What is the blockchain?

Blockchains are part of the evolving history of internet technology, so we must grasp their potential, writes William Mougayar

If you cannot understand it without an explanation, you cannot understand it with an explanation’ – Haruki Murakami

Understanding blockchains, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies, in the form of a shared digital ledger, is tricky. You need to understand their message before you can appreciate their potential. In addition to their technological capabilities, blockchains carry with them philosophical, cultural, and ideological underpinnings that must also be understood. 

In terms of defining blockchains, they are essentially digital ledgers, in which transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly, but unless you’re a software developer, blockchains will not be products you just turn on and use. Blockchains will enable other products that you use, though you may not know there is a blockchain behind them.

It is my belief that the knowledge transfer behind understanding the blockchain is easier than the knowledge about knowing where they will fit. It’s like learning how to drive a car. I could teach you how to drive one, but cannot predict where you will take it. Only you know your particular business or situation, and only you will be able to figure out where blockchains fit – after you have learned what they can do. Of course, we will first go together on road tests and racing tracks to give you some ideas.

Visiting Satoshi’s paper

When Tim Berners-Lee created the first World Wide Web page in 1990, he wrote: ‘When we link information in the web, we enable ourselves to discover facts, create ideas, buy and sell things, and forge new relationships at a speed and scale that was unimaginable in the analogue era.’

In that short statement, Berners-Lee predicted search, publishing, e-commerce, email, and social media – all at once, in a single stroke. The Bitcoin equivalent to that type of prescience by someone who just created something spectacular can be found in Satoshi Nakamato’s 2008 paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, arguably the root of modern blockchain-based cryptocurrency innovation.

The paper’s abstract depicts Bitcoin’s foundation and explains its first principles:

A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution

A trusted third party is not required to prevent double-spending.

We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-
peer network

The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work.

The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of central processing unit (CPU) power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they’ll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. 

The network itself requires minimal structure. Messages are broadcast on a best-effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the longest proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone. 

If you are a non-technical reader, and you focus on the italicised parts, you will start to get the gist of it. Please re-read the above points, until you have got to grips with Nakamoto’s sequential logic. 

Seriously. You will need to believe and accept that validating peer-to-peer transactions is entirely possible just by letting the network perform a trust duty, without central interference or hand-holding. 

Paraphrasing Nakamoto’s paper, we should be left with these points:

peer-to-peer electronic transactions and interactions 

without financial institutions 

cryptographic proof instead of central trust 

put trust in the network instead of in a
central institution. 

As it turns out, the blockchain is that technology invention behind Bitcoin, and what makes this possible. With Satoshi’s abstract still in your mind, let us delve deeper with three different, but complementary, definitions of the blockchain: a technical, business, and legal one. 

Technically, the blockchain is a back-end database that maintains a distributed ledger that can be inspected openly.

Business-wise, the blockchain is an exchange network for moving transactions, value, assets between peers, without the assistance
of intermediaries.

Legally speaking, the blockchain validates transactions, replacing
previously trusted entities.

TECHNICAL: back-end database that maintains a distributed ledger, openly

BUSINESS: exchange network for moving value between peers

LEGAL: a transaction-validation mechanism, not requiring intermediary assistance.

Blockchain capabilities = technical + business + legal.

The web, all over again

The past is not an accurate compass to the future, but understanding where we came from helps us gain an enlightened perspective and a better context for where we are going. The blockchain is simply part of the continuation of the history of Internet technology, represented by the web, as it carries on its journey to infiltrate our world, businesses, society, and government, and across the several cycles and phases that often become visible only in the rear-view mirror. 

The internet was first rolled out in 1983, but was the World Wide Web that gave us its watershed evolutionary moment, because it made information and information-based services openly and instantly available to anyone on earth who had access to the web.

In the same way that billions of people around the world are currently connected to the web, millions (and then billions) of people will be connected to blockchains. We should not be surprised if the velocity of blockchain usage propagation surpasses the historical web users growth. 

By mid-2016, 47% of the world’s 7.4 billion population had an internet connection. In 1995, that number was less than 1%. It took until 2005 to reach 1 billion web users. By contrast, cellular phone usage galloped faster, passing the number of landlines in 2002, and surpassing the world’s population in 2013. As for websites, in 2016, their total number hovered at around one billion. Quite possibly, blockchains will evolve into several flavours, and will become as easily configurable as launching a website on WordPress or Squarespace. 

