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Blockchain’s Future in Insurance

Blockchain is a revolutionary technology that is likely to have a far-reaching impact on business – on a par with the transformative effect of the internet. Not surprisingly, the huge potential promised by blockchain has prompted a flurry of research activity across different sectors as diverse organizations race to develop applications.

In this article, we’ll explore the many benefits that blockchain could bring to the insurance industry and the different challenges that will need to be overcome.

Overview

Blockchain has strong potential in the short and long term in several different areas, particularly where it links with emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). But its potential for delivering new applications also depends on the development of blockchain technology itself. In the medium and short term, there are three categories where blockchain can be applied:

  • Data storage and exchange: Numerous data and files can be stored using blockchain. The technology provides for more secure, traceable records compared with current storage means.
  • Peer-to-peer electronic payment: Bitcoin (and other blockchain-based cash systems) is a cryptographic proof-based electronic payment system (instead of a trust-based one). This feature is highly efficient while ensuring transparent and traceable electronic transfer.
  • Smart contracts: Smart contracts are digital protocols whereby various parameters are set up in advance. When pre-set parameters are satisfied, smart contracts can execute various tasks without human intervention, greatly increasing efficiency.

Data storage and peer-to-peer electronic transfer are feasible blockchain applications for the short term. At this stage, the technical advantages of blockchain are mainly reflected in data exchange efficiencies, as well as larger-scale data acquisition.

See also: The Opportunities in Blockchain  

Smart contracts via blockchain will play a more important role in the medium to long term. By that time, blockchain-based technology will have a far-reaching impact on the business model of insurance companies, industrial management models and institutional regulation. Of course, there will be challenges to overcome, and further technological innovation will be needed as blockchain’s own deficiencies or risks emerge during its evolution. But just like internet technology decades ago, blockchain promises to be a transformative technology.

Scenarios for blockchain applications in insurance

Macro level

Proponents of blockchain technology believe it has the power to break the data acquisition barrier and revolutionize data sharing and data exchange in the industry. Small and medium-sized carriers could use blockchain-based technology to obtain higher-quality and more comprehensive data, giving them access to new opportunities and growth through more accurate pricing and product design in specific niche markets.

At the same time, blockchain-based insurance and reinsurance exchange platforms – that could include many parties – would also upgrade industry processes. For example, Zhong An Technology is currently working closely with reinsurers in Shanghai to try to establish a blockchain reinsurance exchange platform.

Scenario 1 – Mutual insurance

Blockchain is a peer-to-peer mechanism, via the DAO (decentralized autonomic organization) as a virtual decision-making center, and premiums paid by each and every insured are stored in the DAO. Each and every insured participant has the right to vote and therefore decide on final claim settlement when a claim is triggered. Blockchain makes the process transparent and highly efficient with secure premium collection, management and claim payment thanks to its decentralization.

In China, Trust Mutual Life has built a platform based on blockchain and biological identification technology. In August 2017, Trust Mutual Life launched a blockchain-based mutual life insurance product called a “Courtesy Help Account,” where every member can follow the fund. Plus, the platform reduces operational costs more than a traditional life insurance company of a similar size.

Scenario 2 – Microinsurance (short-term insurance products for certain specific scenarios)

An example of short-term insurance could be for car sharing or providers of booking and renting accommodation via the internet. Such products are mainly pre-purchased by the service provider and then purchased by end users. However, blockchain makes it possible for end users to purchase insurance coverage at any time based on their actual usage, inception and expiring time/date. In this way, records would be much more accurate and therefore avoid potential disputes.

Scenario 3 – Automatic financial settlement

The technical characteristics of blockchain have inherent advantages in financial settlement. Combined with smart contracts, blockchain can be applied efficiently and securely throughout the entire process of insurance underwriting, premium collection, indemnity payment and even reinsurance.

Micro level

Blockchain has the potential to change the pattern of product design, pricing and claim services.

Parametric insurance (e.g. for agricultural insurance, delay-in-flight insurance, etc.):

Parametric insurance requires real-time data interface and exchange among different parties. Although it is an efficient form of risk transfer, it still has room for further cost improvement. Taking parametric agricultural insurance and flight delay insurance as examples, a lot of human intervention is still required for claim settlement and payment.

With blockchain, the efficiency of data exchange can be significantly improved. Smart contracts can also further reduce human intervention in terms of claim settlement, indemnity payment, etc., which will significantly reduce the insurance companies’ operating costs. In addition, operating efficiency is increased, boosting customer satisfaction.

Some Chinese insurers are already working on blockchain-based agricultural insurance. In March 2018, for example, PICC launched a blockchain-based livestock insurance platform. Currently, the project is limited to cows. Each cow is identified and registered in the blockchain-based platform during its whole life cycle. All necessary information is uploaded and stored in real time in the platform. Claims are triggered and settled automatically via blockchain. The platform also serves as an efficient and reliable food safety tracing system.

