How blockchain startups are aiming to build trust among humans with decentralised apps
Blockchain was proposed as a technology that could bring together untrusting human ecosystems. From there arose decentralised apps and networks with an argument that consensus mechanisms can challenge centralised institutions. One by-product of this was cryptocurrencies and tokens, both banned by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) last year.
Ikigai Law's Anirudh, a prominent lawyer for AI and Blockchain regulation, says, “The aggressive nature of policy has led several startups to focus on smart contracts and private blockchains. The authorities in India are looking favorably at private blockchain applications that solve large-scale public issues. But crypto is a long way from being accepted and the government has to study its merits rather than ignoring it completely."
Many said RBI’s decision marked the end of blockchain in India, a technology that is being widely adopted everywhere. But, nothing could have been further from the truth. Uncharacteristically enough, state governments began to champion blockchain use cases beyond crypto. Today, blockchain is in focus with the advent of decentralised applications (dapps) and networks.
Anirudh says regardless of the government’s almost “aggressive” approach to stop cryptocurrency, blockchain-based decentralised applications are growing in India in a big way. If and when cryptocurrencies and tokens are accepted by the regulator, companies and startups making these apps can revisit the incentive mechanisms where the argument for a true blockchain exits.
Until then, the focus is on private and public blockchains building dapps (decentralised apps) that verify transactions and people. The corporate world is clearly veering towards private blockchain using the hyper ledger, open source blockchain fabric, and terms these applications as smart contract solutions.
What is a decentralised app?
Imagine a world of apps without a central authority to verify things. You wouldn’t need a Google Play Store or an Apple App Store, which are driven by advertising; the future would be entirely community-driven.
Think about it like a review system on an ecommerce website - a consensus-driven mechanism to verify the merits, such as the personal or public benefits of a product. In this case, it is the decentralised app.
Consensus protocols are built into each app, and there is no single central authority that verifies the genuineness of the application or service. Instead, the merits of the apps are decided by nodes (a host of connected computers) on a public blockchain network.
At least, that is the basic premise.
“Let me give you a quick example,” says Sarath Naru, MD of Venture East, which manages $325 million in assets. “Why should monopolistic search and social media platforms make money selling user data? Blockchain can bring in a new paradigm to data sharing and rewards. The user is compensated for data being crunched by a third party for gain,” he explains.
That is one way to look at decentralised apps. Another way is that data is stored on different public servers without being bound to one central server from an Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, Oracle Cloud, or Microsoft Azure server.
According to blockchain and crypto site Coindesk, think of this space like a “decentralised app store where anyone can publish their unstoppable apps (dapps), which unlike today’s apps (think Gmail or Uber), don’t require a middleman to function or manage a user’s information. Dapps connect users and providers directly”.
That sounds great! But, according to a white paper on Ethereum published by GitHub, any app can be decentralised today. The challenge is to connect users on public nodes for consensus. In other words, it is like a community or a panchayat system. The community opts for information to be shared openly and processes are verified every time there is consensus on a matter.
Let’s apply this to, say, industrial water meters. If these were on a blockchain, there needs to be a network of communities who can verify that a particular company is paying a private company or a government institution for supplying water to it. The community would also be able to verify the price charged for the volume consumed. This decentralised app can be built by a private company, but the data it collects and analyses would be in the public sphere - by consensus.
Of course, one can question the transparency of the people verifying the transaction and giving the go- ahead for the price to be paid or collected. A flawless system may sound utopian, but the possibilities are endless.
The case for decentralised apps
Ellapan Venketesan of Emurgo Academy India, a blockchain school and global platform for blockchain apps, says: “Today there is an argument that blockchain cannot possibly crunch voluminous data. But I can assure you that there are enough blockchain tools and platforms preparing to crunch 10,000 transactions per second. It may be slow when you build a consensus mechanism on a public (block)chain, but private blockchains are fast because they work within a closed group of people.”
Decentralisation is real, and there is no stopping businesses from adopting it. Real blockchain works on a rewards mechanism and tokenisation, but the corporate world is working on smart contracts. IBM, for instance, has done huge amounts of work on blockchain and is championing its cause.
