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Blockchain: a revolution in waiting

Jul 14, 2017
Steve Jordan looks at Blockchain and predicts that it will be as revolutionary in the future as the Internet was 20 years ago.

Do you remember the first time you heard the word ‘Internet’?  I do.  I was driving over a bridge close to my home and heard it on the radio.  I was intrigued and a little intimidated that I had not previously heard about something that the speaker thought was so important.  I remember that moment every time I drive over the bridge and reflect on how that thing, that played no part in the first 50 years of my life, would become so fundamental thereafter.  I never expected it would happen again, but it did.  Only a few months ago, again while listening to the radio, I heard the word ‘blockchain’.  ‘Here we go again,’ thought I, ‘hold on for a rocky ride’. 

Maybe for some this will be the first time you have heard about Blockchain.  If so, you will always remember this article in the same way I always remember my bridge. Blockchain is likely to revolutionise your life.  I am no expert, but let me try to explain. 

Trust is fundamental to the way we all live our lives.  I trust you because I know you.  You trust your bank because they haven’t lost your money yet.  We all trust Uber and Airbnb because our ‘friends’ on social media tell us they are OK.  But what if trust didn’t matter anymore?  What if we never needed to ‘sign here’, ‘enter our password’, type in our ‘PIN’ number, or provide a ‘picture ID’?  

Many of you will have heard of Bitcoin.  Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin that makes it work, makes it secure and so maintains its value alongside other currencies.   

Blockchains are databases that are open and permanent, held on a neutral space where companies can prove exactly where their products and components are on the supply chain at any given time, and consumers can trace the source of their purchases.  They are also ‘trustless’ meaning that you don’t have to rely on anybody; the system automatically provides all the verification you need.  Blockchains are:  

  • Autonomous. They run on their own, without any person or company in charge. 

  • Permanent. Their contents are on thousands of computers at the same time.  If the information were lost in all but one of the computers, the records would remain accessible and the network could rebuild itself. 

  • Secure. The encryption used on Blockchains is industry standard, open source, and has never been broken. Their ledgers are what is known as ‘cryptographically auditable’, which means you can be mathematically certain that their entries have not been forged. 

  • Open.  They allow anyone to develop products and services on them, and allowing anyone to audit the code. 

Everyone knows that the Internet is not secure, it wasn’t designed to be.  But now, with Blockchains, it doesn’t need to be. For example, the government of Estonia is working on a system to allow people to register marriages and deaths on a Blockchain.  If a couple get married on the Blockchain it instantly provides a worldwide, legally-binding proof of the existence and integrity of their contractual agreement. 

So how might Blockchain affect the moving industry?  That is a bit like someone in 1999 asking about the likely effect of the Internet.  Nobody can possibly imagine.   But there are already some developments that might prove interesting. 

In a recent article, Jody Cleworth, CEO of Marine Transport International said that Blockchain promises to revolutionise the IT systems of shipping lines “… by connecting the supply chain in a way the industry has never seen before, eliminating costly time-consuming processes and creating trust and partnership in an industry where such principles can, at times, be misunderstood by providing the ‘single version of the truth’ to all parties involved.”  

Mr Cleworth goes on to say that, according to a study by Maersk, around 30 people are involved in moving a single shipping container creating more than 200 separate interactions, each requiring different documents. This is typically done by humans interacting with multiple parties, whether that’s with legacy computer systems, e-mail, phone calls or sometimes even faxes. Each of those interactions represents a potential point of failure, vulnerable to illicit manipulation or simply human error.  

The introduction of Blockchain in the marine shipping environment eliminates much of the problem in today’s cargo logistics process. Mr Cleworth says that his company estimates that Blockchain could save $300 per container in terms of labour and documentation, amounting to over $5 million for a single full load of one of today’s monster container ships.  There are already trials of the technology in Antwerp, Rotterdam and a freight tracking trial by Maersk.  “Our own system has now processed 27,000 containers in the UK,” said Mr Cleworth. “The system increases supply chain visibility and health and safety within the supply chain.” 

Of course, the disruption caused by such a new and game-changing technology is likely to mean that its introduction won’t be plain sailing.  Blockchain can totally revolutionise the process of one-to-one selling and eliminate the need for the building of business relationships in the traditional sense.  It can create huge benefits for industry and society, and there are no regulations (as yet) to control its use.  But perhaps the biggest hurdle in its development will be the natural caution most people have about sharing information online.  Ironically, the very system that is designed to eliminate the need for trust cannot thrive unless it is trusted by those who use it.  While it is new, unproven and alien, that trust will be an elusive commodity.  When it becomes mainstream however, just as the technologies of today have become, all the old rules will be forgotten and the world we have come to know will turn once again. 

I predict that you will remember the day when you first heard about Blockchain. 

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