Auto insurance, homeowners insurance: 

Blockchain has wider application scenarios in the field of auto insurance and homeowners insurance when combined with the IoT. There are applications from a single vehicle perspective as well as portfolios as a whole. From a standalone vehicle perspective, the complete history of each vehicle is stored in blocks. This feature allows insurers to have access to accurate information on each and every vehicle, plus maintenance, accidents, vehicle parts conditions, history and the owner’s driving habits. Such data facilitates more accurate pricing based on dedicated information for each and every single vehicle.

From the insured’s point of view, the combination of blockchain and IoT effectively simplifies the claims service process and claim settlement efficiency.

From the perspective of the overall vehicle, blockchain and IoT can drastically lower big data acquisition barriers, especially for small  and medium-sized carriers. This will have a positive impact on pricing accuracy and new product development in auto insurance.

Taking usage-based insurance (UBI) for autos as an example, it’s technically possible to record and share the exact time and route of an insured vehicle, meaning that UBI policies could be priced much more accurately. Of course, insurers will have to consider how to respond in situations where built-in sensors in the insured vehicle break or a connection fails. Furthermore, insurance companies also have to decide whether an umbrella policy is needed on top of the UBI policy, to control their exposure when such situations occur.

Cargo insurance:

Real-time information sharing of goods, cargo ships, vehicles, etc. is made possible with blockchain and the IoT. This will not only improve claims service efficiency but also help to reduce moral hazards.

In this regard, Maersk, EY Guardtime and XL Catlin recently launched a blockchain-based marine insurance platform cooperation project. Its aim is to facilitate data and information exchange, reduce operating costs among all stakeholders and improve the credibility and transparency of shared information.

International program placement and premium/claims management:

Blockchain-based technology allows insurance companies, brokers and corporate risk managers to improve the efficiency of international program settlement and daily management, at the same time reducing data errors from different countries and regions and avoiding currency exchange losses.

Coping with claim frauds:

Blockchain is already being applied to verify the validity of claims and the amount of adjustment. In Canada, the Quebec auto insurance regulator (Québec Auto Insurance) has implemented a blockchain-based information exchange platform. Driver information, vehicle registration information, the vehicle’s technical inspection result, auto insurance and claims information, etc. are all shared through the platform. The platform not only reduces insurance companies’ operating costs but also effectively helps to reduce fraud.

All insurance companies that have access to the platform receive a real-time notice when a vehicle is reported to be stolen. Insurance companies have full access to every vehicle’s technical information, which promotes more accurate pricing for individual policyholders.

Claims settlement:

Using a smart contract, the insured will automatically receive indemnity when conditions in the policy are met: Human intervention will not be needed to adjust the settlement. In the future, some insurance products will effectively be smart contracts whereby coverages, terms and conditions are actually the parameters of the smart contract. When the parameters are met, policies are triggered automatically by the smart contract and a record stored in the blockchain.

Business models like this will not only build higher trust in the insurance company but will also greatly increase its operational efficiency, reducing costs; it will also help to reduce moral hazard.

Internal management systems:

Internal management systems could be automated through use of blockchain and smart contracts, helping to improve management efficiency and reduce labor costs as well as the efficiency of compliance audit.

See also: How Insurance and Blockchain Fit  

Challenges and problems

Decentralization strengthens information sharing and reduces the monopoly advantages that information asymmetry provides. Under such circumstances, insurance companies have to pay more attention to pricing, product development, claims services and even reputation risk. All this adds up to new challenges for the company management.

At the same time, every aspect of the insurance industry must be more focused on ensuring the accuracy of original information at the initial stage of its business. Knowing how to respond to false declarations from insureds will be crucial.

From a more macro perspective, “localized blocks” of data will be inevitable in the early phase of development in line with the pace of technical development and regulatory constraints.

In theory, it is impossible to hack blockchain, but data protection will be an issue for localized blocks. Therefore, higher cyber security protection will be required to protect these localized blocks.

The interaction of blockchain with other technologies could mean that existing intermediary roles are replaced by new technologies in different sectors. If the insurance industry wants to ensure the continuous development of the intermediary, it should address the possible disruptive risks to existing distribution business models posed by blockchain.

The necessary investment (both tangible and intangible costs) associated with adopting blockchain technology is a big consideration for many companies at this stage. Insurance companies and reinsurance companies operate numerous systems, and the decision to integrate blockchain-based technology/platform shouldn’t be taken lightly. At the current stage of blockchain evolution, this could be one of the biggest obstacles facing insurers.

Overall, blockchain is an inspiring prospect, and there is every reason to believe that this technological breakthrough will bring positive effects to individual insurers everywhere. But at the same time, we need to understand the mutual challenges that lie ahead and work together to promote our industry’s development in what promises to be an exciting new era.

Download PDF version for endnotes and further reading.

