Interview series with blockchain influencers — Part 3

Setting the course for a world without middlemen? 9 Blockchain influencers weigh in on this possibility

Gabriela Motroc
blockchain
© Shutterstock / marekuliasz

Will blockchain eliminate the middleman? Can it do that? Should it do that? These are just a few questions that hover over the technology behind Bitcoin. In the third part of our interview series, our nine experts talk about the connection between blockchain and the rise in cyber attacks and the elimination of the middlemen.

A world without middlemen?!

Blockchain is not an invention that will eliminate the middleman. Many services that banks or payment processors now offer are also very relevant in the Bitcoin world. This leads to massive business opportunities. The key difference is that the core system does not force people to use specific third parties. It is their choice to use third parties, if their services offer added value that makes it worth it.

Henry Brade, CEO of Prasos

Will blockchain eliminate the middleman? Can it do that? Should it do that? These are just a few million-dollar questions that hover over the technology behind Bitcoin. Our influencers have not reached a unanimous decision with regard to the need for middlemen in a world dominated by blockchain but some of them seem to believe that some middlemen will become obsolete. However, one should understand that just like in the case of people vs. automation,  blockchain will not be responsible for the “extinction” of middlemen.

In the first part of this interview series, we invited our blockchain influencers to talk about the blockchain’s impact on our lives and to weigh in on the importance of the legal factor in the blockchain’s healthy development. Then we asked them about their concerns, the advantages of this technology, the obstacles to experimenting with it and the industries that cannot be disrupted by the blockchain.

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Now it’s time to talk about the connection between blockchain and the rise in cyber attacks (if any), the elimination of the middlemen and businesses’ need for adopting this technology.

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9 answers: Did we open Pandora’s box when we allowed blockchain and bitcoin into our lives? Is there any connection between this emerging technology and the rise in cyber attacks?

Meet the Influencers

Chitra Ragavan is the Chief Communications Officer at Gem, a Los Angeles-based blockchain startup.

Kathryn Harrison is a Blockchain Offering Leader at IBM, responsible for bringing IBM Blockchain products to market.

Conor Svensson is the founder of blk.io, a provider of an enterprise blockchain platform based on Ethereum, and author of web3j. Twitter: @blk_io

Stephen DeMeulenaere is one of the founders of Coin Academy.

Marta Piekarska is the Director of Ecosystem for Hyperledger.

Eoin Woods is CTO at Endava, an author, a conference speaker and an active member of the London software engineering community.

Dawn Newton is the co-founder and COO of Netki, a blockchain solutions provider focused on digital identity and regulatory compliance.

Perianne Boring is the founder and president of the Chamber of Digital Commerce, the world’s largest trade association representing the blockchain industry.

Paolo Tasca is the Executive Director of UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies.

 

Chitra Ragavan: It’s a case of no good deed going unpunished. I read a fascinating article recently in Vanity Fair about Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, in which the writer made the point that with every new technology, some of the fastest adoptions come from the bad guys. For instance, 3-D printers and the printing of plastic guns. Silk Road becoming a go-to place for all manner of banned substances.

So also with bitcoin becoming a favored currency of drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, weapons smugglers, tax evaders, and other colorful characters. However, looking back, I believe people will see the benefits of blockchains as vastly outweighing the limitations. As for cryptocurrency, with the world going digital, it was only a matter of time for money as legal tender to follow suit. Paper to plastic to Ether, both literally and figuratively.

People will see the benefits of blockchains as vastly outweighing the limitations.

Kathryn Harrison: Ransomware and other pernicious attacks are not new and bitcoin simply offers a new way to tackle the payment. Ultimately, if we are able to channel the key benefits like transparency and provenance, we will actually make the economic system safer and more efficient.

Conor Svensson: Not at all. These technologies would not be where they are today had there not been the conviction that they have the potential to help improve the lives of people, or benefit businesses.

Stephen DeMeulenaere: Yes, the invention of the blockchain and its gifting to the public as open source did open a Pandora’s box of potential to the world.

Marta Piekarska: No. Absolutely not. Blockchain technology is a tool. It is a very useful one and promising. But it is just a tool. If there will be bad consequences to applying or implementing blockchain technology in some domains of our life that means we misused the tool. We misapplied the tool. But we cannot say that it is universally good or universally bad.