The blockchain’s usage growth has an advantage on the web’s trajectory, because its starting point is amplified along four segments: web users, cellular phone users, website owners, and any ‘thing’ that benefits from being connected, becoming a ‘smart thing’. This means that blockchain usage will ride on these four categories, instead of purely seeking new users – and the possibilities are endless. 

Once you start to imagine blockchains’ possibilities on your own, without continuously thinking about trying to understand them at the same time, you will be able to move forward in terms of how you can exploit them. 

Further reading

Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, https://bitcoin .org/en/bitcoin-paper.

This is an edited extract from The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice, and Application of the Next Internet Technology by William Mougayar (Wiley, 2016). 

WILLIAM MOUGAYAR is general partner at Virtual Capital Ventures, an early stage tech fund. He is on the board of directors of OB1, the OpenBazaar open source protocol that is pioneering decentralised peer-to-peer commerce; a special advisor to the Ethereum Foundation; a member of OMERS Ventures board of advisors; an advisory board member to the Coin Center; and founder of Startup Management.

He has been described as the most sophisticated blockchain business thinker. He is a blockchain industry insider whose work has already shaped and influenced the understanding of blockchain for people around the world, via his generous blogging and rigorous research insights.

How to get the best out of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence-driven technology will be transformational in many industries, but how it shapes organisations will depend on their leaders, writes Jonathan Knight

Much has been written – not all of it true – about the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the workplace. 

AI is already transforming automated industries, including production, e-commerce, advertising, finance and logistics. It will soon impact more analytical and advisory occupations such as law, consultancy and medicine. But media reports about AI sometimes paint an unrealistic picture of its powers and fail to allow for obstacles in its application. 

There has been less discussion of the practical impact AI will have, or how its application may be slowed due to poor public acceptance. Nevertheless, despite uncertainty about the breadth and pace of its impact, it is certain that AI will create significant challenges for leaders. 

AI – how far will it go?

A fascinating five minutes can be spent taking the BBC’s test to ascertain how likely robots are to take over your job in the next two decades. With the ability to analyse enormous quantities of data, perform intricate operations and recognise instructions, the direction of travel is clear: AI-driven technology will be transformational in many industries. 

Needless to say, however, AI is not magic. Virtually all recent progress in machine learning has been made through ‘supervised learning’, in which input data (A) generates a straightforward response (B). Human intelligence is capable of much more than A to B; we make choices based on complex data gathered over the course of our lifetimes, through learning, memory, experience and genetics. And, given the limitations of present-day AI, robots are a lot less likely to assimilate certain skills in the near term; those, for example, that require an understanding of history and culture, or context and reason. 

It is difficult to imagine robots developing the empathy of humans, which is why we are more likely to be comfortable with a robot carrying out a complicated medical procedure on us, than with a robot checking up on us post-surgery to see how we’re doing and to offer us a cup of tea. 

In other words, while tasks that require complex technical skills and knowledge may be carried out by robots, there are some that we would rather were done by other human beings, with whom we can have genuine, human emotional interaction.The ability to exercise effective judgement, creativity and discretion, combined with the capacity to improvise – as opposed to simply moving from A to B – will therefore be key skills for leaders of the future. Navigating a route through the kind of complex change that AI will bring isn’t necessarily anything new for leaders. However, the scale and pace of the change that AI brings will be, and this means that weaknesses at the top are more likely to be exposed than ever before.

Challenge one: strategy – and structure

As decision makers, leaders will need not only to recognise and understand how their market context is changing but how to adapt and respond to that change. Only by doing so can leaders ensure their organisations stay ahead of (or at least keep up with) the curve, and remain relevant to those they serve. It is not surprising that boards are scurrying to ensure they include a top-notch chief technology officer, bringing digital understanding to strategic decision making – although technology executives are still poorly represented on public boards. 

A few companies have gone further. Back in 2014, a Hong Kong-based venture capital firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, became one of the first companies in the world to appoint an algorithm, named VITAL, to its board of directors. VITAL supports fellow board members by providing information on potential investment decisions, scanning vast quantities of financial figures and other data on its potential future clients, as well as trends in the market. 