The Opportunities in Blockchain

Blockchain and smart contracts have enabled the development of new approaches in the insurance industry, as they begin to replace outdated business models (with excessive paperwork, communication problems, multiple data operating systems and duplication of processes and the inability of syndicates to mine their data). By digitizing payments and assets—thus eliminating tedious paperwork—and facilitating the management of contracts, blockchain and smart contracts can help cut operational costs and improve efficiency. Smart contracts also allow for automation of insurance claims and other processes as well as privacy, security and transparency. It is estimated that roughly one-third of blockchain use cases are in the insurance industry.

How Blockchain Is Used in Insurance

How will blockchain and smart contracts transform the insurance industry?

  • Quick and efficient processing and verification of claims, automatic payments—all in a modular fashion, thus minimizing paperwork.
  • Transparency, minimizing fraud, secure and decentralized transactions, reliable tracking of asset provenance and improving the quality of data used in underwriting. Besides improving efficiency, this also reduces counterparty risks, ensuring trust and safety both from the insurer’s and customer’s perspective. By computing at a network, rather than individual, company level, the consumer is reassured that the process was completed appropriately and as agreed upon. From the perspective of the insurance company, this fosters trust, as well, and encourages consistency, as the blockchain provides transparent and permanent information about the transactions.

The insurance industry has traditionally been associated with tedious administration, paperwork and mistrust; the incorporation of blockchain, however, has the ability to transform this image by bringing operational efficiency, security, and transparency. The long-term strategic benefits of blockchain are thus clear.

Top insurance blockchain projects:

AIG (American International Group) – Smart contract insurance policies

HQ: New York

Description: AIG, in conjunction with IBM, has developed a “smart” insurance policy utilizing blockchain to manage complex international coverage.

Blockchain network: Bitcoin

Deployment: In June 2017, AIG and IBM announced the successful completion of their “smart contract” multinational policy pilot for Standard Chartered Bank. It is said to be the first such policy to employ the blockchain digital ledger technology.

Fidentiax – Marketplace for tradable insurance policies

HQ: Singapore

Description: As “the world’s first marketplace for tradable insurance policies,” Fidentiax hopes to establish a trading marketplace and repository of insurance policies for the masses through the use of blockchain technology.

Blockchain network: Ethereum

Deployment: Fidentiax succeeded in raising funds for the project through its Crowd Token Contribution (CTC, aka ICO) in December 2017.

See also: How Insurance and Blockchain Fit  

Swiss Re – Smart contract management system

HQ: Zurich, Switzerland

Description: Swiss Re, a leading wholesale provider of reinsurance, insurance and other insurance-based forms of risk transfer, has partnered with 15 of Europe’s largest insurers and reinsurers (Achmea, Aegon, Ageas, Allianz, Generali, Hannover Re, Liberty Mutual, Munich Re, RGA, SCOR, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance, Tokio Marine Holdings, XL Catlin and the Zurich Insurance Group) to incorporate and evaluate the use of blockchain technology in the insurance industry. The Blockchain Insurance Industry Initiative (B3i) hopes to educate insurers and reinsurers on the employment of the blockchain technology in the insurance market. It serves as a platform for blockchain knowledge exchange and offers access to research and information on use case experiments. As of yet, there have only been individual company use cases in the industry. B3i is working to facilitate the widespread adoption of blockchain across the entire insurance value chain by evaluating its implementation as a viable tool for the industry in general and customers in particular. The initiative envisions efficient and modern management of insurance transactions with common standards and practices. To this end, it has developed a smart contract management system to explore the potential of distributed ledger technologies as a way to improve services to clients by making them faster, more convenient and secure.

Blockchain network: Ethereum

Deployment: B3i was launched in in October 2016. On Sept. 7, 2017, B3i presented a fully functional beta version of its blockchain-run joint distributed ledger for reinsurance transactions. On March 23, 2018, the B3i Initiative incorporated B3i Services company to continue to promote the B3i Initiative’s goal of transforming the insurance industry through blockchain technology.

Sofocle – Automating claim settlement

HQ: Northern Ireland, U.K.

Description: Through smart contracts, AI and mobile apps, Sofocle employs blockchain technology to automate insurance processes. All relevant documents can be uploaded by customers via mobile app, thus minimizing paperwork. Use of smart contracts allows for a far more efficient and faster settlement process. Claims agents can verify insurance claims, which are recorded on the blockchain in real time. The smart contracts allow for verification of a predetermined condition by an external data source (trigger), following which the customer automatically receives the claims payment.

Blockchain network: Bitcoin

Dynamis – P2P Insurance

HQ: U.K.

Description: Dynamis’ Ethereum-based platform provides peer-to-peer (P2P) supplementary unemployment insurance, using the LinkedIn social network as a reputation system. When applying for a policy, the applicant’s identity and employment status is verified through LinkedIn. Claimants are also able to validate that they are seeking employment through their LinkedIn connections. Participants can acquire new policies or open new claims by exercising their social capital within their social network.

