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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Of #Smart Contracts, Blockchains And Other Distributed Ledgers

Seems I caught Smart Contract Fever at last week's meeting of the Bitcoin & Blockchain Leadership Forum. So rather than continuing to fire random emails at colleagues, I've tried to calm myself down with a post on the topic.

For context it's important to understand that 'smart contracts' rely on the use of a cryptographic technology or protocol which generates a 'ledger' that is accessible to any computer using the same protocol. One type of 'distributed ledger' is known as a 'blockchain', since every transaction which is accepted is then 'hashed' (shortened into a string of letters and numbers) and included with other transactions into a single 'block', which is itself hashed and added to a series or chain of such blocks. The leading distributed ledger is 'Bitcoin', the blockchain-based virtual currency. But virtual currencies (commodities?) are just one use-case for a distributed ledger - indeed the Bitcoin blockchain is being used for all sorts of non-currency applications, as explained in the very informative book, Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order. As Jay Cassano also explains, another example is Ripple, which is designed to be interoperable with other ledgers to support the wider payments ecosystem; while Ethereum is even more broadly ambitious in its attempt to use smart contracts as the basis for all kinds of ledger-based applications.

Generally speaking, the process of forming a 'smart contract' would be started by each party publishing a coded bid/offer or offer/acceptance to the same ledger or 'blockchain', using the same cryptographic protocol. These would be like two (or more) mini-apps specifying the terms on which the parties were seeking to agree. When matched, these apps would form a single application encoding the terms of the concluded contract, and this would also be recorded in the distributed ledger accessible to all computers running the same protocol. Further records could be 'published' in the ledger each time a party performed or failed to perform a contractual obligation. So the ledger would act as its own trust mechanism to verify the existence and performance of the contract. Various applications running off the ledger would be interacting with the contract and related performance data, including payment applications, authentication processes and messaging clients of the various people and machines involved as 'customers' or 'suppliers' in the related business processes. In the event of a dispute, a pre-agreed dispute resolution process could be triggered, including enforcement action via a third party's systems that could rely on the performance data posted to the ledger as 'evidence' on which to initiate a specific remedy. 

Some commentators have suggested this will kill-off various types of intermediaries, lawyers and courts etc. But I think the better view is that existing roles and processes in the affected contractual scenarios will adapt to the new contractual methodology. Some roles might be replaced by the ledger itself, or become fully automated, but it's likely that the people or entities occupying today's roles would be somehow part of that evolution (if they aren't too sleepy). The need for a lot of human-readable messages would also disappear, signalling the demise of applications like email, SMS and maybe even the humble Internet browser. Most data could flow among machines, and they could alert humans in ways that don't involve buttons and keyboards.

So what are the benefits?

Well, it might take significant investment to set up such a process, but it should produce great savings in time, cost, record-keeping and so on throughout the lifetime of a contract. And, hey, no more price comparison sites or banner ads! Crypto-tech distributed ledgers would enable you to access and use a 'semantic web' of linked-data, open data, midata, wearables, smart meters, robots, drones and driverless cars - the Internet of Things - to control your day-to-day existence.

The downside?

This also might also play into the hands of the Big Data crowd (if they find a way to snoop on your encrypted contracts), or even the machines themselves. So it's critical that we figure out the right control mechanisms to 'keep humans at the heart of technology - the topic of the SCL's Tech Law Futures Conference in June, for example.

Meanwhile, I'm reviewing my first smart contract, which is proving rather like being involved in the negotiation of a software development agreement - which it is, of course. I'll post on that in due course, confidentiality permitting...