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Tech-Op-ed June, 2019 SOUNDING OFF

By Michael Skinner Editor

Hashing it over: Blockchain


atoshi Nakamoto remains a mystery. The elusive genius (or geniuses) be- hind the explosive 2009 debut of Bitcoin has somehow managed to re- main anonymous — rare in the age of the internet. The ideals behind Bitcoin are admirable. A form of currency divorced

from any government, traded purely on the merit of its proposed value from peer-to-peer is attractive. The problem is that of timing. As an entirely decen- tralized currency in a time of resurgent global nationalism, Satoshi (and/or friends) may not have expected that the value of this new system would lie not with the coin itself, but with its underlying structure. Blockchain, as the digital ledger has come to be called, is an incredible

system. Each chunk of data, or block, contains all the information necessary to verify the previous block. Distributed throughout a vast network of comput- ers, any particular transaction is essentially immune to tampering, as a ma- licious party would have to somehow alter every block leading up to his or her point of entry across the entire network. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block. Hash

functions map arbitrary amounts of data into fixed-sized codes. One-way hash functions are deterministic, meaning that a particular starting message will always result in the same end code. But, the resulting code is complex enough that only a brute-force attempt at trying every possible original message could reverse the function. Hashes, combined with the decentralized blockchain net- work make the digital ledger system both completely visible, and at the same time, secure. Now, roughly ten years later, blockchain technology is still waiting to be

meaningfully implemented. However, this is not for lack of ideas. By 2021, Australia’s stock exchange, ASX, has plans to replace its clearing and settle- ment system with a blockchain alternative. Last year, in November, Singa- pore also rolled out a prototype blockchain system for its stock exchange and central bank. On the other hand, some applications have seen limited success. In Hon-

duras, a blockchain property ledger system announced in 2015 was abandoned after it turned out to be no more efficient than the previous method of record keeping. The Bank of Canada also experimented with blockchain in processing domestic payments, but found no immediate benefits to speed or efficiency. More creative applications are cropping up, though. Lithuanian startup

WePower aims to use blockchain to sell the rights to renewable energy before new wind and solar farms are even built. These smart contracts would allow renewable energy companies to raise money to complete their projects, while at the same time, providing complete security for the purchaser. Customers could buy and sell these energy rights, trading them as a sort of secondary currency through the blockchain system. In the diamond industry, De Beers has introduced a blockchain platform

to provide “mine-to-customer” traceability. The system, Tracr, provides three main benefits. It is able to verify the origin of a diamond, its authenticity and offer complete traceability. Other possible applications include peer-to-peer insurance sales and on-

line voting. This is giving rise to new terms, such as “the sharing economy.” The Internet of Things (IoT) can also benefit from blockchain, because it in- volves a huge number of digitally collaborating “things.” Musician and artist Imogen Heap is developing a blockchain-based pay-

ment project called Mycelia, which is designed to help musicians collaborate and be compensated for their work more easily. A crypto-enthusiast, Heap be- lieves that with the security of the blockchain digital ledger, artists will be more willing to work together or take on riskier ideas, without the fear of los- ing to a third-party producer if a project doesn’t pan out. In the electronics industry, blockchain can massively improve the supply

chain of materials and components. With such a secure, granular, peer-to-peer system, distributors of all sizes can benefit from more efficient transactions and 100-percent traceability. Brands are made more secure, as both manufacturer and customer have

access to the data they need to verify a component’s origin. This greatly re- duces risk and opens up new opportunities on the side of the customer, as they may be more willing to purchase from a range of suppliers using a blockchain ledger, rather than relying on a single source. The benefits of blockchain technology are becoming clear. The distrib-

uted form of secure record-keeping promises to bring a new level of trust to our increasingly digital world. r


By Jacob Fattal Publisher

The End of Organ Donors? R

ecent advancements in 3D printing may make signing on as an organ donor a thing of the past. Modified inkjet printers are now being used to create 3D structures seeded with living cells — “bioprinting.” Once the

scaffold is complete, the supportive gel is rinsed away, leaving only fused cells. Currently, research is being conducted on a range of biological struc-

tures, including internal organs, such as kidneys, livers and bladders, as well as 3D-printed bones and even human skin. A leader in the field of 3D-printed organs is the team at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Based in North Carolina, scientists at Wake have successfully printed and implant- ed ear, bone and muscle structures into laboratory animals, which then ma- tured and were accepted by surrounding tissue. This technology has profound implications for the medical device indus-

try. 3D printers are finding homes everywhere from hobbyists’ garages to large-scale construction sites, using materials that range from thermoplastic to concrete and metal alloys. For some time, 3D printing has been explored in electronics manufactur-

ing to create flexible circuitry and customized board shapes that fit specific applications, such as in the automotive industry. With such a versatile tool, manufacturers are now embedding conductive traces into nonstandard mate- rials, electrifying parts of devices that have traditionally been “dead.” As U.S. Tech heads to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New

York City this month for MD&M East, we expect to see a growing number of 3D printing applications. Consumable items and tools are an easy target for 3D printing, as well as flexible materials and products for packaging. Because of their precision, 3D printers are even able to create pills that combine vari- ous drugs, each with different release times. As the technology scales, we are likely to see more biological products become mainstream. Regulatory chal- lenges aside, this new field opens up a fascinating range of possibilities. The number of 3D printers shipped to medical facilities has nearly dou-

bled over the past five years. The overall 3D printing industry is worth around $8 billion and is expected to more than triple by 2022, according to Deloitte. Bioprinting offers a solution for the more than 100,000 patients in the

U.S. alone currently on a waiting list for a lifesaving organ. According to the American Transplant Foundation, a patient is added to the list every ten min- utes and 20 die each day for lack of a transplant. With 3D bioprinting, an expo- nentially larger number of lives could be saved. r

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