Blockchain Network: Ethereum and Bitcoin

Deployment: The goal of Dynamis is the creation of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) to restore trust and transparency in the insurance industry. Its community-based unemployment insurance employs smart contracts and runs on the Ethereum blockchain platform. Using social networking data and validation points, Dynamis verifies a claimant’s employment status among peers and colleagues. It also depends on Bitcoin-powered smart contracts to automate claims.

Conclusion

Recognizing the benefits of blockchain and smart contracts, the insurance industry has begun to explore their potential. With the traditional insurance model, validating an insurer’s claim is a lengthy, complicated process. Blockchain has the ability to combine various resources into smart contract validation. It also offers transparency, allowing the customer to play an active role in the process and to see what is being validated. This fosters trust between the insurer and the customer. Despite the obvious benefits of blockchain for insurers, reinsurers and customers, the industry has yet to adopt blockchain on a large scale. The primary reason for this is that blockchain adoption has until now required in-depth knowledge and skills in blockchain-specific programming languages. The limited number and high cost of hiring blockchain experts have rendered the technology out of reach for many businesses in the industry. Without access to the technology, exposure to blockchain and the ability to reap its benefits will remain limited for insurance companies.

How can these obstacles be overcome? The key is accessibility to enable all parties within the insurance ecosystem to reap the benefits of blockchain and smart contracts. There is a dire need for a bridge between the blockchain technology and these industry players. This is the role that the iOlite platform fulfills. iOlite provides mainstream businesses with easy access to blockchain technology. iOlite is integrated via an IDE (integrated development environment) plugin, maintaining a familiar environment for programmers and providing untrained users simple tools to work with. The iOlite platform thus enables any business to integrate blockchain into its workflow to write smart contracts and design blockchain applications using natural language.

How it works? iOlite’s open-source platform translates any natural language into smart contract code available for execution on any blockchain. The solution utilizes CI (collective intelligence), in essence a crowdsourcing of coder expertise, which is aggregated into a knowledge database, i.e. iOlite Blockchain. This knowledge is then used by the iOlite NLP grammar engine (based on Stanford UC research), the Fast Adaptation Engine (FAE), to migrate input text into the target blockchain executable code.

See also: Blockchain – What Is It Good for?  

The future of blockchain in insurance

With a clear direction of blockchain adoption for the future, insurance companies will be forced to adapt or be left behind. The adoption of blockchain by the insurance industry is no longer a question of if but how.

Blockchain: Bad Tech, Worse Vision

Blockchain is not only lousy technology but a bad vision for the future. Its failure to achieve adoption to date is because systems built on trust, norms and institutions inherently function better than the type of no-need-for-trusted-parties systems blockchain envisions. That’s permanent: No matter how much blockchain improves, it is still headed in the wrong direction.

This December, I wrote a widely circulated article on the inapplicability of blockchain to any actual problem. People objected mostly not to the technology argument, but, rather, hoped that decentralization could produce integrity.

Let’s start with this: Venmo is a free service to transfer dollars, and bitcoin transfers are not free. Yet, after I wrote an article last December saying bitcoin had no use, someone responded that Venmo and Paypal are raking in consumers’ money, and people should switch to bitcoin.

What a surreal contrast between blockchain’s non-usefulness/non-adoption and the conviction of its believers! It’s so entirely evident that this person didn’t become a bitcoin enthusiast because he was looking for a convenient, free way to transfer money from one person to another and discovered bitcoin. In fact, I would assert that there is no single person in existence who had a problem he wanted to solve, discovered that an available blockchain solution was the best way to solve it and therefore became a blockchain enthusiast.

The number of retailers accepting cryptocurrency as a form of payment is declining, and its biggest corporate boosters, like IBM, NASDAQ, Fidelity, Swift and Walmart, have gone long on press but short on actual rollout. Even the most prominent blockchain company, Ripple, doesn’t use blockchain in its product. You read that right: The company Ripple decided the best way to move money across international borders was to not use Ripples.

A blockchain is a literal technology, not a metaphor

Why all the enthusiasm for something so useless in practice?

People have made a number of implausible claims about the future of blockchain—like that you should use it for AI in place of the type of behavior-tracking that Google and Facebook do, for example. This is based on a misunderstanding of what a blockchain is. A blockchain isn’t an ethereal thing out there in the universe that you can “put” things into; it’s a specific data structure, a linear transaction log, typically replicated by computers whose owners (called miners) are rewarded for logging new transactions.

There are two things that are cool about this particular data structure. One is that a change in any block invalidates every block after it, which means that you can’t tamper with historical transactions. The second is that you only get rewarded if you’re working on the same chain as everyone else, so each participant has an incentive to go with the consensus.

The result is a shared definitive historical record. What’s more, because consensus is formed by each person acting in his own interest, adding a false transaction or working from a different history just means you’re not getting paid and everyone else is. Following the rules is mathematically enforced—no government or police force need come in and tell you the transaction you’ve logged is false (or extort bribes or bully the participants). It’s a powerful idea.

