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In 2019, blockchains will start to become boring

After the Great Crypto Bull Run of 2017 and the monumental crash of 2018, blockchain technology won’t make as much noise in 2019. But it will become more useful.
January 2, 2019
Ms. Tech

In 2017, blockchain technology was a revolution that was supposed to disrupt the global financial system. In 2018, it was a disappointment. In 2019, it will start to become mundane.

Some cryptocurrencies are down more than 90% from their peak in late 2017, but the technology underlying them is by no means out. Although still new to many people, blockchains are a decade in the making (with precursor technologies that are even older), and the crypto world has recovered from massive (in percentage terms) price declines before. Many of the developers who flooded into the space in 2017 are still working in it; innovative-sounding projects are still alive and even close to bearing fruit. And several big corporations plan to launch major blockchain-based projects in 2019.

Here are three reasons why 2019 will be the year that blockchain technology finally becomes normal.

Big plans from Walmart—and Wall Street

Walmart has been testing a private blockchain system for years as a food supply tracker. It says it will start using the system next year and has instructed its suppliers of leafy greens to join by September.

Meanwhile, on the cryptocurrency side, Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the owner of the New York Stock Exchange and one of the most influential players on Wall Street, plans to launch its own digital asset exchange in early 2019. And Fidelity Investments recently created a new company called Fidelity Digital Assets.

The main thing Fidelity brings to the table is a so-called custody service for crypto-assets. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts have argued that big investors like hedge funds, family offices, and sovereign wealth funds are itching to put billions of dollars into digital assets but can’t because there isn’t enough regulator-approved infrastructure.

In the US, for example, big investment funds are required to store their clients’ assets in individual accounts with banks or other entities—“custodians”—that can protect them from theft or fraud. Securely storing crypto-assets is a technical challenge, however, since unlike transactions made with conventional money, blockchain transactions can’t be undone if they turn out to have been fraudulent.  Fidelity, whose solution involves a variety of sophisticated security measures, has called this “the most pressing unanswered question” for institutions. In recent weeks, however, it’s become clear that the lack of infrastructure is not the only big thing keeping them away. Fidelity and ICE still seem committed even as other major Wall Street firms hesitate. But this is crypto, and things can change fast.

Smart contracts: finally good for something in the real world

Smart contracts are bits of code that execute an agreement between two parties—for instance, a flight insurance policy that automatically pays out if your flight gets canceled. In principle, they would eliminate the need for all sorts of costly intermediaries. The idea has been around since the 1990s, and Ethereum was devised in 2013 specifically as a blockchain that could run smart contracts.

However, for that automated flight insurance policy to work, it would need a trustworthy source of real-time flight data—an “oracle,” in industry parlance. Otherwise, what’s to stop hackers from feeding it fraudulent flight delays and claiming payouts? The lack of reliable oracle technology has limited the use of smart contracts thus far.

Now that technology is improving. A startup called Chainlink recently teamed with academic researchers at Cornell to create what it calls the first “provably secure, decentralized oracle network.” Its oracles use cryptography and a type of secure hardware called a trusted enclave to securely feed data to smart contracts on the blockchain.

One practical use of smart contracts that might appear in 2019 is in legal technology. Chainlink has partnered with a project called OpenLaw, which is developing simple smart-contract-based legal agreements (for example, an agreement between a worker and a company). And OpenLaw has partnered with Rocket Lawyer, a popular online service that lets users create their own legal documents.

The idea behind the collaboration, according to Rocket Lawyer’s CEO, Charley Moore, is to use smart contracts to track the rights and obligations in legal agreements (like a freelance contract) on the blockchain and, once the contract’s conditions have been met, automate payments using cryptocurrency. Moore says the plan is to launch sometime in 2019 and that the system should be easy to use, even for people who aren’t familiar with cryptocurrency.

Rocket Lawyer isn’t alone. A startup called Monax recently launched a private beta phase for a similar-sounding platform for blockchain-based legal agreements that runs on a new smart-contract platform called the Agreements Network. And a startup called Clause says it is working with LegalZoom to create smart contract-based legal services.

State-backed digital currencies

Though Venezuela’s oil-backed national cryptocurrency, the petro, appears to have been either a scam or a flop, at least 15 countries’ central banks are taking a serious look at launching national digital currencies. Even if none are issued this year, expect the discussion about them to heat up in 2019 as cash use continues to decline around the world and new payment technologies, including cryptocurrencies, improve.

The International Monetary Fund’s head, Christine Lagarde, examined the case for central-bank-backed digital currencies in a recent speech. State-backed digital money, she argued, could reach more people, and offer better security, privacy, and consumer protection, than private cryptocurrencies or commercial payment technologies.  

A digital form of banknotes guaranteed by governments? In many ways, it’s the opposite of the revolution the original cryptocurrency pioneers envisaged. But revolutions don’t always unfold the way the revolutionaries had in mind.

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