Is it just another big hammer looking for nails?
By Clinton Naidu Manager: Innovation
Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”[i] This law of instrument or Maslow’s hammer is a concept that involves a person’s over-reliance on a specific tool or instrument. For a while now, Blockchain seems to have become the hammer with the common consensus being that it can solve all of a company’s issues. True or not, sometimes it just boils down to personal opinion. Hopefully, this article can shed some light on blockchain and help you to formulate an informed opinion.
Blockchain itself was developed by a person or persons named Satoshi Nakamoto (no one knows exactly who Satoshi Nakamoto is) in 2008 and implemented with the launch of the crypto currency, Bitcoin, in January 2009. Nakamoto used blockchain to provide credence to Bitcoin by preventing fraudulent transactions from taking place. He managed to do this because of the 4 core ideas of blockchain, i.e. Chain of transactions, Open ledger, Distributed open ledger and Secured transactions (we shall explain what these mean further on).
Let us discuss 3 significant questions about blockchain, “Why did Nakamoto use it?”, “How does it work?” and lastly “What are the possible use cases in an educational environment?”
In the current, traditional way of paying for something electronically, the payer, selects who they are going to pay and how much. When they click pay on their online banking app, all the details of the transaction are sent to the banks. The banks then verify the payer details, the payee details and whether the payer has the funds for this transaction. Once the verification is done, the bank electronically removes the funds from the payer bank account and transfers it to the payee bank account. Easy!!! However, the banks only recognize certain currencies and when Nakamoto invented Bitcoin, it was not a bank recognized currency. Without the banks verifying and authorizing a monetary transaction, how does one know if the transaction is valid? A good scenario was used to teach me about blockchain and cryptocurrencies, my version of it is as follows: If I have a one of a kind pen and I sell it to you, we exchange my pen for your money. You now have the pen in your possession, and I have the money that you paid me. However, what happens if I draw one of a kind picture of the pen on my phone and I then sell you the picture. The transaction is pretty much the same, me exchanging the picture of the pen for your money, with one difference though, because the picture is electronic, we both now have a picture of the pen. If I wanted to be unscrupulous and did not delete the picture from my phone, what is stopping me from selling this one of a kind picture over and over to people across the globe? If I had to do this, it would be a profit for me, but it would devalue the picture with every further sale for all the people that bought it.
This is where Nakamoto leveraged the 4 core ideas of blockchain. Blockchain itself is a collection of data that is stored in a block, (think columns and rows in excel), that are linked (chained) to the block before it and the block after it by sharing specific parts of a hash key (a long string of alphabets and numbers that serve as a unique identifier for each block). How all this works is as follows: When a transaction is initiated, it is called a node, this node is then published to all the peers in the blockchain (computers that mine for Bitcoin for example) to validate the transaction. The first computer/peer that validates the transaction, creates that “hash” (which secures the transaction) and the node becomes a new block in the chain. Everyone who is on the blockchain can see the details of this block, hence the open ledger idea and this block has duplicate copies stored on servers across the globe (the distributed open ledger idea). What this open distributed ledger ensures, is that everyone can see all transactions in a block. For someone to commit fraud, they will have to manipulate every single record of the transaction that exists on multiple servers across the world.
Blockchain is being used in Supply Chain Management, Digital Identity and Healthcare[ii] to name a few and the use cases are growing ever so much.
Education has also found practical uses for blockchain, such as:
- Academic Credentials: When anyone can verify a person’s academic qualifications, subjects taken and marks without having to go through a specific accreditation body or school/university
- Student Identity: An electronic identity that contains all of a student’s biographical information that can be used at any institution that the student studies at.
- Funding Smart Contracts: A smart contract is set up in a blockchain for a student with a specific set of qualifying criteria and an outcome e.g. a student needs to attend 80% of their lecture in order to get their stipend. Once the smart contract records that the 80% attendance mark has been reached, funds are automatically released to the student.
In my opinion, blockchain is a wonderful tool with almost endless use cases that spans all types of industries. Just when you think that there isn’t anything else that you can put onto blockchain, someone finds a new use case. Yes, it may have started off as a big hammer looking for nails, but I think that now, the nails come willingly.