15 Crazy and Surprising Ways People Are Using Blockchain
This article originally published Jan. 25, 2018.
Hacking and fraud have in some cases become more difficult to prevent and track as people have moved more of their lives online. But certain innovations, such as blockchain, show promise for cracking down on dishonest behavior, insecure transactions, contractual breaches and even unintended human and computer errors.
The technology that powers bitcoin can be difficult to comprehend. Blockchain is a digital ledger platform that verifies identities and transactions through a secure digital network of records. It’s especially secure because it generates multiple records stored in a decentralized manner.
In turn, blockchain empowers people to trade and transact more, because they can be sure who they’re trading with, as well as the origins of the thing they’re trading, dating back to its inception. They can even generate new things to securely trade, from their time to virtual cats.
Because blockchain is such an amorphous concept, read through the following use cases for a more tangible idea of what the technology can do -- or what people envision it will do in the near future.
Keeping a record of sexual consent.
In January 2018, Amsterdam-based startup LegalThings, which specializes in digital contracts, launched a beta version of an app called LegalFling, which uses blockchain technology to verify sexual consent. Its creators were inspired by the #MeToo movement, which has brought to light numerous accounts of sexual assault.
The app goes beyond recording whether a user has consented to having sex. A user can specify requirements and whether certain practices are OK with them, from sharing photos and videos to using a condom to being STD free to using explicit language. Then they send a message request to a sexual partner, who decides whether to accept or decline the terms of the interaction. The person’s acceptance gets recorded on the blockchain, so neither party can tamper with that record after that time.
Some have expressed concern that LegalFling cannot comprehensively reflect complex interpersonal dynamics. Someone could use the app on behalf of another person without the account holder’s knowledge, or someone could provide consent initially but later change their mind, then have to reflect that updated decision in the app. Some legal experts have warned that additional contractual protections would be required for agreements made via the app to hold up in court, Fortune reports.
Addressing voter fraud.
Reports of voters casting multiple ballots or votes being counted incorrectly call the validity of entire elections into question, prompting lawsuits and recounts. Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit Democracy Earth has built an app called Sovereign with the goal of eliminating electoral corruption and fraud. Follow My Vote is another solution in development.
Blockchain software produces tokens within Sovereign, which are analogous to cryptocurrency, except they represent votes instead of money. The idea is that voters within an organization, be they citizens of a government or board members of a company, are issued a set number of votes through Sovereign to cast for the issues at hand.
In addition to boosting security, the Sovereign system is designed to empower organizations to create more granular elections. An “unofficial digital referendum” in Colombia used Sovereign in 2016, according to New Scientist, and it asked voters to divide 100 votes across seven aspects of what would have otherwise been a yes-or-no issue. The app’s developers hope that one day, voting will occur across national borders, and that their app will be able to facilitate such a practice.
Trading commodities, from oil to soybeans.
Blockchain has the potential to streamline paper trails in business transactions and trade finance. It eliminates the slow and inefficient process of sending paper back and forth while adding a layer of error protection.
In December 2017, global trading house Louis Dreyfus Co. conducted the world’s first agricultural commodity trade via blockchain, with help from Dutch and French banks. It sold a cargo of soybeans to Shandong Bohi Industry Co. The parties exchanged digital contracts, letters of credit and records of government inspections and certifications to complete the deal.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Louis Dreyfus Co. estimated that document processing time was shortened to one-fifth of what is normal for a deal of this magnitude, while a representative from Dutch bank ING Groep NV told the outlet that the transaction took one week, rather than the standard two.
Blockchain-based energy (crude oil) trades have already occured, and metals trading could be next. By late 2018, a blockchain-based physical commodity transaction platform formed by BP, Shell, ING and other entities is expected to be fully operational.
Sharing solar power.
In Brooklyn, people with solar panels can monetize the renewable electricity they’re generating by selling some of that power to their environmentally conscious neighbors via blockchain.
Startup LO3 Energy, in partnership with Siemens, is testing this capability though an app called Brooklyn Microgrid. Consumers with solar panels can sell environmental credits to other residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to solar power, without going through a middle man (other than the app itself) or utility company. Consumers control their transactions and the meters are directly connected for the power trades to register.
The startup foresees the potential to build a energy system independent of the grid, with the ability to store excess for use during large-scale outages.
Buying virtual cats.
Update: On March 20, 2018, CryptoKitties announced it had raised $12 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures and other investors. In a Medium post accompanying the announcement, CryptoKitties stated that it envisions a world "where games can be entire economies, unlocking mutual incentives for players and builders to extend the gaming experience."