SEE ALSO: Brian Behlendorf explains the DevOps of Blockchain

Eoin Woods: No more so than when we invented the Internet!

Dawn Newton: I certainly hope that we did. Merriam Webster’s defines Pandora’s Box as “a prolific source of troubles”. Any transformational technology, such as the Internet, automobile, or airplane creates a wide array of benefits, but also its fair share of troubles. Overall the invention and mainstream use of the Internet has done a great deal of good for the entire world. People are directly connected to each other around the globe in a way they never were before. It enables them to share ideas, do business with each other, quickly help in times of crisis, etc. The possibilities are endless.

However, like all disruptive technologies, there are downsides. The same Internet that has brought us all of the things above has also brought us cyber attacks, mass scale identity theft, and revenge porn. While there is a prolific source of trouble, the good that has been done far outweighs said troubles. Also, as we improve technologies, we learn how to maximize their positive impacts and minimize their negative ones.  A great example of that is looking at the improvements in automobile safety and efficiency in the 100 years since they have been introduced.  The same will be true for bitcoin and blockchain technology as a whole.

Perianne Boring: The term “Pandora’s box” implies something negative. Blockchain technology will make our lives better in all aspect of society, including the unbanked and underbanked. Blockchain is going to transform many business processes and the way we share or trade anything of value.

Paolo Tasca: To some extent, the development and pervasion of blockchain and bitcoin seemed as if we opened Pandora’s box. This is actually not an uncommon phenomenon with the advent of new, especially disruptive technologies. In my view, the positive impact the “Pandora’s box” may bring to us is far more than the negative one it may result.

Despite many regulatory, scalability challenges and risks related to bitcoin and cryptocurrencies more in general, a good simple example is that hardly we could imagine how conveniently a global payment system could function without the introduction of the bitcoin technology. Furthermore, the consensus mechanism intrinsic to bitcoin is superior to other security tools traditionally embedded in databases which can simply be disrupted by upgrading hacker attacks. After having been tested for eight years, the bitcoin technology is becoming more and more mature with its all-the-time improvement and the blockchain is also widely applied in practice, showcasing the vitality and bright prospect of this new technology.

 

Will blockchain eliminate the middleman? What are the benefits and/or disadvantages of a world without middlemen?

Chitra Ragavan: Yes. Middlemen beware! This fundamental shift in the global economy towards peer-to-peer exchange of data, goods, and services, and the creation of smart contracts, logic, and automation, will eliminate vast swathes of middlemen — bankers, lawyers, and other brokers and intermediaries. Some of these middlemen can see it coming, this tsunami of change wiping out their way of life and their wallets. Others likely have no clue of the change that’s around the corner. But once the seismic shift settles, these intermediaries will end up offering other services that complement the new economic world order.

A world without middlemen theoretically is a more efficient world, where transactions can happen faster, without friction, and since you don’t have to give a cut to the middleman, more lucrative as well.

Kathryn Harrison: It is hard to have an all-encompassing answer to this question. In certain circumstance where there are extraneous middlemen who extract rents with providing commensurate value, there is a high likelihood of disruption. That said, there are likely other middlemen that provide valuable and trusted services that will evolve to meet the new technological possibilities that blockchain enables.

If there will be bad consequences to applying or implementing blockchain technology in some domains of our life that means we misused the tool.

Conor Svensson: There’ll always be a need for some sort of middle-man. There’ll always be individuals willing to pay an additional party for assistance to make working with technologies easier. Look at how Google organizes the information web, banks provide consumer protection against fraud, etc. One cannot envisage a world where the middlemen are obsolete, but blockchain does offer the potential to reduce our reliance on them.

Stephen DeMeulenaere: Blockchain technologies can potentially eliminate the middleman, but in some cases, there will be a place for a middleman. Cryptocurrency exchanges, for example, are a middleman in the market, and efforts are being made to disrupt them as well. 

Eoin Woods: Yes, in general blockchain allows many “middlemen” to be eliminated.  However, those that are eliminated are the middlemen who aren’t adding any inherent value to a transaction and are just keeping records and mediating in the transaction.  Where an intermediary is bearing risk or providing value in the transaction they are quite safe – they’ll just be participants in the value chain captured on the blockchain.

