For a long time, the ability to use the blockchain in this way was treated as an interesting side-effect of bitcoins role as a currency, but the tenfold collapse in the currency during 2014 prompted many who had invested in the bitcoin ecosystem whether financially or intellectually to seek other uses for the underlying technology.
Provenance, for instance, aims to use the same technology to provide a transparent trustworthy platform for presenting the history and, well, provenance of a businesss products. The company has gone through some changes since it was launched in 2013, and the blockchain now forms a core part of its offering. The idea is that a Chilean vineyard can, for instance, publicly share a bottles origin in its fields, and track it throughout the chain of production, all the while recording its statements publicly for posterity. At the end of the chain, a shopper can check a tag on the bottle and find out precisely what happened in its journey.
Others aim to preserve the financial core of the blockchain concept, while returning some establishment credibility to the project. In May last year,
New Yorks Nasdaq announced it was exploring the potential of using coloured coins to track stocks.
Nasdaqs head, Bob Greifeld, was optimistic, saying: Utilising the blockchain is a natural digital evolution for managing physical securities. Once you cut the apron strings of need for the physical, the opportunities we can envision blockchain providing stand to benefit not only our clients, but the broader global capital markets.
It is also becoming clear that it will no longer be accurate to talk about the blockchain. Instead, there are many blockchains, as companies are born with different needs from a distributed ledger than those of Bitcoin. Perhaps the most innovative of them is Russian-Swiss company Ethereum, formed around the idea of using the same sort of network to do much more than record information.
Created by Vitalik Buterin in 2013, the Ethereum network allows users to create smart contracts that can be automatically executed by any computer running the Ethereum software in exchange for the networks own currency, ether, creating one gigantic distributed computer for hire. Advocates insist the idea could change the world of computing, allowing for digital
smart locks that open when a fee is paid, or letting musicians release songs for collaborators to rebuild in real time.
Ethereum gained its biggest public exposure following the creation of a smart contract, called the decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), intended to be a sort of crowdsourced hedge fund. Investors could buy into it, and vote on where the pool of cash it controlled was invested, before splitting their share of the pool and cashing out. But there was a major flaw in the code behind it: it was possible to write an infinite loop of cash-out instructions, taking your share of the DAO out over and over again. One user noticed this in early June, and managed to steal $50m worth of ether before the flow was stemmed.
More generally, the undeniable potential of the blockchain has led to it becoming one of techs newest buzzwords; companies with little good reason to use a distributed ledger throw it in their business plan anyway, in the hope of getting an extra $25m from
venture capitalists eager to cash in on the trend.
Even for those uses where it can be transformative, blockchain technology still comes with its downsides. The mining process that underpins the whole technology is a colossal waste of energy, for one thing.
More fundamentally, sometimes centralisation can be a good thing: a fraudulent credit card transaction can be reversed by the card company, but stolen bitcoins are gone forever.
This article is part of the Guardians Half Full series. If you would like to suggest technologies or innovations that are changing the world for the better or making a difference to peoples lives, get in touch via the form below