In late 2017, a game called CryptoKitties debuted and generated more than $1.3 million in transactions of virtual cats in just over a month. A studio called AxiomZen created the phenomenon, powered by the Ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain, and on Dec. 3, 2017, TechCrunch reported that the price of one CyrptoKitty ranged from the equivalent of roughly $12 to $113,000.
Cat breeding also occurs in the game, which influences pricing. As of Jan. 22, 2018, there have been 268,341 sales of CryptoKitties and 210,469 unique kitties sold, with sales totaling $19,160,337. Axiom takes a cut.
The publication compared the craze to Beanie Babies in the 1990s, as well as Neopets, but made the distinction that because no centralized entity owns or manages CyrptoKitties -- those who own them will have access to them forever, even if they don’t have much value down the line.
The game’s complicated, but you can read the FAQ here.
Chronicling the lives of Thanksgiving turkeys.
For Portlandia types concerned about the origins of their food, international food conglomerate Cargill presented a solution this past Thanksgiving. Turkeys distributed from select farms featured packaging printed with a tracking code, and buyers could go online, type in the code and learn about their individual bird.
The online profile was complete with photos, information about the farm where the turkey was raised and even a message from the farmer. While it's a cute idea, it has some utility -- it also helped the company with tracking in the event of a food safety incident such as the need for a pinpointed recall.
Other food companies have begun to view blockchain as a way to track products throughout their supply chains as a means of quality control. Last year, IBM announced plans for a blockchain food safety project in partnership with companies such as Dole, Driscoll’s, Kroger, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart, according to Buzzfeed.
Converting a person’s time into a special currency.
Startup founder Evan Prodromou came up with a solution to keep all of the people at bay who asked if they could “pick his brain” -- he created a cryptocurrency called Evancoin on the Ethereum blockchain platform.
The Fuzzy.ai co-founder spearheaded an initial coin offering (ICO) for Evancoin on Oct. 1, 2017, selling 20 hours worth at $15 each. But Prodromou didn’t commodify all of his time, just professional time. Fortunately for his family, they don’t have to pay to get him to join them at the dinner table or anything like that.
Basic economic principles govern Evancoin, as Wired reported -- the cryptocurrency’s value could theoretically shift along with supply and demand. Two weeks after the ICO, those in possession of Evancoin could also sell it for $45 per hour -- which was less than Prodromou’s hourly consulting rate, but he was mostly in it to see what would happen upon making his own blockchain-based currency.
“I’m really serious about exploring how cryptocurrency is changing what we can do with money and how we think about it,” Prodromou told Wired. “Money is this sort of consensual hallucination, and I wanted to experiment around that.”
Tracking dental records.
Given that blockchain is an ultra-secure record-keeping system, a logical application for the technology is medical records. Several companies and healthcare organizations have delved into this idea, but it can get extremely niche.
Dentacoin, for dentists and dental records, is one example. It’s not only a blockchain network, but a globally universal token, called ERC20, designed to facilitate the exchange of information within the dental industry. Whether between dental offices or between providers and their patients, the network is designed to make sure information is exchanged only between the intended parties. It also could be used as a compliance tool, making sure that dental tools and materials are properly sourced and used on the correct patients. Thinking globally, it could allow for a more efficient exchange of tools when and where they’re needed.
In terms of payment security, patients could use Dentacoin to pay for their dental procedures. The Dentacoin website also explains that the goal of the exchange is to make dental care more affordable. As of Jan. 22, 2018, there are 325.2 billion dentacoin in circulation.
Creating and playing games.
Various companies are using blockchain to create new kinds of digital and analog games.
A developer called Tapinator announced a game called BitPainting last month, which allows users to create and share pieces of digital art, which Tapinator refer to as “crypto-collectibles.” It’s currently in beta and scheduled for an April launch.
A gaming platform called Chimaera recently raised more than $1.5 million worth of bitcoin in presales. It incorporates blockchain to help developers manage game worlds and secure, share and trade their virtual assets. Further, game developers can create their own currencies within their games and trade it for other cryptocurrencies in the Chimaera game ecosystem to unlock various features for players.
“Gamers can benefit from massive immersive game worlds with thriving economies, fair gameplay, fair item acquisition and true ownership of in-game assets and items, and the ability to trade in a trustless fashion,” the company stated in a release.
Managing projects and rewarding workers.
If blockchain can accurately track the movement of physical products and virtual currency, it can also track people and the work that they do to boost efficiency.
