Blockchain-Enabled Convergence

First published at

Humans often use the past as a guide for the future; this mistake often makes it impossible to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Technological progress is not linear, it’s exponential in nature, making it much harder to grasp. This means we constantly underestimate the pace of change and as software eats more industries, improvements compound as traditionally human-centric industries like healthcare, logistics and agriculture digitise. As these industries come online and capture, process and automate data; ownership of this data will define the state, market and nation over the next half a century. Blockchains are therefore one of the most significant technological innovations since The Internet and fundamental to Web 3.0. Blockchains, distributed ledgers, smart contracts and other decentralisation innovations provide the foundation for a scalable and secure data and asset management layer for the new Web 3.0. It acts as a platform to support individual rights while benefiting from the aggregation of vast amounts of data from the Internet of Things. They also ensure the benefits of artificial intelligence are shared broadly across society and do not aggregate to a few AI owners, or the 0.00001% of the population. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics, 3D printing, as well as virtual & augmented reality

Blockchains are therefore one of the most significant technological innovations since The Internet and fundamental to Web 3.0. Blockchains, distributed ledgers, smart contracts and other decentralisation innovations provide the foundation for a scalable and secure data and asset management layer for the new Web 3.0. It acts as a platform to support individual rights while benefiting from the aggregation of vast amounts of data from the Internet of Things. They also ensure the benefits of artificial intelligence are shared broadly across society and do not aggregate to a few AI owners, or the 0.00001% of the population. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics, 3D printing, as well as virtual & augmented reality are all converging in new and exciting ways. Blockchains will become the decentralised data and asset management layer that links the data and value from these technologies, ushering in the era of blockchain-enabled convergence.

Convergence is not a process that will happen immediately, nor be a simple and linear progression. Trends will combine at different speeds based on technical limitations, political and social barriers, as well as commercial considerations. The market dynamics will vary with industrial manufacturers and telecommunications providers leading the charge in the Internet of Things, while consumer Internet companies like Google and Facebook innovate in artificial intelligence. It is important to grasp the nuances of each market, but in doing so, it’s easy to miss broader macro-trends. The development of blockchains is a good example, as exceptionally talented developers push the boundaries of cryptography with zero-knowledge proofs and smart contracts but fail to see the implications on broader governance structures and political philosophies. These are the kind of things we have been trying to figure out since the dawn of civilisation. It is just as important in technological progress to study Plato and Hume as it is to study Von Neumann and Shannon.

As the rate of change increases, it is critical to understand these technology trends as part of a wider collective rather than as separate developments. Blockchain-enabled convergence is our attempt to capture this wide collective. The first part of the white paper explores blockchains, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, autonomous robotics, 3D printing, and virtual & augmented reality to understand the drivers and barriers to adoption. Part two investigates how blockchain-enabled convergence changes the trade value chain from manufacturing and design through logistics and distribution to retail and commerce, and even more profoundly changing the very governance structure of the organisation.

5 Key Themes

The Outlier Ventures white paper explores an extremely broad range of technologies and markets, yet despite this breadth, we found 5 key themes that kept coming up time and time again. These themes are not technological in nature but rather trends that will reshape markets, society and excitingly, the relationship between humans and machines.

1. Web 3.0 — The Global Trust Network

Web 3.0 underpinned by blockchains and decentralized technologies provide global trust. The core design of The Internet was enable the sharing of information. The core design of Bitcoin, and other open permissionless blockchains, is a network of trust for exchanging value and asset ownership. Web 3.0 provides trust and chain-of-ownership; the missing link with the existing Internet infrastructure.

2. The ‘Real’ Sharing Economy

New digital intermediaries have sprung up so individuals can ‘share’ unproductive assets; spare rooms on Airbnb, spare seats on Uber and spare time on TaskRabbit. These ‘sharing economy’ companies are nothing more than a new middleman sitting between a buyer and seller capturing outsized value. Blockchain-enabled convergence allows seamless peer-to-peer exchange of assets and value reducing the need for trust brokers in the middle of a market extracting economic rent.

3. The Killer Business Model: The Decentralized Data Marketplace

A blockchain-based data marketplace helps solve two major problems in artificial intelligence today, the access to data for those that need it, and monetizing unused data for those that have it. A decentralized data marketplace creates an economic mechanism for individuals and organisations to buy and sell data, reducing the incentive to hoard valuable unused data and remunerating the creators of data not just the processors.

