How crypto currencies can eveolve to be more efficient

Dec 21, 2017, 03:00 PM

Every successful new technology undergoes a Cambrian Era-style explosion of growth in which we try to use it for everything. Email, search, social networking—each passed through its “this will solve all our problems!” phase before we figured out what its best applications and limitations were. With the Bitcoin bubble testing astronomical prices every day, cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that drives them are now taking their turn in this one-tech-fits-all role.

A blockchain is a cryptographically protected distributed ledger—it’s what protects you or anyone else from making a copy of that Bitcoin you just bought. You’ve probably heard about the popularity of blockchain tech in the financial business. In fact, anything that you can make a list of, you can manage with blockchains. Ambitious developers and entrepreneurs are aiming to use them to rework everything from how we track land ownership to how we distribute medicine and how we grant diplomas.

Some of these ideas are brilliant, while others are ridiculous. Do we really need a blockchain to run an online encyclopedia or pay for news? Whether we do or not, in 2018, we’re probably going to see it tried. That’s partly because of a glut of venture capital and the salivation of investors thrilled by Bitcoin’s wild ride. But it’s also because this is the exuberant but wasteful process by which the tech industry determines what each new platform is actually good for. And it’s a process that will play out whether the Bitcoin bubble keeps soaring or finally pops.

In the coming year, the motto of financial-tech developers is going to be “cryptocoins for everything!” Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), which introduce new cryptocurrencies to the world, have raised $4 billion so far, mostly in the last year—and that has turned them into a craze of their own. A future in which each of us has our own personal currency remains improbable. But one in which each big tech platform issues a token as the coin of its realm is probably not far off.

Before that can happen, here are three issues that the industry will need to resolve: Are ICO tokens primarily investments, or tools? Can we give up the idea that cryptocurrencies are a new species of traditional cash? And can developers end the plague of technical problems surrounding Bitcoin and every other cryptocoin? The continued rise of cryptocurrencies in 2018 will depend on how much progress the crypto world can make on these questions.

Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) started out as an alternative means for funding new protocols and infrastructure in the crypto universe. Through this process, companies create and sell tokens; the tokens can be hoarded as investments, or used to accomplish tasks on their platform.

Some projects, hoping to reassure skeptics and qualify for more institutional capital, explicitly model their cryptocoin projects on traditional investment vehicles. The startup incubator Science, for instance, raised $12 million in an ICO aimed at taking advantage of ICO-mania to kickstart a whole venture fund’s worth of investments in blockchain-related companies. Science structured its ICO to meet Securities and Exchange Commission rules, and buying into the Science ICO was not that different from buying into any other seed investment round.

Others take a more complex view of the role of tokens: Sure, they can fluctuate in value and serve as investments, but we’re creating them because they have a job to perform in making a new technology work. Engineers building new protocols and platforms don’t just take the cash raised in the ICO; the tokens they sell also create incentives and perform basic functions in the systems they’re building, so the tokens won’t just sit in investment accounts. That’s the approach that lay behind the recent $50 million ICO by Blockstack, a startup that envisions a decentralized, blockchain-based web in which your direct interactions with businesses, organizations, and other individuals ...