Dawn Newton: Blockchains will enable the elimination of middlemen that are not providing an appropriate value compared to what they are charging. The significant change is that no longer will one be able to leverage trust alone as a way to hold an advantage over others. People will be able to determine for themselves if the middlemen they interact with are providing real value or not. Middlemen can serve a purpose if they provide real value, like a travel planner who has local knowledge that you don’t.

As blockchain alternatives are created the ones who succeed will be the ones who provided a solution that was better for the users compared to existing middlemen.

SEE ALSO: World Economic Forum believes blockchain is the future of FinTech

Perianne Boring: I don’t think it’s going to eliminate all middlemen, but it will streamline and automate a lot of business processes that are manual, paper-based, and/or inefficient. Back office costs will be reduced with the implementation of distributed ledger technologies.

According to a research paper by Santander InnoVentures, “our analysis suggests that distributed ledger technology could reduce banks’ infrastructure costs attributable to cross-border payments, securities trading and regulatory compliance by between $15-20 billion per annum by 2022.”

Paolo Tasca: Disintermediation is one of the core properties of blockchain technology, which will reshape many industries. For instance, real estate agencies are a typical kind of industry which will soon disappear as a result of the blockchain. In a blockchain-based life, house rentals will be peer to peer paid, thus between landlords and tenants directly as is already in the case of financial lending. Academic roundtables like the P2PFISY Workshop to be held in UCL try to explore and debate the future of P2P applications in various scenarios in the attempt to remove operational, fraud, counterparty risks and increase transparency and regulatory efficiency.

But will the effort to eliminate middlemen eventually lead to no middlemen at all? I assume the answer should be no. The roles and responsibilities of middlemen are also expected to be reshaped while business models will undergo enhancements. For instance, Swift is a typical ‘middleman’ in financial area that has been designed to facilitate foreign exchange and global payment. Now, it is literally standing at the crossroad, as the information asymmetry it used to live on is currently reduced under the context of bitcoin and blockchain. This foreign exchange supporter may try to play a role as platform operator rather than as a broker. Abolishing middlemen is undoubtedly beneficial for parties at both ends, as it results in saving a great amount of time and middle business costs.

However, on the other hand, those middlemen who did not follow or failed to follow changes in the FinTech revolution will, unfortunately, be washed out and suffer from unemployment: the FinTech disruption will not only bring vigor and vitality but also excessive competition. Which roles the traditional middlemen may play is still worth pondering.

How can businesses become successful in a world that’s obsessed with blockchain?

A world without middlemen theoretically is a more efficient world, where transactions can happen faster, without friction.

Chitra Ragavan: Be bold! Be prescient! Be adaptive! Change is coming. Consider the possibilities and understand the massive potential and limitations. Make a clear assessment: Is this better than what I currently have? How will this change my world? Will I fall behind if I don’t adopt this new way of thinking and doing business? Is this going to lift me? Will not doing this crush me? What will this cost me? Those are the questions every major executive should be asking herself and her team. 

Be wary of dream merchants. But be receptive to astute forecasters. Don’t bury your head in the sand because if you are in an industry where blockchain technology is moving with the speed and force of a bullet train, ignoring it could obliterate your business. And ask yourself, are you a middleman in a transaction and if so, how could this technology affect your line of work, your profitability, indeed, your very survival.

Kathryn Harrison: As with all new technology, it is important to focus less on the actual technology itself and instead examine what problem it can solve. If you start with the human/business problem and then identify how the technology can help to resolve that, it will be much easier to overcome the inherent challenges that confront any new technology. Once you have the problem identified, then you need to deeply understand the technology and how it can impact the different parts of your business. Most likely the greatest challenges will not be technical but instead legal agreements, compliance related or risk management.

Conor Svensson: The fundamentals of business haven’t changed. If you can create a business offering a tangible product or service, with customers and revenue’s that support your business model, you have a successful business. The fundamentals haven’t changed — you don’t need blockchain to be a successful business.

There are some companies attempting new types of business on blockchain, which in some cases is a lot harder than simply doing it without blockchain. Not only do you have the challenges of making an unproven business model successful, and being able to acquire customers/revenue, but you also are throwing a new technology into the mix, making it harder to succeed.