4. The Commoditization of Logistics & Production

Blockchain-enabled convergence transforms the trade value chain. Autonomous robotics, AI, IoT and blockchains will digitise logistics and distribution reducing its importance and therefore ability for companies at this point in the value chain to capture profit. Producers can capture more of the value they create and consumers can pay less. In the long-term, technical deflation will hit the knee of the exponential curve as much of production gets commoditised by 3D printing, and virtual and augmented reality make it cheap to design and print products at home.

5. The Rise of the Decentralised Organisation

The global multinational corporation that developed to coordinate global trade is under threat as the dominant form of governing structure. New decentralised processes for business financing with Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), incorporation, voting, payments and talent and project coordination are enabling start-ups to choose processes that are suitable for smaller, more agile start-ups rather than using an expensive corporate structure designed for large companies.

Special Thanks to Anish Mohammed, Trent McConaghy, @edcafenet, Vijay Michalik, Creative Barcode, @API_economics, David J Klein, and Ethan Gilmore of VarCrypt for conversations and contributions.

Bionic Eyes: Blending Reality

Last month Google announced that it will partner with Alcon to commercialise smart contact lenses. Contact lenses are today used to correct visual impairments, but with low-power miniaturised chips, smart contact lenses have far greater potential. The miniaturization of integrated circuits will one day lead to implantable and digestible computing, in the meantime, the next frontier is contact lenses.

Contact lenses are in direct contact with tear-film fluid allowing sensors to detect changes in chemical and protein concentrations — data that aids the non-invasive diagnosis of disease. Beyond health monitoring, smart contact lenses also have the potential to include a small display and imaging sensor that will augment vision with digital information.

Disease Diagnosis

The first use case is for contact lenses to measure glucose, but tear-film fluid contains a whole host of proteins and hormones including cholesterol and cortisol. Some of the biomolecules found in tears are as biomarkers for ocular and systemic diseases. Real-time access to biomarkers allows for measurement of levels of concentration. This data enables individuals to regulate their food intake and exercise patterns, as well as acting as an early-warning system for disease.

Initially, smart contact lenses will be an optional diagnostic test alternative for patients; blood tests and even saliva tests will remain more robust in the short term. However, blood and saliva tests need visiting a healthcare professional and cannot be managed in real-time. For low-risk individuals, the benefits of real-time monitoring and the volume of data collected via contact lenses will outweigh the benefits of accuracy. Months of minute-by-minute data used to track various protein concentrations will enable machine-learning algorithms to determine optimal levels for each patient and provide personalized care.

Human/Computer Vision

Contact lenses as a medical diagnostic tool have the potential to fundamentally disrupt the healthcare industry and save millions of lives, but they can do even more. A recent patent filing from Google hints at functionality straight from a sci-fi movie. Google’s report shows a contact lens that includes an embedded circuit, a camera, and a sensor, which when combined, offer the potential to live-stream, take photos directly from the eye, and augment vision with relevant digital information (including advertisements). Babak Amir Parviz, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington, ophthalmologist Tueng Shen, and a group of Finnish optoelectronics researchers have been able to embed a LED display into a contact lens and remotely control it.

These advancements are in the nascent stage and it is unlikely we will have full displays embedded into contact lenses just yet. But the development is an issue of time and investment not physical laws. A tiny LED display could be used as part of a glucose-monitoring system which turns red when blood-glucose falls below the optimal level, making self-regulation easier. A single red light could also alert stress sufferers when their cortisol levels are too high, helping them understand their triggers and avoid unnecessary anxiety.

The Google patent proposes an embedded CMOS image sensor allowing users to take photos from their lenses. Such functionality would need the wireless transfer of power or the use of energy harvesting technologies, both of which are not commercially viable today. However, the lenses would not require energy to perform computation, as this can be handed off to a smartphone with the result transmitted back to the lenses. This network allows data-intensive software, including facial recognition and infrared sensing (i.e., extending the visible electromagnetic spectrum), to be completed in real-time and displayed in the user’s field of vision. Enhanced reality software will no doubt expand the processing power of smartphones. Doctors, teachers, police, and armed forces will all benefit from having information available in real-time in their line of vision. As a platform for innovation, visual computing would push the limits of human expression and creativity, driving new and powerful ways of communication and interaction with the world.