As described in a blog post for Workep, a project management platform for G Suite, “data related to how much time your employees are taking to complete their tasks will be part of [an] immutable record,” Workep Chief Marketing Officer Edgar Medina notes, “and data such as document sharing will be safer” with blockchain.
Every assignment specification could be recorded on a transactional, blockchain-based platform, reducing ambiguity for the assignee and creating a record between the manager and the worker. Same goes for the completion of the task, or a record that the worker delivered on time and according to specifications.
Companies could also set up automatic payments through this type of platform, Medina explains, once work is completed. Companies could also make internal currency systems to reward employees for completing tasks more quickly than expected.
Hiring and onboarding gig workers.
ShiftPixy, a platform that specializes in workforce engagement for the restaurant industry, announced on March 7 that it uses a blockchain ledger to keep track of data generated in the hiring and onboarding of gig workers.
The temp-service-like platform matches employers with shift-workers and serves as the workers’ employer and benefits manager.
The platform has incorporated blockchain to boost security and compliance, reduce human error in screening and identify fraud. The onboarding process requires the exchange of sensitive information such as social security, driver’s license and bank account numbers.
It also allows employers and auditors to verify employment dates and candidates’ credentials, and for workers to rate the workplaces ShiftPixy has paired them with without the risk of anyone tampering with those ratings. In the future, ShiftPixy anticipates that blockchain technology could be used for worker payments and contacts, according to a release.
Experimenting with a business model for online media.
Online media is an increasingly financially challenging business, as major platforms such as Google and Facebook consume a large proportion of advertising revenue and readers, spoiled for years with free access, are reluctant to pay for subscriptions to read web content.
A new Ethereum blockchain-based media site, Hmm Daily, is slated to launch in April, Fast Company reports. Its creator, Tom Scocca, formerly worked for Gawker and The Awl, both of which are now defunct. It will use a yet-to-launch platform called Civil for its back-end -- a “Marketplace for Sustainable Journalism,” according to the Civil website.
Civil will issue a crypto token to readers, exchanged for access to online reading material. With the content also recorded via blockchain technology, there will be a permanent record of it, should anyone ever try to delete or edit it.
Rewarding customers with loyalty points.
What could make customers shop in a store again? In-store restaurants or fitness studios? Product customization options? Live music? Or just better deals?
Loyyal is a startup that’s partnered with IBM to streamline customer rewards programs through blockchain technology. One problem Loyyal aims to solve is a lack of universality with loyalty programs -- the average U.S. household participated in 29 loyalty programs, according to a 2015 survey. And anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a loyalty program knows it can be confusing and difficult to redeem or exchange points.
From banks to travel companies to retailers, blockchain technology has the potential to help issuers track loyalty points accurately. It also has the potential to centralize or universalize a range of programs into one “wallet.”
Blockchain could also help loyal points issuers with accounting, because when demand is too high for every customer who wants to redeem points to do so, the law states that the company can’t claim unused loyalty points as revenue. Blockchain could also make loyalty programs more personalized and localized, according to marketing experts.
Proving personal identities.
Imagine if verifying your identity didn’t require keeping track of and presenting a range of antiquated documents, such as a birth certificate, social security card or passport. Imagine you could centralize all of that data about yourself, as well as, say, your login information to your favorite online services.
“A digital ID can be created to act as a digital watermark which can be assigned to every online transaction of any asset,” writes Elena Mesropyan for Medici, a fintech information hub.
IBM’s blockchain division is working on making this concept a reality, giving individuals more control over which aspects of their identities they share, establishing trust in the exchange of identity information and preventing information from being compromised in a breach of any one institution (e.g. Equifax). Startup Civic has built a “Secure Identity Platform,” enabling multi-factor authentication for users to access various apps and websites -- “without a username, password, third-party authenticator or physical hardware token,” according to its website.
Want to make sure that your designer handbag or expensive sneakers are the real deal? Chronicled is one startup building blockchain-based technology for supply chain management, and one of its applications is authenticating physical luxury goods. VeChain is another.
Imagine a registry that tracks every item ever produced in a single product line, via encrypted smart tags permanently embedded in products. Being a blockchain system, it will track all owners of a product throughout its history, but in a way that maintains the privacy of those owners and their personal information. By scanning the product with a smartphone app, a potential customer could verify whether an item is real or fake.
Such technology might not stop secondary market buyers from settling for lookalikes, but customers who want authentic products will have peace of mind that they’re making a solid investment.