Depending on who you talk to, it isn’t surprising to hear anecdotal reports or official surveys that show the decline of human trust in government and institutions on a large scale. If you are lucky, like I am, you have a strong circle of family members, close friends and colleagues that you can always count on. Fortunately, those individuals keep me grounded and hopeful despite big picture trends.
It’s possible that trust is largely unattainable because we have come to a point in time where big institutions have too much at stake and cannot be relied on to be fair and honest. Distrust has far-reaching implications for not only our big establishments like cities, health care and businesses, but for individuals who are directly touched by larger influences at play.
Here’s a thought: What if we could reinvigorate trust through machines?
Current-Day Trust Levels
While machines don’t have opinions or motivations and could potentially be unbiased and accurate calculators of facts, the people that own and operate them might — and often do.
Last year, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported a record-breaking drop in trust across the country’s general population. However, it also determined that businesses were expected to be agents of change. Among industry sectors, technology remained the most trusted entity, ranking above education, transportation, financial services and all other industries. This year, the same study showed that employees are now turning to employers to provide certainty, as trust in some areas has inched up slightly.
With this as the backdrop, in addition to the advent of distributed ledger technology — which takes away the risks of centralization and validates information by consensus — machines may be a vehicle for trust after all.
A Closer Look At Blockchain
Distributed ledgers such as blockchains operate on a decentralized system where everyone agrees to the terms and, as a result, records can’t be manipulated. Because there is no central authority, trust levels are higher among the system’s equal participants. These higher levels of trust are clearly demonstrated in major public cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin — where parties must mutually trust each other in order to participate in the network.
When you introduce machines into the blockchain mix, there must be a way to ensure that the transacted value among devices is secure. Think of a cryptocurrency wallet that holds all your keys or a closet strongbox with the originals of your life’s most important documents. To achieve their full potential, connected machines, equipment and industrial devices also need their own safe or wallet of sorts acting as a black box, accepting incoming data and producing signed transactions. Because the encrypted keys are securely contained inside the black box, all participants on the blockchain system can be confident that the data is immutable and the transactions are valid. This is the level of trust needed to turn machines into economic engines.
To understand exactly how this immutability feature operates, look no further than the World Economic Forum’s paper on digital identity trustworthiness or Deloitte’s 2019 Global Blockchain Survey, showcasing global recognition of blockchain’s transformational importance. For a more practical example of why blockchains combined with machines is more trusted, Volkswagen AG is currently testing blockchain use cases for their vehicles.
Industry Applications For Trusted Machines
In the changing world of transportation, this holds tremendous promise. For example, blockchain can be used to easily provide independent, verified records that prove compliance. Automobile manufacturers that use blockchain to track service history of their vehicles will not only earn greater trust from customers, but they can also use that data to validate and streamline operations across the manufacturer, dealer and service provider ecosystem. In transportation supply chains, IoT devices and blockchain can be combined to ensure the delivery of goods, creating detailed records for accountability across the chain. IBM and Maersk have already begun building a platform to do just this, and as of August 2018, they added 92 clients to the supply chain platform.
Renewable energy is another area that is ready for a layer of trust that connected machines and blockchain can deliver. Traditionally, energy models are centered around a one-way distribution of power; but new sources of power, such as solar, wind and large-scale battery storage, encourage a dynamic and distributed model where everyone can participate.
A simple example of this new layer of trust is renewable energy credits (RECs). Until recently, most solar consumers had to trust their power utility company to manually do a reading to determine credits. But with independent data collected directly on panels and made available to everyone, human auditors no longer need to evaluate usage. RECs can be issued automatically and equitably. Microgrids are another part of the new energy landscape, where the marriage of blockchain and IoT adds value. When applied to these physical energy systems, peer-to-peer trading becomes more cost-effective, greener, transparent and easily trusted. Singapore customers can now trade energy certificates in this manner.
Instilling Trust In The Future
With the root of trust established by blockchain hardware, some businesses may find a solid, lasting foundation for a real machine economy. And if machines can be trusted engines of data and transactions, perhaps, humans and institutions will lose the incentive to influence outcomes — becoming more trusted themselves.
For those wanting to implement a blockchain solution, you must first clarify the problems you are trying to solve. The blockchain community has been the most valuable resource for blockchain early-adopters, and many organizations within it provide resources and support (videos, webinars, etc.) that can help get you started, including the following nonprofit groups my company is a part of:
• Enterprise Ethereum Alliance: a global community collaborating to create an open decentralized web for everyone
• Mobi: a mobility open blockchain initiative working to make mobility safer, greener, and more affordable
• Hyperledger: an open collaborative effort to advance cross-industry blockchain technology
We are in the early stages of seeing what true impact blockchain solutions have, but I believe we have the opportunity to restore trust, improve business and ultimately enhance people’s everyday lives.