ICOs, Consortiums, and Good Old Gold

We just finished attending Consensus 2017. There were a mix of topics, as one might expect, ranging from business applications to technical overviews of blockchain and related technologies, as well as some insight into the current legal landscape.

Consensus 2017

The multitude of groups, consortiums, and platforms that aim to build upon or diverge from what Bitcoin and Ethereum started can be a little difficult to keep straight. We extended our knowledge at the conference of who is who and who is doing what. Even though some opacity remains, here is an overview of some of the key players and projects.

Enterprise Ethereum Alliance

Launched: Feb 28, 2017

The EEA is a comparatively new group having launched earlier this year, primarily on the impetus of JP Morgan, Microsoft, and Intel. They are working towards private Ethereum networks with public-private interoperability. According to Hyperledger’s Brian Behlendorf, the EEA is focussed on drafting a standard rather than developing projects. Their mission includes the statement “to define enterprise-grade software”.

Everyone who is remotely associated with Ethereum seems to be involved. Including groups with potentially conflicting platforms. There are many announcements regarding membership induction, but they are presumably still working on the release of their first public standards.

Founding members include
Accenture - BBVA - BNY Mellon - Banco Santander - CME Group - ConsenSys - Credit Suisse - ING - Intel - JP Morgan - Microsoft - Thomson Reuters - UBS - Wipro

Hyperledger

Launched: Dec 17, 2015

Hyperledger is an open source blockchain umbrella project under the Linux Foundation originally started as the “Open Ledger Project” spearheaded by IBM. Digital Asset Holdings (DAH) has also been intricately involved in the initiative.

Unlike EEA, Hyperledger is rather project driven with a handful of (mostly) active projects under development by various parties. The most prominent of which appears to be Fabric, supported by IBM Blockchain.

This “collection of projects” model is common amongst blockhain groups as sub-groups focus on different components or companies and teams join a larger effort.

Founding members include
ANZ Bank - Accenture - CLS - Cisco - Credits - Digital Asset - Fujitsu - IBM - Intel - London Stock Exchange Group Plc. - Mitsubishi UFJ - SWIFT - State Street - VMware - Wells Fargo
Frameworks  
Sawtooth Platform for distributed ledgers
Iroha Business blockchain framework
Fabric Platform for distributed ledgers
Burrow Permission-able smart contract machine
Tools  
Cello On-demand “as-a-service” blockchain deployment
Composer Collaboration tool for building blockchain networks
Explorer View, invoke, deploy blocks, transactions, data etc.
Indy Libraries and components for digital identities

ConsenSys

Launched: Oct, 2014

ConsenSys was started by Joseph Lubin, one of the Ethereum founders. It is self-styled as a “venture production studio” which rather accurately reflects the seemingly diverse collection of projects under its banner. They are focussed primarily on Ethereum. We got to learn about a few of their endeavours, but Truffle was one that stood out in particular. A number of Consensus hackathon participants mentioned using Truffle for development.

Projects  
Benefactory Helps decentralized non-profit foundations
BlockApps Full stack application platform for decentralized applications
BTC Relay Ethereum smart contract and dapp transaction verification on Bitcoin blockchain
INFURA Ethereum and IPFS nodes as a service
LightWallet Ethereum JavaScript wallet
MetaMask Browser extension for web Dapp access
Nethereum .Net integration library for Ethereum
ProvID KYC address verification on Ethereum
Regis Ethereum based registry for records of ownership
RepSys Reputation system for attestation of conduct
Stabl Protects users from Ethereum price volatility
Truffle Ethereum development framework
uPort Digital identity platform
ethereumjs In-browser JavaScript module for managing Ethereum accounts
ethereumH Haskell Ethereum client
ethereumJ Java Ethereum client

R3

Launched: Sep 15, 2015

R3 is part consortium, part company. It started with a handful of banks and has added more and more members to the fold until most recently raising a lot of money (107M) from them. They did a number of trials with their members and various blockchain technologies until switching focus to their flagship product, Corda.

And. It’s NOT a blockchain! Which is both interesting and controversial. It piqued our interest because they had reached a conclusion, similar to our conjectures, that a lot of the attributes enticing banks (and others) to blockchain platforms - cryptographically signed history, non-repudiation, distributed consensus etc. - were ancillary but not exclusive to blockchain.

In order to encompass competing technologies and distance focus from blockchain specifically, the term Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) is the superset term for many of these emerging platforms.

Founding members include
Barclays - BBVA - Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Credit Suisse - Goldman Sachs (withdrew) - JP Morgan (withdrew) - Royal Bank of Scotland - State Street - UBS
Projects  
Corda An open source distributed ledger platform

J.P. Morgan

JP Morgan, though only one of many large banks, deserves some special mention here. They have been involved in all of the aforementioned groups except for ConsenSys directly. They have been working on a couple of projects since pulling out of R3.

