Gartner tech trends 2020: practical applications for blockchain
According to Gartner’s top 10 strategic technology predictions, 2020 will be a bumper year for everything from the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge computing to human augmentation and automation.
It will also see the beginnings of maturity for a technology that has been gaining momentum for almost three decades while being the focus of intense hype, skepticism and confusion over its potential applications.
In 1991, Stuart Haber and W Scott Stornetta proposed the idea of a series of append-only, cryptographically interlinked ‘blocks’ in their paper How to Timestamp a Digital Document. Although Haber and Stornetta’s work remained theoretical for another 17 years, this was the birth of blockchain.
“Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger, an expanding chronologically ordered list of cryptographically signed, irrevocable transactional records shared by all participants in a network,” describes the Gartner report.
In an eight page paper, released in October 2008, someone (or someones) operating under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto released another paper. Bearing the title Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, the paper detailed a blockchain-based, “purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash”. The proposed purpose was to eliminate the need for funds transferred electronically to pass through a financial institution acting as a trusted third party. “The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work,” wrote Nakamoto. “The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they'll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers.”
Nine years later, a single Bitcoin was worth $17,900 and - although that figure preceded a nearly 50% drop in market value - the cryptocurrency continues to hold its value at around $7,300 today.
The intense volatility sometimes displayed by Bitcoin - and many of the other cryptocurrencies that followed in its wake - has led to hype and skepticism in equal measure over its real worth. However, let’s go back a minute to Haber and Stornetta’s original paper.
Even at the dawn of the 1990s, Haber and Stornetta identified a future wherein “all text, audio, picture, and video documents are in digital form on easily modifiable media.” Just look at the latest AI-driven deep fake video that puts Brad Pitt into the starring role of Johnny in The Room. The possibilities are endless and - usually - awful. Although Haber and Stornetta were more concerned with document forgery than hurling celebrity late night interviews headfirst into the uncanny valley, effective encryption technology in a world of increasingly tech-powered forgeries has clear and significant applications.
“More than $4 trillion in goods are shipped globally each year. The 80% of those goods carried via ocean shipping creates a lot of paperwork. Required trade documentation to process and administer all the goods is approximately one-fifth of the actual physical transportation costs,” wrote Kasey Panetta in a Gartner article this September. “Last year, a logistics business and a large technology company developed a joint global trade digitalisation platform built using blockchain technology. It will enable them to establish a shared, immutable record of all transactions and provide all disparate partners access to that information at any time. Although the distributed, immutable, encrypted nature of blockchain solutions can help with such business issues, blockchain can achieve much more than that.”
According to Gartner, the 2020s will be the decade when - thirty years after first being theorised - blockchain technology finds its home outside of crypto mining sheds in rural China and small-scale proof-of-concept projects, and makes its way into the operational structure of multinational corporations. “Blockchain, which is already appearing in experimental and small-scope projects, will be fully scalable by 2023,” claims the report.
Blockchain has profound implications for increasing tracaability along supply chains, securing the authenticity of electronic documents and could even reshape the way that banks secure their reserves. HSBC even moved $20bn into a blockchain-based digital vault last week.
Our predictions for 2020: By the end of it, we'll have interviewed a Chief Blockchain Officer, and also some maverick country is going to use blockchain in its passport authentication process. Probably Lichtenstein. Those kooky cats.
SAS: Improving the British Army’s decision making with data
SAS’ long-standing relationship with the British Army is built on mutual respect and grounded by a reciprocal understanding of each others’ capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Roderick Crawford, VP and Country GM for SAS UKI, states that the company’s thorough grasp of the defence sector makes it an ideal partner for the Army as it undergoes its own digital transformation.
“Major General Jon Cole told us that he wanted to enable better, faster decision-making in order to improve operational efficiency,” he explains. Therefore, SAS’ task was to help the British Army realise the “significant potential” of data through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and conduct complex analysis.
In 2020, the Army invested in the SAS ‘Viya platform’ as an overture to embarking on its new digital roadmap. The goal was to deliver a new way of working that enabled agility, flexibility, faster deployment, and reduced risk and cost: “SAS put a commercial framework in place to free the Army of limits in terms of their access to our tech capabilities.”
Doing so was important not just in terms of facilitating faster innovation but also, in Crawford’s words, to “connect the unconnected.” This means structuring data in a simultaneously secure and accessible manner for all skill levels, from analysts to data engineers and military commanders. The result is that analytics and decision-making that drives innovation and increases collaboration.
Crawford also highlights the importance of the SAS platform’s open nature, “General Cole was very clear that the Army wanted a way to work with other data and analytics tools such as Python. We allow them to do that, but with improved governance and faster delivery capabilities.”
SAS realises that collaboration is at the heart of a strong partnership and has been closely developing a long-term roadmap with the Army. “Although we're separate organisations, we come together to work effectively as one,” says Crawford. “Companies usually find it very easy to partner with SAS because we're a very open, honest, and people-based business by nature.”
With digital technology itself changing with great regularity, it’s safe to imagine that SAS’ own relationship with the Army will become even closer and more diverse. As SAS assists it in enhancing its operational readiness and providing its commanders with a secure view of key data points, Crawford is certain that the company will have a continually valuable role to play.
“As warfare moves into what we might call ‘the grey-zone’, the need to understand, decide, and act on complex information streams and diverse sources has never been more important. AI, computer vision and natural language processing are technologies that we hope to exploit over the next three to five years in conjunction with the Army.”
Fundamentally, data analytics is a tool for gaining valuable insights and expediting the delivery of outcomes. The goal of the two parties’ partnership, concludes Crawford, will be to reach the point where both access to data and decision-making can be performed qualitatively and in real-time.
“SAS is absolutely delighted to have this relationship with the British Army, and across the MOD. It’s a great privilege to be part of the armed forces covenant.”