So in summary, here’s what blockchain-the-technology is: “Let’s create a very long sequence of small files — each one containing a hash of the previous file, some new data and the answer to a difficult math problem — and divide up some money every hour among anyone willing to certify and store those files for us on their computers.”

See also: How Insurance Can Exploit Blockchain

Now, here’s what blockchain-the-metaphor is: “What if everyone keeps their records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone?”

An illustration of the difference: In 2006, Walmart launched a system to track its bananas and mangoes from field to store. In 2009, Walmart abandoned the system because of logistical problems getting everyone to enter the data, and in 2017 Walmart re-launched it (to much fanfare) on blockchain. If someone comes to you with “the mango-pickers don’t like doing data entry,” “I know: let’s create a very long sequence of small files, each one containing a hash of the previous file” is a nonsense answer, but “What if everyone keeps their records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone?” at least addresses the right question!

Blockchain-based trustworthiness falls apart in practice

People treat blockchain as a “futuristic integrity wand”—wave a blockchain at the problem, and suddenly your data will be valid. For almost anything people want to be valid, blockchain has been proposed as a solution.

It’s true that tampering with data stored on a blockchain is hard, but it’s false that blockchain is a good way to create data that has integrity.

To understand why this is the case, let’s work from the practical to the theoretical. For example, let’s consider a widely proposed use case for blockchain: buying an e-book with a “smart” contract. The goal of the blockchain is, you don’t trust an e-book vendor, and the vendor doesn’t trust you (because you’re just two individuals on the internet), but, because of blockchain, you’ll be able to trust the transaction.

In the traditional system, once you pay you’re hoping you’ll receive the book, but once the vendor has your money the vendor doesn’t have any incentive to deliver. You’re relying on Visa or Amazon or the government to make things fair—what a recipe for being a chump! In contrast, on a blockchain system, by executing the transaction as a record in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone, the transfer of money and digital product is automatic, atomic and direct, with no middleman needed to arbitrate the transaction, dictate terms and take a fat cut on the way. Isn’t that better for everybody?

Hmm. Perhaps you are very skilled at writing software. When the novelist proposes the smart contract, you take an hour or two to make sure that the contract will withdraw only an amount of money equal to the agreed-upon price, and that the book — rather than some other file, or nothing at all — will actually arrive.

Auditing software is hard! The most heavily scrutinized smart contract in history had a small bug that nobody noticed — that is, until someone did notice it and used it to steal $50 million. If cryptocurrency enthusiasts putting together a $150 million investment fund can’t properly audit the software, how confident are you in your e-book audit? Perhaps you would rather write your own counteroffer software contract, in case this e-book author has hidden a recursion bug in his version to drain your ethereum wallet of all your life savings?

It’s a complicated way to buy a book! It’s not trustless; you’re trusting in the software (and your ability to defend yourself in a software-driven world), instead of trusting other people.

Another example: the purported advantages for a voting system in a weakly governed country. “Keep your voting records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone” sounds right — yet is your Afghan villager going to download the blockchain from a broadcast node and decrypt the Merkle root from his Linux command line to independently verify that his vote has been counted? Or will he rely on the mobile app of a trusted third party — like the nonprofit or open-source consortium administering the election or providing the software?

These sound like stupid examples — novelists and villagers hiring e-bodyguard hackers to protect them from malicious customers and nonprofits whose clever smart-contracts might steal their money and votes?? — until you realize that’s actually the point. Instead of relying on trust or regulation, in the blockchain world, individuals are on-purpose responsible for their own security precautions. And if the software they use is malicious or buggy, they should have read the software more carefully.

The entire worldview underlying blockchain is wrong

You actually see it over and over again. Blockchain systems are supposed to be more trustworthy, but in fact they are the least trustworthy systems in the world. Today, in less than a decade, three successive top bitcoin exchanges have been hacked, another is accused of insider trading, the demonstration-project DAO smart contract got drained, crypto price swings are 10 times those of the world’s most mismanaged currencies and bitcoin, the “killer app” of crypto transparency, is almost certainly artificially propped up by fake transactions involving billions of literally imaginary dollars.

Blockchain systems do not magically make the data in them accurate or the people entering the data trustworthy; they merely enable you to audit whether the chain has been tampered with. A person who sprayed pesticides on a mango can still enter onto a blockchain system that the mangoes were organic. A corrupt government can create a blockchain system to count the votes and just allocate an extra million addresses to cronies. An investment fund whose charter is written in software can still misallocate funds.

How then, is trust created?

