It is the distributed ledger system that enables cryptocurrencies, but blockchain technology offers use new cases across multiple vertical industries.
Within the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain’s applications go beyond security and authentication to asset tracking and the exchange of smart contracts, which give devices a way of handshaking and exchanging information according to mutually agreed rules.
Indeed, the claimed potential of the technology to boost efficiency in supply chains, for example, has resulted in a number of projects and pilot programmes that focus on the IoT.
The Trusted IoT Alliance – a consortium of companies that includes Bosch, Cisco, Gemalto, and Skuchain – was formed in September 2017 to focus on how blockchain and the IoT can intersect for business advantage.
Recently, AI and blockchain technologies have been combined to create autonomous ledgers that can act as smart agents on behalf of a person, organisation, or technology, as we revealed in this exclusive report.
Yet more than most new technologies, blockchain is surrounded by hype on the one hand and criticism on the other. For every claim that blockchain forms the basis of a new data commons, there is another saying that it is slow and inappropriate for 90 percent of the tasks that it is being proposed for. And for every claim that it forms a new, more secure bedrock for tracking goods and services, there are voices suggesting that it is a flawed technology.
Innovative ventures certainly abound – using blockchain to track and authenticate contracts, for example, and both physical and digital assets – while even some blockchain experts express reservations about the technology and suggest that it urgently needs to evolve.
So, taking all of this into account, what will the real impacts be on five key IoT markets: health, manufacturing, the supply chain, energy, and the financial sector?
As a distributed ledger system, within which each block of data contains a hash of the previous one, blockchain is often thought of as an inviolable system of record. Because each record is linked and secured via cryptography, and so cannot be tampered with (without exposing the alteration), the technology has a reputation for robust security.
This capability may be especially important in healthcare, where a number of IoT products are emerging. For example, blockchain can be used to secure critical data during robotic surgery, says Peter Van Ostaeyen, business consultant and blockchain specialist at SD Worx. “If the data goes via blockchain, it means there is no single point of attack,” he explains.
In addition, AI-based robotic doctors are able take actions enabled by blockchain’s smart contract capabilities. This works by allowing a robot to perform an action automatically when it senses something, says Van Ostaeyen. “For example, if a robot sees someone falling down it will trigger an action, such as the robot then picking the person up.”
Another application that takes advantage of smart contracts is a machine that draws blood using infrared sensors to find a vein. It is then able to analyse the test results on the spot. “It draws blood via a smart contract agreement and, after assessing it, the information is securely sent to the doctor using blockchain,” says Van Ostaeyen.
Meanwhile, another company is using blockchain to enable a smart sensor in shoes worn by the elderly, allowing those with dementia to be tracked. “Blockchain enables this through a direct contract between the sensor and the application,” Van Ostaeyen says.
Because it enables cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain is already well known in the financial sector.
Within IoT applications specifically, blockchain will increasingly have a role to play in payments, says Paul Thomalla, SVP global corporate relationships and business development, for ACI Worldwide. “As regulatory understanding matures and blockchain moves beyond the pilot phase, we can expect to see it power a wider variety of payment systems, such as micropayments for the IoT.”
Some early case studies of how blockchain and the IoT can combine with location services to power micropayment systems are explored in this Internet of Business report. Examples include bike-sharing schemes that deduct payments as cycles are ridden around cities, and smart factories that pay workers whenever they are on the factory floor.
This may create smarter environments, but it may also risk creating overly rigid systems that some human beings feel uncomfortable with, or feel compelled to work within – for example a workplace that people are reluctant to leave because their micropayments will stop.