November 21, 2018
The French-American Foundation hosted three experts in blockchain at our monthly Transatlantic Forum. Kathryn Harrison, Cara LaPointe, and Vanessa Grellet specialize in the applications and ethics of using blockchain in business, government, and social impact.
Blockchain is a digital distributed ledger. Originating in the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, blockchain technology creates an inalterable, transparent record of transactions. Speakers began the Forum with an explanation of the technology and how systems using blockchains can remain sustainable and accountable.
After explaining the mechanics of blockchain technology, moderator Kathryn Harrison guided speakers Cara LaPointe and Vanessa Harrison on the limits and ethics of this technology in real-world scenarios. One example is its use in supply chains to identify provenance of a given object. In the event of an outbreak of a food-borne illness, blockchain technology could detect the source of the illness and minimize its spread more quickly than traditional methods. It also has the potential to simplify proof of identity, access to loans, and verification of health records, among a host of other uses.
However, this type of transparency poses significant practical and ethical challenges. Our speakers led a Q&A discussion with Forum members on the risks associated with using blockchain. Questions of governance, security, access, and ownership are some of the many subjects under discussion to ensure that the technology is not abused by its users. For example, speakers raised the question of what happens when incorrect information is added to an immutable blockchain. Although an additional record can be added to explain the mistake, the incorrect block can never be removed.
Our speakers explained that blockchain has the potential to “digitize the analog world,” though doing so does not necessarily eliminate problems that existed in the first place. The technology may simplify certain processes, but it is still a tool subject to the will of individuals, organizations, and governments who determine how to use it.
Forum members ended the discussion by asking the speakers about what excites them the most about this technology. They described their enthusiasm for its potential to grow and enhance otherwise faulted systems for the benefit of its users. However, they warn that it is not a panacea, and that more work needs to be done to leverage its most effective and ethical applications.