technology these days revolve around “use cases”, we prefer to focus on the platform that will allow a myriad use cases to emerge.
  3. Collaboration with other institutions: A blockchain is like a fax machine – if no one else has one, it’s not much use. So, we’ve taken an inclusive approach and share our learnings and engage with other institutions to progress South Africa’s collective understanding of this technology. We believe that by being inclusive and collaborative, a collective vision for a future financial markets infrastructure will emerge.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Blockchain technology is in its infancy and there is much work and learning to be done before it can be widely adopted and yield the tremendous benefits that have been promised for society. However, this technology is a double-edged sword for the banking industry (and the financial services industry overall). While it heralds a new age in the “value transfer business”, from a cost and efficiency perspective, it threatens some business lines that have up to now been lucrative for the banking industry. At the same time, other streams for value creation will emerge. What is important at this juncture is to understand the developments in this space and ensure we bring the benefits of blockchain to a broad range of stakeholders – customers and shareholders alike.

by Farzam Ehsani