Blockchain: The 'unhackable' smart contract

Blockchain: The 'unhackable' smart contract

The next technology genie has been let out of the bottle and it's called the blockchain. And with it comes the potential to disrupt the global financial system.

Blockchain is software that forms a database that no one has managed to hack yet. That's because it is hosted on thousands of personal computers around the world, not just one server. If one computer is taken offline, the information is still safe.

Website designer Mark Pascall runs New Zealand website building company 3Months.com. He is also a digital currency convert.

He says blockchain is the power behind the world's first "crypto-currency", Bitcoin, and is unhackable.

"It's been running for eight years and a lot of people have tried and they have never succeeded," says Mr Pascall.

Why is it called blockchain?

Blockchain is named after the way it works. Each bit of data, which could be a money transfer or real estate contract, is encrypted using blockchain software.

Then another transaction from someone else is locked onto the previous one, creating a sort of chain of data blocks.

Those blocks chains are then copied every 10 minutes onto thousands of personal computers around the world, creating a massive database.

How can it be used?

The Ethereum Project, based in Switzerland, is designing a programmable language to make so-called "smart contracts".

These contracts are digitally signed between two people who have agreed the rules in advance.

"And we put those rules on the blockchain as well -- this immutable, unstoppable system, unhackable system -- then that thing will self-execute; no one can stop it," says Mr Pascall.

It could disrupt the global financial system, which is built on trusted "middle men" organisations like banks, which in 2014 charged about US$1.7 trillion in fees, according to The Economist.

Who else will be affected?

Ethereum is the brainchild of Russian-Canadian Vitalik Buterin, who was 19 when he founded the project.

On a promotional video he says decentralised applications like smart contracts could reduce costs, prevent censorship and promote transparency and trust between all the parties involved in an interaction.

File sharing network BitTorrent was the first kind of a decentralised application. It allowed music and movie lovers to swap digital files, sparking an ongoing legal battle over copyright with the major studios and music labels.

What about the internet of things?

The internet of things is where the internet connects with the physical world, like appliances, alarms, and sensors.

There is already a company using blockchain technology to build smart locks. Called Slock.It, the company builds locks that will only open and close once they receive a unique code that has been generated by a smart contract.

These locks can be used from everything like bicycle hire, ordering a driverless car, to hiring an apartment on the other side of the world. It means disruptive companies like Uber and Airbnb could be disrupted themselves because people will deal with each other directly using smart contracts.

One day it's believed smart contracts will talk to other smart contracts to run businesses and carry out financial transactions.

If it sounds like computer code is taking over, Mr Pascall is reassuring – almost.

"Humans have to write these smart contracts, so we are in control, for the moment."

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