Vision as a service

The road to blended reality contact lenses is a long one, and it is unlikely to be commercially viable before 2020. In 2015 we are likely to see the first commercial use of smart contact lenses as glucose monitors for diabetes sufferers. More sensors will be embedded over time and sufferers of other diseases or illnesses will have the option to use contact lenses as part of their remote monitoring treatments. Early adopters will likely consider themselves health customers rather than patients, helping move the public debate from passive patients to engaged customers. A shift of this nature will allow customers take responsibility for their own well-being and improve their health.

Regulatory and societal response will determine the speed at which we see embedded cameras and displays in the mainstream. Advanced vision has important implications for privacy and general human interaction. We will have the ability to know when somebody is lying using iris detection. We will have constant advertising in the real world, and the sum of human knowledge available in the line of sight. These capabilities would mean always knowing the answer to a question, knowing everything about the people around you, and having the ability to reply the day through your own eyes. The benefits to society would be vast, but they would also bring about a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. We are entering the world of bionics and transhumanism. The future is closer than you think.

The Blended Reality Era

As we start 2015, we are entering the 2nd half of the smartphone era. We’re beginning to see a post-smartphone vision emerge with the smartphone as the centre of a network of sensors. These sensors will be embedded in wristbands, clothing, and everyday items such as locks, lights and thermostats. We are seeing technology brands articulate their vision for their mobile platforms moving beyond smartphones and tablets, into a range of other devices including wearable technologies, cars and household objects. By 2020, a clear picture of the post-smartphone era will have emerged; an era Frost & Sullivan calls the ‘Blended Reality Era’.

Truly ‘smart’ devices

Despite the fevered focus on smartwatches and new wearable devices, the game-changing innovation has already arrived. They are already in smartphones and manufacturers are embedding them in all new products. The sensorization of the world is already happening and the smartphone will be the beating heart of it all.

By 2020, the smartphone will connect with the wristband, fridge and car making the Internet of Things even more valuable to consumers. Sensors will collect data and send it back to a smartphone for visualisation, automation and insight. App-based services will offer automation; if your mattress senses reduced pressure then it will tell the coffee machine to brew a coffee, or if the front door closes, it will turn all lights and appliances onto energy-saving mode. The possibilities are as boundless as the imagination.

From reactive to predictive healthcare

Smartphones, wristbands, and smart clothing will collect real-time healthcare data. The sharing of this data will sit at the core of the privacy-versus-value debate. Sensors will measure glucose levels, blood pressure, and respiratory rate giving a real-time record of personal health. With more data we can expect faster and more accurate diagnosis.  Third-party health and wellness analytics companies, insurance providers and government agencies will want access. If these providers can win the trust of their customers, we will be able to improve personal and societal health outcomes. But if data privacy and security processes are not robust and trust is not gained, society at large will suffer. We have the opportunity to move from a reactive healthcare system to a predictive, preventative, personalised and participatory system. The smart shirt that identifies raised stress levels and plays relaxing music whilst brewing a green tea. The fridge that notifies the user when they are lacking potassium in their diet and suggests a meal of kale and chicken.

Healthcare will not just be something we receive when we are ill. It will be something we take part in daily.

Augmented Reality Eyewear

Augmented reality (AR) is the most exciting use case for an eye-mounted wearable device. The ability to layer digital information on the physical world in real time is unique to a wearable device. An extension of ‘glanceable’ notifications, AR has the potential to be the ‘killer app’ for wearable devices. AR wearables will sit near the eye to be effective, either as with Google Glass or a pair of glasses or with smart contact lenses. The advancements of location-based technologies, display and connectivity technologies will continue to drive adoption.

In 2020 eyewear will be standard equipment for soldiers, surgeons, police and customer service reps. The ability to live-stream and layer on relevant information in real-time such as a patient’s health record, a criminal record, or purchasing history is valuable. Eyewear further reduces the friction of using digital information and will save hours of labour-intensive work.

By 2020, the smartphone will be the central hub in the personal internet of things, connecting with wearables, household objects, and vehicles. Sensors will quantify, and mobile and cloud apps will automate everyday tasks. Sensors, displays and augmented reality services will bring a digital layer to the physical world, quantifying it for efficiency and optimisation. We are in the very early stages of making our environment intelligent. The media coverage may focus on new phones and watches, but the real advances are happening quietly behind the scenes in software. Computing is moving from something that we do, to something that just happens around us. Innovation is continuing unabated in the technology industry. It has just moved from tangible shiny consumer electronics to intangible pieces of code. We are at the very early stages of the Blended Reality Era, by the end of it computing power will be as ubiquitous as electric power. Electric power fundamentally reshaped the global economy. Ubiquitous computing will do the same.