How blockchain can restore trust in trade

Wolfgang Lehmacher


International trade is under pressure. Fears fuelled by the global refugee situation and terrorist threats have led to tighter border controls – and these come at a cost. Every inspection of goods, every stop along the supply chain, eats up time and drives up prices. It harms businesses and consumers alike. Those involved in international trade – whether manufacturers, trading houses, transportation companies or banks – are seeking ways to ease the situation and cut time and costs.

Blockchain technology can help. The cloud-based ledger ensures that records can’t be duplicated, manipulated or faked, and increased visibility in parts of the supply chain promotes an unprecedented level of trust. It means governments can better protect citizens, while business partners can be certain trading documents are real. Consumers can check the quality and provenance of products, and banks can reduce processing time. And it’s all paperless.

Thanks to blockchain, all kind of legal, financial and product-related information can be made available. This allows even the least trusting parties to comfortably conduct business. With further investment and experimentation, blockchain could potentially hide confidential information to protect the interests of trading parties – pricing information, for example.

Does it work in the real world? Barclays reported the first blockchain-based trade-finance deal in September 2016. The transaction guaranteed the trade of almost $100,000 worth of cheese and butter between Irish agricultural food co-operative Ornua and the Seychelles Trading Company. The process – from issuing to approval of the letter of credit, which usually takes between seven and 10 days – could be reduced to less than four hours. Other banks are also exploring ways blockchain technology can improve processes along the supply chain. In August 2016, banking consortium R3CEV reported that 15 of its members had joined a trade finance trial to test its distributed ledger protocol, named Corda. Also in August, Bank of America, HSBC and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) revealed that they had built a blockchain application to improve the letter of credit (LC) transaction process between banks, exporters and importers.

It’s not only banks: Maersk, the world’s largest container-shipping line, has been participating in a proof-of-concept initiative, using blockchain expertise from the IT University of Copenhagen to digitize the ships’ cargo inventories. These so-called “bills of lading” require an enormous amount of paper. A shipment of roses from Kenya to Rotterdam, for example, can result a pile of paper 25cm high. And the cost of handling it can be higher than the cost of transporting the containers. Maersk’s aim is to optimize the flow of information while raising visibility along the supply chain.

Often when making a purchase, buyers don’t know where the goods they ordered are coming from, or even whether they have been shipped at all. With blockchain, consumers can be informed of every step in the process. Combined with the internet of things, this could also extend to the care with which a product is transported. Swiss start-up Modum, for example, uses blockchain as a way of assuring recipients that pharmaceuticals have remained within an acceptable temperature range while in transit.

Trust and transparency

Citizens are worried that reduced barriers at the borders, as well as trade agreements, increase the risk of terrorism and illicit trade. Blockchain technology can in fact provide the backbone of a system of authorized trusted participants, bringing everything into the light, whether it’s a product, the party selling it or the path it takes to reach the buyer. Consumers and watchdogs, public and private, can trace every item moved through the authorized blockchain-backed channel and validate or reject both product and party. Customs clearance, too, can be optimized using blockchain. Parties that are part of the group can act quickly and efficiently, while others face scrutiny.

Immutable records on every aspect of a transaction – from the source of the raw material to where and how the products were manufactured, to their distribution, maintenance, repair, recall and recycling histories – are the new basis of trust. Information about ownership, provenance, authenticity and price are all held in the blockchain. Digital product memories connected to smart devices along the supply chain will provide secure proof of everything from manufacturing processes to quality controls. This will reduce the cost of compliance, i.e. the adherence with laws and regulations. Furthermore, this will open doors for replacing current product labelling practices to protect consumers and accelerate customs-clearance processes. Customers and consumer-protection organizations, as well as customs authorities, will have all the information they need to decide to buy or not to buy, to let goods through the border or to block them.

