Blog · 18 Feb 2021

How to use blockchain safely to share and manage data

Blockchain, combined with AI and new data visualisation techniques, is ready to help organisations share and track data, rapidly and securely.

Robert Hercock
Chief research scientist

For many people, blockchain only means cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that they associate with criminal activity.

As a result, perceptions of blockchain have suffered and are also quite narrow. The reality is different. Blockchain is so much more than cryptocurrency and offers a growing range of highly secure applications that have the power to transform how businesses operate.

Blockchain allows selective trust between companies

Blockchain is a secure and transparent digital record of everything that happens to an asset. It’s held across a network of computers that authenticates every transaction, and it’s incorruptible. Effectively it’s a complex, sophisticated and powerful database. There are two main types of blockchain — public and private — and it’s private blockchain that offers more immediate business applications. In a private (or permission) blockchain, only a limited group of partners can add and share data, whereas with a public one, anyone can write into the blockchain. Plus, a private blockchain is extremely secure because it’s completely closed. It’ll come up against normal cybersecurity problems, but no more than that.

Blockchain is an efficient way to solve the problem of trust in business. How can an organisation securely share some data with other companies, but keep the rest of it locked away? No business wants to risk opening up its data to another or wants the upkeep of a large, shared database. Blockchain is a powerful tool that offers a way to selectively trust, with an immutable, shared transactional database that only covers relevant information.

Exploring blockchain’s potential

Blockchain is already transforming how data is shared and managed. In logistics management, companies are using blockchain to track and audit every movement of a shipment across a supply chain. At the high end of the market, blockchain tracks diamonds from mine to cutter and polisher and then on to the jeweller. Photos of a diamond’s progress are uploaded to the blockchain, as well as information about its colour, quality and location, giving peace of mind throughout the supply chain. And at the more day-to-day end of the spectrum, blockchain is bringing more transparency and shipment efficiency to the food industry, with a focus on being able to precisely locate any problematic goods, avoiding large-scale recalls.

Other industries are currently exploring blockchain’s potential with a view to using it in the future. The financial world is investigating how blockchain could make bank settlement transfers that currently take days into almost instantaneous transactions. The settlement of stocks and shares is another area where blockchain could speed up transactions.

Some applications of blockchain are solving problems that other technological advances are causing. When connected cars are a reality, there’ll need to be some way for vehicles to share information about themselves and the traffic with other vehicles. But manufacturers won’t want their vehicles’ onboard computers sharing proprietary and sensitive data with other manufacturers. Blockchain will allow connected cars to communicate only necessary information, so other vehicles can see just what they need to and no more, helping to realise a connected future.

Using blockchain technology to enable AI

The concept of smart contracts is a prime example of where blockchain and AI could meet in a transformational way. Blockchain can bridge the transaction gap between systems, opening the door for AI to do so much more.

For example, imagine if all the solicitors, estate agents and surveyors involved in buying a house set up a blockchain with software agents controlling each part of the transaction. Conditions could be attached to the blockchain that would give the go-ahead for an action once the condition had been met. As soon as the blockchain software registered that all conditions had been met, AI could automatically execute the contract. Everyone involved would be able to see exactly where the process had got to; no more endless letters going back and forth. Swift, machine to machine smart transactions taking the pain out of moving house.

Introducing insight and control into blockchain

Blockchain has huge potential — if you can control it, and to control it you need to be able to search it and ‘see’ it. However, blockchains aren’t designed for effective searching. So, that’s something we’re working on right now. We’re developing a powerful new visualisation tool called Nova, an analytics dashboard for understanding what’s going on with blockchains. Although it’s still just a concept, it has great potential. You can point Nova at an existing blockchain and look forensically at all the transactions taking place in it so that you can manage and audit them. By using visual analytics and machine learning, Nova can automatically categorise addresses, helping to detect common actors, carry out ‘Know Your Customer’ and anti-money laundering checks. When fully operational, it’ll be ideal for use in law enforcement, crypto asset tracking and enterprise blockchain management.

Blockchain and AI are ready to help businesses transform how they operate. If you’d like to talk through how we can support you in using blockchain, please get in touch with your account manager. We’re here to help.

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