Stephen DeMeulenaere: Businesses should pay attention to technological developments, and hire consultants and researchers to assist them in keeping on top of these developments and how they can benefit their industry.

One cannot envisage a world where the middlemen are obsolete, but blockchain does offer the potential to reduce our reliance on them.

Marta Piekarska: They can do business as usual in they domains and be successful. Not every domain benefits from using blockchain technology. Or they can see if their use-cases can be improved with replacement or introduction of blockchain. If so, I believe that the best way to succeed is through collaboration on open source projects with other vendors in the domain. Through partnering and reaching out businesses can build better and more successful solutions.

Eoin Woods: Most businesses should focus on their clients and make them successful and not worry too much about blockchain!  However, those businesses that are inherently transactional intermediaries need to honestly re-evaluate their business models and be clear what value they bring to the interaction.  This may involve being ready to reprice their services or even change the business they are in if they’re not adding enough value to survive the disintermediation that blockchain brings.

Dawn Newton: The first thing that business leaders should do is assume that blockchain will impact their industry, even if it doesn’t appear that way at first glance.  I am fairly confident that in 1996 most taxi companies, and hotel chains didn’t see their business models fundamentally under threat from the Internet, yet today Uber, Airbnb and others have changed the rules of the game in entrenched industries that seemed likely immune.   

There are opportunities for them to be first movers with this new technology and see their companies flourish as a result. For example, many banks said that while they appreciated the Internet as a new technology they would only use it internally to connect to each other. However, Citibank, Bank of America and a handful of others decided to enable online banking in 1999 and within 5 short years, 31 percent of Americans were using it rather than going into brick and mortar locations and interfacing directly with tellers. This is just one example of costs savings. There will be a plethora of opportunities to utilize blockchain technology for both significant cost savings and the opening of new markets for a variety of businesses.

Perianne Boring: The key is whether businesses can move fast enough and soon enough. This technology will transform the way that businesses operate.

Companies that are not looking into blockchain by now definitely should be. In order to have a chance at remaining competitive, companies need to develop and formalize blockchain teams, committees, and taskforces with dedicated R&D budgets. These teams should be seriously considering how blockchain could impact different types of business models, whether in healthcare, insurance, financial services, media, supply chains, etc. and devising proofs of concept and pilot programs. If not, they may be left behind.

Paolo Tasca: This question reminds me another similar one “How can you build a great Internet company?”. 

While we are undergoing the golden era in which still a lot of historic Internet companies continue to grow and expand, much hints and lessons can be drawn and leveraged from that experience. There are two major driving forces that we can extract from looking at successful Internet companies.

The first one is “Persistency”. Do what you are good at and cling to it. The Dot-com bubble at the beginning of this century not only brought us nightmares and sorrow but also it gave us tech giants like Google and Facebook: the biggest winners of that time, which ultimately survived the disaster and changed our society. Similarly, although the 90/95% of blockchain startups are doomed to fail within three years from the date of their foundation, blockchain startups should be celebrated and welcome because even failed 1st-round entrepreneurs can bring experience into 2nd round ventures. 

The second one is “Innovation”. The capacity to innovate either by companies themselves or by outer simulation such as strategic merger and acquisition with others is lifeblood for companies in pursuit of long-term success. This is also the case for blockchain business. What Amazon and Tesla’s success inspired us in the blockchain space is that the secret to success is to always take one step ahead of the others by expanding innovation beyond the natural technological borders towards new business and organizational paradigms.

Along this line of reasoning, blockchain entrepreneurs should stop at looking at the blockchain simply as an ICT technology, and start looking at it also as an Institutional Technology. Under this perspective, blockchain can enable not only new products but also new business models: innovative organization forms or new processes of work and production where access is over ownership, and sharing is over property. Blockchain has the potential to shift the boundary between hierarchical organizations and non-territorial, spontaneously ordered, self-organizing business models.

 

In the last part of the interview series, we dissect the IMF’s piece titled The Internet of Trust and we discuss the lessons the IT world can learn from the blockchain technology. 

If you’d like to know more about the blockchain and meet the top movers and shakers in the global blockchain scene, join us in London in October.

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Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at S&S Media she studied International Communication Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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