Blockchain has the potential to become the new gold standard of business and trade. But first, all nations need to accept the new technology. There are technical hurdles to overcome too. First, blockchain protocol(s) used to secure the ledger of global trade and manufacturers must be trusted by all of its users and be effectively un-hackable. Technical capabilities to handle very large transaction volumes will also need to be enhanced and the cost of maintaining the protocol may need to be lowered. Ordinary companies and individuals will need to be onboarded into the machine-to-machine (M2M) economy. The liability model of trade conducted on the blockchain will need to be reviewed as the appropriate treatment of liability may differ from current models.

Blockchain can help to reinforce trust in today’s complex and globalized world – giving citizens and governments fresh confidence in the global exchange of goods.


编者按:本文作者Kevin Maney是一名科技专栏作者,畅销书作家。今天的区块链可能就像1993年的互联网一样:十年后你会想知道,如果没有它,社会会怎样运转,尽管现在我们大多数人并不知道它到底是什么。



1993年的时候,几乎没人听过互联网这个词。Al Gore等人还在宣讲即将到来的“信息高速路”;一群学生在偏僻的地方(比如伊利诺大学香槟分校)制作最初的不稳定的浏览器。此时离雅虎成立还有两年;没人预见到Facebook、、WikiLeaks或者宠物视频的出现;马克•扎克伯格才9岁。

想想那之后十年发生的科技爆发与瓦解,想想我们的生活方式是怎样被互联网彻底改变的。Don Tapscott从80年代开始写书,向高科技公司提建议。所以设想一下,当他说区块链是下一个互联网时意味着什么?

的确,Tapscott有一本新书待售——他与Alex Tapscott合著的《区块链革命》(Blockchain Revolution),但这种观点如今已经很常见了。Barry Silbert是比特币早期的顶级玩家之一,去年他创办了Digital Currency Group公司,这样就能向他认为会颠覆全球金融体系的公司投资了。2016年第一季度,风险投资公司向区块链创业公司注入了1.6亿美元资金,而前一季度为2600万美元。这一季度,“区块链”一词的谷歌搜索量上涨了32%。很明显,有什么事正在发生。












编者按:TCP/IP、HTTP等协议是互联网时代的基础,但是这些协议的创造者往往却不能直接受益,同时由于受到各种商业利益的牵制,协议的演进往往举步维艰—比如HTTP/2的定稿就经历了16年多。这种情况在去中心化的未来必须改变,USV的合伙人Albert Wenger提出了一种利用区块链技术改变协议创新的办法—加密令牌。其同事,硅谷的著名VC Fred Wilson认为,这有可能推动开放协议的黄金时代的到来。作为web底层协议的HTTP让发行的去中心化成为可能。任何人都可以架设web服务器然后出版自己的内容。而任何人只要有浏览器都能访问那些内容(当然内容要受到政府和ISP的管制)。但是作为一个无状态协议,HTTP需要为任何的应用功能性提供一个数据层,这个数据层直到最近才由Google(搜索)、Facebook与Twitter(社交)、Amazon与eBay(商务)这些公司实现。因为我们不知道如何以去中心化的方式维护状态,所以我们所观察到的web的中心化实际上是由这个数据层推动的。



但是现在我们有了新的创造协议并支配其演进的激励手段。也就是所谓的加密令牌(cryptographic tokens)。你可以把这些看作是在游乐场所(fair)上面为了游玩购买的令牌:不同的活动经营者会有自己的游乐设施,并且对令牌有自己的定价。你只需要一次购买令牌(按法定货币兑换)就可以在整个场所内使用。现在我们有了区块链之后就可以以数字化的形式发行和兑换这些令牌了(底层的区块链可以是比特币或者Ethereum或者像Steemit的情况那样用自己的)。