However, as the philosopher Voltaire was wise enough to suggest several centuries ago, it’s important to judge people ‘by their questions, not their answers’. Or, in the context of AI, the data currently produced is only as useful as the humans who feed in the data sets and analyse and interpret the results. 

Leaders must therefore ensure they not only have the right board make-up to respond to technology-led change, but that they have the right structures throughout their organisations, effectively surrounding AI with the human intelligence. This brings us to challenge two.

Challenge two: skills and motivation

In responding to change and staying ahead of the curve, a second absolutely critical element to success or failure for leaders will be whether or not they bring their workforce with them; both in terms of equipping their employees with the right skills to complement AI and motivating them to remain effective throughout a potentially long period of upheaval.

We are often warned about a lack of STEM skills that will needed to navigate the future. In a recent UK study by the Confederation of British Industry and Pearson, more than half of respondent companies were concerned that their future growth would be held back by
skills shortages. 

However, as AI-powered robots become easier for users to interact with, companies will need to focus on developing those skills that are distinctly human; for example, intuition, creativity, empathy, resilience and the ability to scan horizons and context in a way that adds value to the business. Getting this level, and mix, of skills right will be an important part of leaders’ future-proofing strategies, no doubt influenced by access to global talent, as well as home-grown training programmes.

 In terms of motivation, as with any disruption, change needs to be driven from the top with clarity, vision and consideration for those affected. And in doing so, leaders themselves will increasingly have to focus on their soft leadership skills, rather than proving their authority through knowledge and technical expertise. The latter skills may soon become augmented or replaced entirely by AI.

Fortunately, when it comes to helping both leaders and employees get to grips with rapid change, AI is not only the problem but part of the solution. For example, at my own organisation, Ososim, we have experienced the power of AI in helping to create training simulations that are so carefully modelled on the responses of the human brain, participants find them very persuasive and effective. These simulations are already being used by some of the largest companies around the world to help improve skills and capabilities in areas such as emotional intelligence, mental resilience and persuasion.

Challenge three: vision and purpose

old robot toy

Finally, while all this upheaval can sound deeply intimidating, we must remember that technology has been improving the capabilities we have as humans for decades. Until now, the focus has been more on what we are physically capable of doing. Technology has helped us to achieve things that our bodies were simply not capable of doing before – from flying thousands of miles through the air to communicating with one another across continents.

With the help of AI, technology is now enhancing our mental capabilities as well as our physical ones: crunching huge quantities of information in milliseconds, and using algorithms that flawlessly remember every correction ever made.

What technology cannot yet master is understand what it is actually doing and why; nor does it care. A robot kitted out with AI has no sense of ethics or purpose, equity or fairness, beyond what we humans tell it. 

And therein lies the third hugely significant challenge for today’s leaders and those of tomorrow: AI will be as ‘good’ or as ‘bad’ as humans make it. It was with this challenge in mind that, in 2014, AI research firm DeepMind insisted that if it were to sell its AI programme to Google, an ethics committee must be appointed to oversee its use.

It is imperative that human leaders, across public and private sectors, remain closely involved with the development of AI, challenging the data, putting it in context, and remembering that human creativity, vision and purpose may need to override whatever AI is or isn’t saying. AI may bring incredible progress, but it is our human leaders who must remain in charge of the moral compass.

Organisations such as the World Economic Forum have played a strong role in leading this kind of global discussion. They have set the challenge squarely at the door of leaders across the private, public and third sectors, in terms of how the fourth industrial revolution can be balanced with responsible governance and global goals, from the elimination of extreme poverty to gender equality. 

Business Schools, such as INSEAD, are putting the development of thoughtful, responsible leaders, at the heart of their missions. As the populist, negative emotions expressed by once-dominant groups, threatened by technological change, increasingly distract political leaders, so business leaders will need to provide the positive vision to guide inevitable technological advances.The human race has been through change before; our greatest strength as a species has been our ability to evolve and survive. But in each and every transition, leadership is key. Smart machines can make us smarter, and continue to drive our progress forward. But we must take nothing for granted. 

Strategy, motivation and vision will all be essential to how well we humans ride this next wave.

Jonathan Knight is CEO of global learning and technology company Ososim. He was part of the leadership team that established Accenture Learning and a founding member of the EU’s eLearning Industry Group. Jonathan has an MBA from INSEAD. His clients include BNP Paribas, Cisco, Deloitte, London Business School and the World Economic Forum.

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