In the case of buying an e-book, even if you’re buying it with a smart contract, instead of auditing the software you’ll rely on one of four things, each of them characteristics of the “old way”: Either the author of the smart contract is someone you know of and trust, the seller of the e-book has a reputation to uphold, you or friends of yours have bought e-books from this seller in the past successfully or you’re just willing to hope that this person will deal fairly. In each case, even if the transaction is effectuated via a smart contract, in practice you’re relying on trust of a counterparty or middleman, not your self-protective right to audit the software, each man an island unto himself. The contract still works, but the fact that the promise is written in auditable software rather than government-enforced English makes it less transparent, not more transparent.

The same for the vote counting. Before blockchain can even get involved, you need to trust that voter registration is done fairly, that ballots are given only to eligible voters, that the votes are made anonymously rather than bought or intimidated, that the vote displayed by the balloting system is the same as the vote recorded and that no extra votes are given to the political cronies to cast. Blockchain makes none of these problems easier and many of them harder—more importantly, solving them in a blockchain context requires a set of awkward workarounds that undermine the core premise. So we know the entries are valid, let’s allow only trusted nonprofits to make entries—and you’re back at the good old “classic” ledger. In fact, if you look at any blockchain solution, inevitably you’ll find an awkward workaround to re-create trusted parties in a trustless world.

A crypto-medieval system

Yet absent these “old way” factors—supposing you actually attempted to rely on blockchain’s self-interest/self-protection to build a real system—you’d be in a real mess.

Eight hundred years ago in Europe — with weak governments unable to enforce laws and trusted counterparties few, fragile and far between — theft was rampant, safe banking was a fantasy and personal security was at the point of the sword. This is what Somalia looks like now–and what it looks like to transact on the blockchain in the ideal scenario.

Somalia on purpose. That’s the vision. Nobody wants it!

Even the most die-hard crypto enthusiasts prefer in practice to rely on trust rather than their own crypto-medieval systems. 93% of bitcoins are mined by managed consortiums, yet none of the consortiums use smart contracts to manage payouts. Instead, they promise things like a “long history of stable and accurate payouts.” Sounds like a trustworthy middleman!

See also: Collaborating for a Better Blockchain

Same with Silk Road, a cryptocurrency-driven online drug bazaar. The key to Silk Road wasn’t the bitcoins (that was just to evade government detection), it was the reputation scores that allowed people to trust criminals. And the reputation scores weren’t tracked on a tamper-proof blockchain, they were tracked by a trusted middleman!

If Ripple, Silk Road, Slush Pool and the DAO all prefer “old way” systems of creating and enforcing trust, it’s no wonder that the outside world had not adopted trustless systems either!

In the name of all blockchain stands for, it’s time to abandon blockchain

A decentralized, tamper-proof repository sounds like a great way to audit where your mango comes from, how fresh it is and whether it has been sprayed with pesticides. But actually, laws on food labeling, nonprofit or government inspectors, an independent, trusted free press, empowered workers who trust whistleblower protections, credible grocery stores, your local nonprofit farmer’s market and so on do a way better job. People who actually care about food safety do not adopt blockchain because trusted is better than trustless. Blockchain’s technology mess exposes its metaphor mess — a software engineer pointing out that storing the data as a sequence of small hashed files won’t get the mango pickers to accurately report whether they sprayed pesticides is also pointing out why peer-to-peer interaction with no regulations, norms, middlemen or trusted parties is actually a bad way to empower people.

Like the farmer’s market or the organic labeling standard, so many real ideas are hiding in plain sight. Do you wish there was a type of financial institution that was secure and well-regulated in all the traditional ways, but also has the integrity of being people-powered? A credit union’s members elect its directors, and the transaction-processing revenue is divided up among the members. Move your money! Prefer a deflationary monetary policy? Central bankers are appointed by elected leaders. Want to make elections more secure and democratic? Help write open source voting software, go out and register voters or volunteer as an election observer here or abroad! Wish there was a trusted e-book delivery service that charged lower transaction fees and distributed more of the earnings to the authors? You can already consider stated payout rates when you buy music or books, buy directly from the authors or start your own e-book site that’s even better than what’s out there!

Projects based on the elimination of trust have failed to capture customers’ interest because trust is actually so damn valuable. A lawless and mistrustful world where self-interest is the only principle and paranoia is the only source of safety is a not a paradise but a crypto-medieval hellhole.

As a society, and as technologists and entrepreneurs in particular, we’re going to have to get good at cooperating — at building trust and at being trustworthy. Instead of directing resources to the elimination of trust, we should direct our resources to the creation of trust—whether we use a long series of sequentially hashed files as our storage medium or not.

What Problem Does Blockchain Solve?

The main problem that blockchain solves results from the fact that computer databases simply cannot talk to each other without a layer of expensive fault-prone human administration or bureaucratic central authority controlling every node. Blockchain technology, on the other hand, is a single, decentralized database managed by software and shared by multiple users, without any third party authority. This makes processing transactions less costly and less error-prone. This software enables process efficiency because new links can form as needed, and improves organizational efficiency because no management gatekeepers are needed.