对于营利组织来说现在他们可以通过保留部分令牌为自己(及其投资者)创建新协议并创造价值了。如果协议被广泛使用,令牌的价值就会水涨船高。比方说,以去中心化的存储服务(比如Amazon的S3)为例。只要符合规范,任何人都可以用自己想用的任何语言实现存储协议。他们可以通过相关存储令牌获得报酬。协议的原作者赚钱多少则取决协议的被接受程度以及他们自己保留的令牌(令牌的价格由他们根据协议的采用程度而定)多少。这个可不仅仅是个猜想而已,因为市面上已经有Storj、 SIA 、Filecoin等各种各样的协议了。











毫无疑问,在众多投资blockchain初创公司的投资者当中,银行无疑是最活跃的金融服务巨头。Capital One Financial(第一资本金融公司)、Citi Ventures(花旗风险投资公司)和Fiserv都已经成为blockchain初创公司Chain的投资者。



在最近的一份报告中,世界经济论坛认为,分散支付技术(比如比特币)可能会改变保持了100多年没有发生变化的资金转移业务的体系机构。 Blockchain能够绕过这些笨重的系统,并创建一个更加直接的付款流程。这将跨越国界、没有中介并且费用成本极低,而最关键的是这几乎在瞬间就可以完成转账。Abra是其中的一个例子,这是一家使用blockchain技术在全球范围内开展比特币业务的创业公司



blockchain分类账是公共的,并利用先进的加密技术发送经过验证的数据。这确保了数据的正确来源,同时在此期间没有任何临时截获。所以从这个角度来看,如果blockchain技术被更广泛的使用,黑客的概率很可能会下降,因为blockchain被认为比许多传统系统更加安全。而降低传统网络安全风险的方法就是消除几乎所有人类的中介机构。“通过消除必须的中间人,降低黑客腐败的潜在安全问题”Goldman Sachs写道。Guardtime是其中的一个例子,这家爱沙尼亚的创业公司,专注于研究blockchain工业级网络安全方法。







西班牙的一个名为Agora Voting的软件项目,还使用了加密技术使得网络投票变得更加安全,部分系统已经在西班牙进行了试验。近日,该项目的负责人表示比特币和blockchain能够适应于投票程序,虽然目前他们还处于早期试验阶段。



Visa 和DocuSign去年年底公布了一项合作,希望能够借助blockchain打造一个验证程序,并最终让消费者只需通过“点击、签名和开走”几个简单的步骤,就实现汽车租凭验证。潜在的客户选择他们想要的汽车租凭,然后进入blockchain公共事物分类账;客户坐在驾驶座上,就可以完成签订汽车租凭协议和一份保单,而blockchain将会更新这些信息。这并不是一个夸张的想象过程,随着技术的发展,未来的汽车销售很可能也会进入这个市场。








例如,抵押贷款可以通过blockchain,随着岁月的流逝自动执行条款。人们签订结婚证已经在使用Ethereum的智能合同程序,一种使用blockchain技术构建的分布式智能应用程序。另一个公司Hedgy,今年早些时候宣布从Tim Draper, Marc Benioff, Boost. vc 和 Sand Hill Angels处募集到120万美元的种子轮融资,则建立了一个平台,使得用户可以采用智能合同来洽谈比特币的价值。








由企业家Phil Barry带头成立的Ujo Music表示blockchain正在重建音乐产业。它希望解决流媒体音乐中如何向艺术家支付的问题。除了流媒体,Ujo还设想利用智能合同背后的自治大脑,更好的为艺术家和创作者建立目录。







