Can Kitties, Weed, and Votes Save Blockchain?
As the cryptocurrency bubble looks ready to burst, developers and innovators at SXSW see new uses for the underlying tech
Depending on who you ask, blockchain technology is either the solution to many of the world's problems or an area of overly hyped tech that is often incorrectly referenced interchangeably with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Lots of people still seem to get lost in just trying to understand how the technology works. If you want the technical definition, blockchain is a distributed record of digital transactions, where each record of change represents a "block" that is linked together on a single list or "chain." Anytime someone makes a transaction, the change is automatically logged on a ledger that everyone on the blockchain can see. So far, perhaps the easiest conceptual usage for this technology has been currency. But the truth is, blockchain is actually far more than just the backbone of cryptocurrencies.
"Blockchain is plumbing; it's just a better way to move data from point A to point B. And if it's working, it's totally uninteresting," said blockchain startup investor Bradley Tusk. He'll be part of the "Block(chain)-the-Vote" panel at SXSW, discussing how the technology can be used to legitimize the use of mobile phones for voting in general elections, but he's not too concerned about the information gap. "I don't need people to care about how their vote is transmitted. I just need them to care about the election enough to want to vote in the first place."
Tusk isn't some tech investor swooping in to save politics from bureaucrats. As the former deputy governor of Illinois and campaign manager for then-New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's successful 2009 re-election, he's been in the trenches, and knows the issues. Voter turnout in most elections across the country is, unsurprisingly, far from representative of the number of eligible voters. Tusk said the ease of mobile voting would drastically shift that dynamic, as it would make it much easier to participate in elections, and he argues blockchain will legitimize the process for anyone who isn't confident that the results of such an election would be valid and free of manipulation.
"You still have these people who are sort of paper-only ballot, with the view that anything electronic in any way, shape, or form is a risk," Tusk said. "Now if we're only trying to solve the problem of hacking, and don't care about voter turnout, they'd probably be right. But that perspective defeats the entire purpose [of an election if no one votes]."
And what Tusk is doing isn't just purely conceptual, either. Recently, the Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies organization helped successfully execute the first mobile election using blockchain technology for overseas and military voters registered in West Virginia. He'll be field-testing the tech during his SXSW panel, with attendees participating in a live mobile vote. However, Tusk said he doesn't expect the blockchain portion of the tech to evoke a lot of excitement from the crowd. "Ultimately, when you look at blockchain beyond [cryptocurrency], this is what it is. Its best use is fairly boring, very effective, and efficient."
Boring might be how you'd think about a blockchain platform tracking a plant from farm to market. However, when the plants are marijuana crops and the intention is to provide a means of accountability and transparency to defend against, weaken, and ultimately eliminate a black market for narcotics, blockchain seems far more interesting.
"The entire effort to legalize [cannabis] primarily is being driven on the governmental side from a desire to kill the black market," said Jess Jessop, CEO of California Cannabis Market. Along with partners at IBM, he's developing a system to track and connect each part of the process from growth, to harvest, to shipping, to even tying in the payment transactions. When it's finished, he hopes it will provide as good or greater tracking transparency than is currently used by the pharmaceutical industry, and would be applicable to markets beyond cannabis, like tracking perishable foods or fish sales.
While elimination of a black market for narcotics or improving voter turnout to amplify democracy are both worthy problems to tackle, blockchain also has its share of lighthearted, fun uses. For instance, CryptoKitties, arguably the first breakout hit game built on the Ethereum blockchain. Users can purchase, trade, and/or breed digital kittens, which have their own set of rules. It may seem like a silly concept, but over $25 million has been spent on these digital baby cats. Plus, it helps introduce the concept of digital scarcity to the world of virtual goods, and helps bridge the gap in understanding the value of blockchain beyond just cryptocurrencies.
"How do we get people to understand what blockchain does for them?" said Dieter Shirley, co-founder and CTO of CryptoKitties developer Dapper Labs. "We wanted to build an experience that regular folks could come in, engage with, and really start to understand the capabilities that this technology has in providing things like true ownership [of digital goods] and autonomous control over the [digital] things you own."
The immutable data collected in the background allows others to enrich and enhance the value of those kitties, with about 40 developer teams building tons of experiences and digital goods, including breeding predictors, CryptoKitties sales trackers, digital cat hats, social networks, and even racing and fighting games involving your virtual kitties.
"We didn't have to authorize or approve those things, [the developer community] can just do it within the context of the blockchain," Shirley said. "When you think about what blockchain could mean for long-term, long-scale experiential games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online, where people want to feel like they're actually shaping the way the world works, that is fundamentally perfect for blockchain."
Integrating blockchain into gaming is something Shirley and the team at Dapper Labs are exploring with a variety of internal projects, he said. But he also expects that a decade from now, blockchain itself will hold a similar meaning in people's minds as the internet: that they don't need to understand exactly how it functions to see its value in fast communication and transferring data.
"People will know that a blockchain app or game has certain features that a non-blockchain game or app doesn't have," he said. "And those will be the things like immortality of the software, the ability to manage true ownership, and the ability for there to be absolute fairness where everyone has to follow the same rules because they're encoded by the blockchain itself."