IBM is working with global shipping major Maersk on the TradeLens platform to put its entire ocean shipping ecosystem on a single decentralised platform on the open-source Hyperledger Fabric. The aim of the platform is to avoid one-on-one contracts in the ocean shipping business, which have created problems of traceability in the past.
Ports and terminals, ocean carriers, custom authorities, freight forwarders, intermodal transport, and shippers - they are all talking to each other on the TradeLens platform today. DuPont, Dow Chemical, Tetra Pak, Port Houston, Rotterdam Port Community System Portbase, the Customs Administration of the Netherlands, and US Customs and Border Protection are other organisations using TradeLens to track data and put their ecosystem on blockchain.
IBM’s platform looks at visibility and documentation challenges, providing end-to-end supply chain visibility. This allows all the parties involved in a global shipping transaction to securely and seamlessly exchange information on shipment events in real time.
Startups also see the opportunity
If a biggie like IBM is looking at supply chain and shipping, the same logic applies to financing in the securitisation industry.
Intain, a small startup set up in Chennai by people with extensive experience of finance and technology, is building a blockchain platform that can help the finance industry avoid meltdowns like the one that took place in 2008. It hopes to bring banks, securitisation companies, and hedge funds on to a single platform to track trades, contracts, and loan repayments to which securitised trades were pegged.
“Once data is out there, the ecosystem will know when to stop trading. The ecosystem can then reduce losses rather than shut down operations like how many banks did a decade ago. Blockchain and AI will make a lot of impact,” says Siddhartha S, Founder of Intain.
“True decentralisation is yet to happen in the world,” says Rohit Jindal, Founder of Masmic, adding that that journey has begun. His company is building a blockchain-based platform for questions to be answered based on a rewards mechanism.
How different is this idea from something like a Quora? Masmic is different because its network incentivises people for answering questions, but only if they have expertise on the matter. By doing so, it avoids random answers on the platform. “We are a global marketplace for knowledge and information,” Rohit says.
Then there are those building smart contracts for enterprises.
Kumar Anirudha, Co-founder of Acyclic, says, “There have been several pilot projects over dapps. People these days are very conscious about what they are consuming, where their food is coming from. Is that apple from Kashmir or Shimla? What pesticide has been used on the tea they sip? All this is possible with smart contracts.”
Acyclic’s platform, Sentinel, helps businesses and apps build smart contracts into their technology stack. This company was accelerated at Cisco’s Launch Pad programme earlier this year.
So what’s next in a dentralised world?
Recently, at an event organised by Blockchained India, a platform for blockchain aficionados to discuss the potential of blockchain, decentralised apps were the main topic of conversation.
“The world is confused because blockchain is a technology that combines game theory, sociology, and computer science, and, because of that, current institutions are grappling with how such a system works,” says Akshay Aggarwal, Co-founder of Blocumen Studios and Country Head of Blockchained India.
Many companies are building platforms for dapps to be built and tested just the way AWS and Google build platforms for the current app world. Bengaluru-based startup Dunya Labs is pioneering the effort in India.
Then there is Sentinel, a Hyderabad-based startup, (not to be confused with Acyclic’s Sentinel), which is building a VPN where data leaks cannot happen. VPNs can be tracked, the network card of a machine can be found. Sentinel has built a decentralised VPN infrastructure, or a distributed resources protocol layer, where privacy is a priority. It connects to a network of public computer nodes that contribute bandwidth to the network.
Imagine an automobile company sharing its designs globally, but maintaining complete anonymity while doing so. Sentinel’s network allows the designs to be secured without anyone sourcing the conversation. It works in the distributed storage and distributed networks space, which make up the foundation of distributed apps.
“The main objective of blockchain is provability and in the Sentinel Service Chain, data is stored across a peer-to-peer network. So while there is provability of the nodes allowing for data to be stored, there is no traceability like in current networks,” says Rahul Nambiampurath, Co-founder of Sentinel.co.
All this boils down to one single question: can humans live in a decentralised world and not seek assurance from centralised institutions and figures?