I was recently at TEDSummit in Banff, Canada with my partner Bettina Warburg. This was, of course, my first TED experience - as well as hers. I’d considered trying to go in the past, but never really made it a priority until Bettina was given an opportunity to share her knowledge as an expert on Blockchain. She happened to be invited to join as one of the main stage speakers alongside author Don Tapscott. Btw, Don recently wrote a fantastic book with his son Alex called The Blockchain Revolution - I would encourage you all to read it.
Back to the TED experience, by far one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. Ranks right up there with the F.ounders conference I attended last year. Both fairly small, intimate, and plagued with some of the smartest human beings in the world building some incredible organizations and companies.
Rachel Botsman teaches a course at Oxford University on the collaborative and sharing economy. She also talked a bit about blockchain, but her talk was mostly centered on the power of collaboration and trust. Which, if you know about blockchain, is highly relevant to the overall conversation. People have called Blockchain everything from Trustless, to Trust Free, and/or the world’s first Trust Protocol - this technology inherently fills a gap on the internet that’s existed since it’s initial inception. As a result, we stand to fundamentally benefit in ways we could only imagine.
As a case in point, one of the most interesting use cases in my mind is KYC - or - something in the payment and banking industry known as Know Your Customer. If you’re a company that deals with the processing of payments or distribution of funds to vendors in a marketplace, KYC is an important regulation you’re required to follow. Essentially, you’re required by law to know who is transacting what and when. This way regulators and authorities have the ability to trace transactions and determine whether someone is laundering money, interacting with known terrorist organizations, or attempting to commit fraud in any capacity whatsoever. So, whenever someone comes to your site to create an account, you’re required to gather all sorts of information and data from them in order to determine whether or not they fall into any of these categories.
In the case of blockchain, it presents a really unique opportunity to streamline that entire process. If you’re an internet tech company, you know that gathering all this data can create a huge roadblock in acquiring users. Meaning, that when users proceed down the account signup funnel - you’ll encounter a fair amount of drop off in the process because there’s so much friction in collecting this information. Every field your user has to fill out, the higher the probability that that user will stop midway through the process and just give up. Not to mention the need to also convince the user that your technology platform can be trusted enough to manage and store all this highly sensitive data properly. Something that we dealt with on a fairly regular basis at Rally.
The reason blockchain presents a unique opportunity here is that because you can use cryptographic proofs to securely store the data and prove certain types of attestations, attributes, and truths without ever actually revealing that data. The blockchain, in a way, can then serve as a pseudonymous yellow pages, if you will, that can help direct applications as to where they can gain access to certain types of identifiable truths and attestations without ever actually having to actually see the data itself. If an application needs to actually see a certain piece of data, the user can then provide access to those very specific requests without revealing other data that’s unnecessary to allowing you to complete a transaction.
For example, if you’re looking to buy Alcohol at a grocery store in the United States, you’re required to prove that you’re over the legal age of 21. In all cases, the user will pull out their drivers license and show it to the shopkeeper. In doing so, you’re not only revealing your age, but you’re also revealing your date of birth, your full name, your address, whether or not you’re an organ donor, what state you live in, etc. All the shopkeeper really needed to know was, are you over the age of 21?
The question becomes, why can’t we just reveal that fact without actually sharing all that other data. To further compound the problem, how does the shopkeeper actually know that’s your real ID? In the case of blockchain, certain types attestations on an identity can clear that up or merely accept the fact that your private key matches the public key associated with a particular ID.
So, if by chance, blockchain can help solve these kinds of problems - you fundamentally overhaul the way users sign up for online services. Everyone benefits. You can signup for financial services in seconds without ever having to fill out another online form again. Startups, they’ll love this because you’ve eliminated all sorts of unnecessary steps on an account signup - and they don’t have to deal any more with the walled gardens of Facebook Login, and etc.
There are a ton of other things in this department, with some of the most exciting things also happening around Self Sovereign Identity - or more simply stated - you control your data and share pieces of it as you see fit. This particular topic is a much longer post down the road.
All three talks were fantastic and ultimately followed up by a much deeper panel conversation with the three of them, hosted by Massimo Portincaso from Boston Consulting Group. The room was packed and there was standing room only. There were an enormous number of questions presented to the panelists, and most were still grappling with what the technology ultimately meant and how it would eventually be implemented.
I think the most interesting take-away from hearing all three of them talk about blockchain - each having their own unique way of explaining it - was that no matter how you slice it, blockchain is an incredibly hard concept for most people to fully internalize and understand. Even more interesting, with all the intellectual power in the room, very few were well versed on the subject matter. You layer this with the growing hype cycle behind blockchain, and perhaps you start to think that maybe this thing is actually going to be a lot bigger than expected. It’s not just another “cloud” buzzword, it has the potential to overhaul the basic principles of how we interact together.
I’m certainly very excited about the opportunities that will present themselves once blockchain becomes a more heavily integrated technology into the broader ecosystems of our lives (and frankly even crazier once AI is introduced alongside it). Don’t get me started yet on AI’s creating blockchains. I really had to pause during this TED experience to realize, if all these brilliant minds from TED were themselves still struggling to understand the broader ramifications of what’s been created - then perhaps we really need to ramp up the education more heavily.
In the end, I was really glad that Bruno Giussani, Curator and Co-Host of TEDGlobal and TEDSummit, felt it prudent to put this technology and all its concepts more firmly in front of the broader TED community. I will say, that many people walked away from the talks with Bettina, Don, and Rachel much more informed than they were when they originally walked in the door that morning. So it appears, these three ended up doing their job. Props to them. Their videos will be online soon enough, and you’ll have the ability to consume that content and learn as well.
There were a ton of other fantastic speakers covering all sorts of other great topics ranging from AI, to Food Tech, Climate, Energy, Brexit, and the Panama Papers. One of the highlights of the experience was a comedian by the name of James Veitch, best known for playing with internet scammers and then sharing those experiences on stage.
Another great talk was by Gerard Ryle who was one of the key figures behind divulging the Panama Papers, which was 11.5 million leaked documents from 40 years of activity of Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca - which - offered just a glimpse at the often secretive world of offshore finance. It was mind blowing to hear about how all of this went down, and the degree by which they kept the entire thing secret until there was a coordinated massive global media event on the subject - all released on the same day.
There were a few surprise talks on Brexit, seeing as how it literally happened only just a few days before TED started.
All in all, I’d highly encourage anyone who has the opportunity to make it a priority. A really wonderful experience with a family of TED attendees who were just some of the kindest and most interesting people you’ll meet in your life.