Juno is no longer under development but there continues to be a strong effort behind Quorum. Whilst neither of these are Hyperledger projects, they were both presented to the Hyperledger Technical Steering Committee.

JP Morgan has a distinctive presence in the community through their charismatic blockchain lead, Amber Baldet.

Projects  
Quorum Ethereum based platform with private transactions
Juno Non-blockchain distributed cryptoledger (Inactive since Nov 2016)

Hot Topics

Social Good

Many people see blockchain as a way to improve conditions for under-served communities. You have a way to securely store and exchange currency without the need for a bank. You can remove the middle-man in international remittance. You can store and exchange records of ownership (e.g. land) without relying on a trusted third party. You can remove or reduce the middle-man in charitable donations as well.

Elizabeth Rossiello of BitPesa, in response to a question about the volatility of Bitcoin during a discussion on cross-border payments, humorously pointed out the volatility of the Nigerian Naira, highlighting a global asymmetry in concerns and opportunities with respect to this technology.

POCs

The community talks about proof-of-concept (POC) a lot more than in other industries. There is another popular new term: “minimum viable ecosystem” (MVE). Basically a variation on “minimum viable product” but meant to evoke the distributed nature of these new creations.

Perhaps the difficulty of getting something like this adopted in the finance industry, to which a lot of this innovation applies, is so high that a proof of concept becomes a celebratory achievement. Or the players are not used to making large technological changes. Of course prototypes are needed. Like when switching to Linux from Windows, or when moving from hardware to the cloud. But we are not used to hearing about it with such public satisfaction.

At a “Reimagining Trade Finance” presentation, Eric Piscini from Deloitte declared 2016 the year of proof-of-concept and admonished the crowd to move forward with real implementations from 2017 and beyond. With audacious, unaffected irony, the subsequent presentation discussed another proof-of-concept.

Smart contracts allow for some really shrewd innovation. But what do you do when there is a mistake in the code? What if the implementation does not do what the parties expected it to do? Is the code right, or the mutual understanding? When the DAO was hacked, the Ethereum community decided the mutual understanding should prevail and they conducted a hard fork. Hopefully that does not have to be the solution to every mistake.

Corda has a clever solution where the software contract is tied to the written contract. In case of dispute, the written contract is superior to the software contract. But how do the software contracts get written in the first place? Their solution here seems a little more dubious. They explained that lawyers who can program will write the contracts. Given the difficulty of both law and software, does this lawyer-programmer scenario sound like a dystopian time-bomb to you? Or perhaps an emerging field as bioinformatics once was?

We also heard some interesting discussion around formal specification. When dealing with real money on a vast scale in a system laid bare to the world, you want to be sure your program is doing what you meant it to.

Distributed everything

It’s not just for network nodes. Organisations seem to be taking the technical philosophy to heart with offices and team members spread across the globe.

Digital Gold

We had pondered the idea of asset-backed tokens, primarily from the perspective of having a trade-able instrument that was not (as) subject to the volatile speculation seen in Bitcoin and Ethereum. Sure enough, people are doing that. The Royal Mint announced, in cooperation with BitGo, “Royal Mint Gold”. We should expect more such instruments to arrive in the coming months.

Issues

Scalability and privacy are the two main things that the industry is looking for in the underlying platforms. The public blockchains are working to improve the former, and the banks and young companies are working on both.

Legislation

Japan comes up frequently as a positive example of legislative action. With a tendency towards vagueness that allows for litigator discretion, their cryptocurrency laws have been unusually clear. Japan recognizes digital currencies as money. (As opposed to an investment instrument or something illegal altogether.) In the United States, fragmented regulatory bodies have yet to establish clear guidelines under which companies dealing with cryptocurrencies can operate with certainty.

Another grey area, on both sides of the pond, is the unfortunately named ICO or “Initial Coin Offering”. This is basically a way to raise funds by selling tokens or shares using cryptocurrency. These sales know no geographic bounds or restrictions on entry and a few groups have raised staggering amounts of money in a very short period of time. The name is unfortunate because it begs synonymity with the highly regulated IPO or “Initial Public Offering”. Either the fundraisers or the funders may be in trouble at some point in the near future.

We were fortunate to hear a few different opinions enthusiastically debated by, amongst others, the articulate and charming Peter Van Valkenburg of Coin Center and his well attired adversary, Preston Byrne of Monax.

Until things become a little more clear, the main advice was: don’t lie, do your research, mean well, and have happy customers.

Bonus: Acronyms!

On the confluence of finanance and technology, it is no surprise that the industry is jargon-heavy. Here are a few common abbreviations.

TLA  
AML Anti-Money Laundering
BFT Byzantine Fault Tolerance
DLT Distributed Ledger Technology
HLP Hyper Ledger Project
HSM Hardware Security Module
ICO Initial Coin Offering
IPFS InterPlanetary File System
KYC Kentucky Fried Know Your Customer
MVE Minimum Viable Ecosystem
POC Proof of Concept
TSC Technical Steering Committee