Blockchain stands at the precipice
Technology needs widely adopted use
Following the crash in cryptocurrency prices, the future of blockchain remains uncertain, yet enthusiasm abounded at the World Blockchain Summit held in Bangkok on Monday for the potential of this fledgling technology.
"When we started doing these summits in 2017 there was lots of money in blockchain, but also a lot of scams and bad projects," said Mohammed Saleem, chief executive of Trescon, the Indian events company hosting the event, its 14th blockchain summit globally.
"Now 90% of those projects do not exist, but those that remain are genuine projects developing blockchain and much more of the funding comes from institutional funds and investors."
He said Trescon chose Bangkok based on the Thai government's interest in regulating and developing cryptocurrency as well as the Thailand 4.0 development roadmap.
"I think blockchain will achieve mass adoption in the next 3-5 years, but without mass adoption many of these great projects will die because they will not be generating sufficient revenue," he said.
The key to blockchain's survival is widely adopted use cases. Despite many innovative uses for the technology being touted by startups, there has yet to be a standout use case that makes blockchain truly indispensable to enterprises or the public, or at least enough of a public good to offset the massive environmental toll of cryptocurrency mining. Currently Bitcoin mining requires as much electricity per year as Switzerland.
In Thailand, blockchain is being tested as a way to trade solar energy by the state-owned renewable energy firm BCPG.
"Lots of energy from rooftop solar is wasted because people have to go to work or leave the home and the energy is not used," said Bundit Sapianchai, president of BCPG. "During summertime an empty school with rooftop solar panels can sell surplus power to other buildings through smart contracts on the blockchain."
With the technology, buildings that generate their own energy can sell excess, unused power either back to the electric grid or to other homes and businesses through a peer-to-peer model. The system is already being used at Chiang Mai University, where electric buses can both take and give back electricity to the school's power grid.
"Blockchain is kind of like email in the 1980s -- it will be an enabler of things we don't even know yet," said Felix Mago, co-founder of Dash Thailand, at a panel at the summit. "We have seen nothing yet, but in the last three years there have been solutions that allow businesses to run operations better, cheaper and faster."
Sam Tanskul, managing director of Krungsri Finnovate, said Krungsri Bank is already incorporating blockchain technology to address a number of problems, including the development of the government's e-KYC programme to keep track of digital lending.
The bank has also partnered with Ripple, a cryptocurrency popular with large banks, to offer cheap, fast fund transfers between Thailand and Laos, and Thailand and Singapore.
Not everyone was optimistic about blockchain's potential. Jorge Sebastiao, chief technology officer of Eco-System at Huawei Technologies, said blockchain still suffers from loss of funds via cyber-attacks as well as regulatory issues.
"Last year we lost US$2 billion from hacks on blockchain systems globally," he said.
"Maturity and scalability is not yet there and we don't have enough reasons to trust blockchain over the systems they replace."
Another issue is most blockchain technologies do not comply with the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law that inspired Thailand's own Personal Data Protection Act.
A part of the GDPR requires some data to be erased from the internet about private citizens, the "right to be forgotten", but because no information stored on the blockchain can be erased, the technology butts heads with the regulation, said Mr Sebastiao.
"We are building a house of cards with a lot of pieces missing," he said.