The applicability of blockchains may include everywhere that many people may want to interact with a computer database. It is easy to imagine a tremendous breadth and depth of potential applications and markets.

Centralization

The traditional way to enable databases to communicate with each other is to consolidate and combine them into a single database, hoping that enough commonality would exist to patch them together. This approach is typical of mergers and acquisitions of corporations where two somewhat similar entities combine their data under a central authority. Efficiencies are gained in scale and elimination of redundancy. Unfortunately, centralization can also lead to inefficiencies such as top-heavy hierarchy, monopoly, obfuscation, stagnation and vulnerability to external shocks. Failures would often trigger blanket legislation and government regulations. Meanwhile, the original problem remains; how do these new mega databases communicate with other mega databases?

See also: How Blockchain Will Reorganize Society  

Decentralization

The other way to eliminate intermediaries and enable data to be shared between organizations is for everyone to share the same database. Multiple writers can retrieve and populate data simultaneously with no controls, consensus or centralized authority. Natural organic links would form, and operations would become faster, cheaper and easier to perform and maintain. The network effect can take hold where the value of the network would grow exponentially. Unfortunately, there would be no way to stop a person from cheating another person, or going back to change the conditions of a contract, or giving himself a raise, or double spending a unit of account, etc. For decentralized databases, these are precisely the problems that blockchain solves.

Before Bitcoin, if a person sent a contract over email, each party would hold an identical copy that could be easily manipulated. After Bitcoin, a person can send a contract electronically, and the receiving party would hold the only valid copy. While this may sound trivial at first, it is extraordinarily difficult for a computer to do. But it would allow computers to perform some of the functions that administrators routinely perform today at nearly every interaction with a computer.

Not unlike what happened with mechanization in the last century, once achieved, the software-managed architecture will be faster, more reliable and cheaper while the marginal cost of adding additional capacity approaches zero. Centralized databases scale at the speed of bureaucracy. Blockchain may scale up to handle large and complex transactions or scale down to accommodate billions of micro-transaction with little difference in operations cost. Also like what happened with mechanization, society will certainly reorganize around these new forms of value creation and exchange. This is already evident with the extraordinary amount of venture and investment capital and creative new decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) pouring into blockchain space.

See also: Why Insurers Caught the Blockchain Bug  

Blockchain technology makes business cases that may never have been viable become brilliantly viable today. To use an engineering example, the invention of the hydrostatic wheel bearing eliminated enough mechanical friction from a steam locomotive that it could become a viable engine of economic growth. Likewise, blockchain technology holds the potential to eliminate a tremendous amount of friction from everyday transactions and agreements. For anyone reading this article while standing in line at the DMV, that is a problem that deserves to be solved.

The innovation has just begun.

(Adapted from; Insurance: The Highest and Best Use of Blockchain technology, July 2016 National Center for Insurance Policy and Research / National Association of Insurance Commissioners Newsletter: http://www.naic.org/cipr_newsletter_archive/vol19_blockchain.pdf)

Blockchain: No More Double-Entry Books?

My day job at Ribbit.me keeps me insanely busy. Too busy, unfortunately, to spend enough time thinking about one of the more exciting and disruptive impacts of blockchain technology: the breakdown of double-entry bookkeeping. In a previous life, I was a CPA, and I’ve been wanting to put some thoughts out there for a while. I still see very few people talking about the effect on blockchain on bookkeeping despite its potentially bringing into doubt the effectiveness of the most fundamental foundation of commerce today. 

Tried and True Double-Entry Bookkeeping

Double-entry bookkeeping is the basic foundation of how we account for value today. For 2,000 years it has served as an unquestionable given in commerce. There are two columns, the debit column and the credit column. There are two entries — the first entry is to record what you have, and the second entry is to record how you got it (e.g. debit cash and credit sales). If these aren’t equal, we know counterparty exposure has not been properly accounted for, prompting an audit and a correction. It mandates the accounting of counterparty exposure for every single movement of value. It is a beautiful system in its simplicity and effectiveness.

See Also: What’s In Store for Blockchain

But, what happens if the counterparty exposure is not known? What if we don’t know who owns, or is liable for, the value of assets recorded on a ledger? In the old paradigm, this was simply an impossibility. Counterparty claims to assets were always known, because, to receive or send an asset of value, it must be received by or sent to a counterparty! It seems so basic and fundamental, someone would think this could never be questioned. Until now.

Permissionless and Permissioned Blockchains

Enter blockchain. A blockchain is a single-entry bookkeeping ecosystem. Well, technically a permissionless blockchain is a single-entry bookkeeping ecosystem. A permissionless blockchain is an ecosystem where, obviously, permission is not required to participate.

On the other hand, there is the permissioned blockchain. My company Ribbit.me uses a permissioned ledger as its platform. In the permissioned blockchain ecosystem, permission is required for a user to participate. The degree of permission can vary from ecosystem to ecosystem. Permissioned blockchains have come about to facilitate enterprise adoption of blockchain technology. If you want to know why, it’s all about counterparty risk.