Bettina Warburg: How the blockchain will radically transform the economy

Economists have been exploring people’s behavior for hundreds of years: how we make decisions, how we act individually and in groups, how we exchange value. They’ve studied the institutions that facilitate our trade, like legal systems, corporations, marketplaces. But there is a new, technological institution that will fundamentally change how we exchange value, and it’s called the blockchain.
Now, that’s a pretty bold statement, but if you take nothing else away from this talk, I actually want you to remember that while blockchain technology is relatively new, it’s also a continuation of a very human story, and the story is this. As humans, we find ways to lower uncertainty about one another so that we can exchange value.
Now, one of the first people to really explore the idea of institutions as a tool in economics to lower our uncertainties about one another and be able to do trade was the Nobel economist Douglass North. He passed away at the end of 2015, but North pioneered what’s called “new institutional economics.” And what he meant by institutions were really just formal rules like a constitution, and informal constraints, like bribery. These institutions are really the grease that allow our economic wheels to function, and we can see this play out over the course of human history.
If we think back to when we were hunter-gatherer economies, we really just traded within our village structure. We had some informal constraints in place, but we enforced all of our trade with violence or social repercussions. As our societies grew more complex and our trade routes grew more distant, we built up more formal institutions, institutions like banks for currency, governments, corporations. These institutions helped us manage our trade as the uncertainty and the complexity grew, and our personal control was much lower. Eventually with the internet, we put these same institutions online. We built platform marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, just faster institutions that act as middlemen to facilitate human economic activity.
As Douglass North saw it, institutions are a tool to lower uncertainty so that we can connect and exchange all kinds of value in society. And I believe we are now entering a further and radical evolution of how we interact and trade, because for the first time, we can lower uncertainty not just with political and economic institutions, like our banks, our corporations, our governments, but we can do it with technology alone.
So what is the blockchain? Blockchain technology is a decentralized database that stores a registry of assets and transactions across a peer-to-peer network. It’s basically a public registry of who owns what and who transacts what. The transactions are secured through cryptography, and over time, that transaction history gets locked in blocks of data that are then cryptographically linked together and secured. This creates an immutable, unforgeable record of all of the transactions across this network. This record is replicated on every computer that uses the network.
It’s not an app. It’s not a company. I think it’s closest in description to something like Wikipedia. We can see everything on Wikipedia. It’s a composite view that’s constantly changing and being updated. We can also track those changes over time on Wikipedia, and we can create our own wikis, because at their core, they’re just a data infrastructure. On Wikipedia, it’s an open platform that stores words and images and the changes to that data over time. On the blockchain, you can think of it as an open infrastructure that stores many kinds of assets. It stores the history of custodianship, ownership and location for assets like the digital currency Bitcoin, other digital assets like a title of ownership of IP. It could be a certificate, a contract, real world objects, even personal identifiable information. There are of course other technical details to the blockchain, but at its core, that’s how it works. It’s this public registry that stores transactions in a network and is replicated so that it’s very secure and hard to tamper with.
Which brings me to my point of how blockchains lower uncertainty and how they therefore promise to transform our economic systems in radical ways. So uncertainty is kind of a big term in economics, but I want to go through three forms of it that we face in almost all of our everyday transactions, where blockchains can play a role. We face uncertainties like not knowing who we’re dealing with, not having visibility into a transaction and not having recourse if things go wrong.
So let’s take the first example, not knowing who we’re dealing with. Say I want to buy a used smartphone on eBay. The first thing I’m going to do is look up who I’m buying from. Are they a power user? Do they have great reviews and ratings, or do they have no profile at all? Reviews, ratings, checkmarks: these are the attestations about our identities that we cobble together today and use to lower uncertainty about who we’re dealing with. But the problem is they’re very fragmented. Think about how many profiles you have. Blockchains allow for us to create an open, global platform on which to store any attestation about any individual from any source. This allows us to create a user-controlled portable identity. More than a profile, it means you can selectively reveal the different attributes about you that help facilitate trade or interaction, for instance that a government issued you an ID, or that you’re over 21, by revealing the cryptographic proof that these details exist and are signed off on. Having this kind of portable identity around the physical world and the digital world means we can do all kinds of human trade in a totally new way.