A pure permissionless blockchain ecosystem is a type of distributed autonomous organization (DAO). In a DAO, there is no central authority running the show. Control is decentralized across anonymous users in the distributed network, and anyone can participate as a user. The blockchain does not know or care who the users are. It introduces the real potential for true universal and global financial inclusion.

This is great! But, wait, the road to utopia isn’t that simple. An ecosystem of anonymous users means transactions with counterparties of unknown identity. In other words, it means we no longer know the identity of who has ownership of or who has creditor claims to the assets on the ledger.

Double-Entry Bookkeeping in Legacy Banking

When we deposit money into a bank account, we are transferring value to the bank as custodian of our asset. We still own the asset in our account and, at some point, the bank is required to return the asset to us. On the bank’s ledger, this transaction will result in a debit to cash, an asset account on the left hand side of the ledger and a credit to demand deposits (a liability account on the right hand side of the ledger). Easy-peasy double-entry bookkeeping! 

Single-Entry Bookkeeping in a Permissionless Blockchain

When a user acquires access to (not ownership of — keep reading to know why) a permissionless blockchain native token, it is effectively doing the same thing as what was described above. It is transferring or depositing value into a ledger wallet. In this case, the bank is replaced with network nodes performing as custodians of a distributed ledger. The depositor and the custodians can also be anonymous. On the permissionless-blockchain-distributed ledger, this transaction is recorded as a debit to the user’s wallet, an asset account on the left side of the ledger and a credit to… what?

To answer that question, we need to figure out who is actually liable for the distributed ledger. Well, the network nodes should be, as they are our custodians of the ledger and, therefore, of the value contained within it. Furthermore, since every network node is of equal importance and authority, in theory, every node should equally share the custodianship liability of the assets recorded in the left hand column of the ledger.

Anonymous Counterparties

We have two problems here. In this ecosystem, both the users and the network nodes are anonymous. And because it is a DAO, there is no centralized owner/operator of the ledger to approach for access to network node identities.

The Introduction of Single-Entry Bookkeeping

Because the user’s network node counterparty is anonymous, it is impossible to record it as the entity liable for the asset. A search for ledger ownership in the form of a capital account will not be any more fruitful. Remember, this ledger is a DAO. By definition, no single entity owns or operates it. And, just like that, with nobody to attribute liability to and nobody to attribute ownership to, the right hand-side of the credit column disappears. Double-entry bookkeeping collapses. What is left behind is a single-column ledger in a single-entry bookkeeping ecosystem.

I omitted one part of the bank-deposit example out of this blockchain example: “We still own the asset in our account, and, at some point, the bank is required to return the asset to us.” This was omitted because there is a possibility that the user can never really own value embodied as a blockchain native token. First, the user’s identity may be anonymous. Second, even if the user chooses to reveal its identity, the value it claims ownership of always resides within the blockchain ledger. It is literally impossible to have physical possession of the value. To do so would require a counterparty to request the returning of the user’s value to it.

Paradoxically, the deeper one’s understanding of double-entry bookkeeping, the more difficult it may be to understand all of this. More than once, I’ve spent more than an hour trying explain this to university accounting professors and professional-practicing CPAs. They are so close to double-entry bookkeeping that asking them to question it is something akin to asking a physicist to question gravity. It’s like they say: Don’t try this at home, kids!

Entirely New Challenges and Risks

Cognitive dissonance aside, blockchain has introduced a new age of single-entry bookkeeping. This has opened a Pandora’s box of entirely new challenges and risks that are brought about by undefinable asset ownership/liability and unquantifiable counterparty risk. These are not just new challenges and risks for the transaction counterparties but for the regulators mandated to oversee it all.

See Also: What Is and What Isn’t a Blockchain?

Challenges for Enterprise Adoption

If the user is an individual, as sole proprietor of its person, it can make decisions regarding risk exposure on its own behalf. But can a corporate director? Can a corporate director authorize the use of shareholder capital for an anonymous counterparty transaction in a single-entry ledger ecosystem without violating its fiduciary duty to those shareholders? Can a regulator determine (with confidence) that a regulated entity in the same transaction is not in violation of KYC/AML or anti-terrorism financing laws? These are very important questions that have yet to be answered and that risk managers must demand answers to.

Entirely New Accounting Standards Are Needed

Once considered the boring bedrock of commerce, accounting as a discipline is now entering an era of uncertainty at the most fundamental level. This will force us to redefine how value is accounted for. This brings new opportunities — as we will soon see, single-entry bookkeeping will emerge as a new discipline of study and research.

There will be a real market need to innovate standards that allow us to account for value in the new paradigm. This probably terrifies the accountants out there. But in reality it is good, as it is human innovation itself that is true source of wealth creation.

If I have sparked an interest, feel free to reach out! You may very well be a pencil-pushing geek just like me.