So I’ve talked about how blockchains could lower uncertainty in who we’re dealing with. The second uncertainty that we often face is just not having transparency into our interactions. Say you’re going to send me that smartphone by mail. I want some degree of transparency. I want to know that the product I bought is the same one that arrives in the mail and that there’s some record for how it got to me. This is true not just for electronics like smartphones, but for many kinds of goods and data, things like medicine, luxury goods, any kind of data or product that we don’t want tampered with.
The problem in many companies, especially those that produce something complicated like a smartphone, is they’re managing all of these different vendors across a horizontal supply chain. All of these people that go into making a product, they don’t have the same database. They don’t use the same infrastructure, and so it becomes really hard to see transparently a product evolve over time.
Using the blockchain, we can create a shared reality across nontrusting entities. By this I mean all of these nodes in the network do not need to know each other or trust each other, because they each have the ability to monitor and validate the chain for themselves. Think back to Wikipedia. It’s a shared database, and even though it has multiple readers and multiple writers at the same time, it has one single truth. So we can create that using blockchains. We can create a decentralized database that has the same efficiency of a monopoly without actually creating that central authority. So all of these vendors, all sorts of companies, can interact using the same database without trusting one another. It means for consumers, we can have a lot more transparency. As a real-world object travels along, we can see its digital certificate or token move on the blockchain, adding value as it goes. This is a whole new world in terms of our visibility.
So I’ve talked about how blockchains can lower our uncertainties about identity and how they change what we mean about transparency in long distances and complex trades, like in a supply chain. The last uncertainty that we often face is one of the most open-ended, and it’s reneging. What if you don’t send me the smartphone? Can I get my money back? Blockchains allow us to write code, binding contracts, between individuals and then guarantee that those contracts will bear out without a third party enforcer. So if we look at the smartphone example, you could think about escrow. You are financing that phone, but you don’t need to release the funds until you can verify that all the conditions have been met. You got the phone.
I think this is one of the most exciting ways that blockchains lower our uncertainties, because it means to some degree we can collapse institutions and their enforcement. It means a lot of human economic activity can get collateralized and automated, and push a lot of human intervention to the edges, the places where information moves from the real world to the blockchain.
I think what would probably floor Douglass North about this use of technology is the fact that the very thing that makes it work, the very thing that keeps the blockchain secure and verified, is our mutual distrust. So rather than all of our uncertainties slowing us down and requiring institutions like banks, our governments, our corporations, we can actually harness all of that collective uncertainty and use it to collaborate and exchange more and faster and more open.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that the blockchain is the solution to everything, even though the media has said that it’s going to end world poverty, it’s also going to solve the counterfeit drug problem and potentially save the rainforest. The truth is, this technology is in its infancy, and we’re going to need to see a lot of experiments take place and probably fail before we truly understand all of the use cases for our economy. But there are tons of people working on this, from financial institutions to technology companies, start-ups and universities. And one of the reasons is that it’s not just an economic evolution. It’s also an innovation in computer science.
Blockchains give us the technological capability of creating a record of human exchange, of exchange of currency, of all kinds of digital and physical assets, even of our own personal attributes, in a totally new way. So in some ways, they become a technological institution that has a lot of the benefits of the traditional institutions we’re used to using in society, but it does this in a decentralized way. It does this by converting a lot of our uncertainties into certainties.
So I think we need to start preparing ourselves, because we are about to face a world where distributed, autonomous institutions have quite a significant role.
Thank you.
Bruno Giussani: Thank you, Bettina. I think I understood that it’s coming, it offers a lot of potential, and it’s complex. What is your estimate for the rate of adoption?
Bettina Warburg: I think that’s a really good question. My lab is pretty much focused on going the enterprise and government route first, because in reality, blockchain is a complex technology. How many of you actually understand how the internet works? But you use it every day, so I think we’re sort of facing the same John Sculley idea of technology should either be invisible or beautiful, and blockchain is kind of neither of those things right now, so it’s better suited for either really early adopters who kind of get it and can tinker around or for finding those best use cases like identity or asset tracking or smart contracts that can be used at that level of an enterprise or government.
BG: Thank you. Thanks for coming to TED.
BW: Thanks.