Killer apps

  • Manfred Karrer
  • Jul 25 2015

Regardless of what you think or whatever you got presented by the media regarding the Greek crisis, I think many of you will agree, that our current political system is in need for a drastic improvement to say the least. Depending on the interpretation of the severity of the problem one might come to the conclusion that our political, economic and financial system is just too broken to get fixed.

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” – Buckminster Fuller

History has repeatedly demonstrated that new technologies are able to catalyze truly disruptive transformations that could never have been achieved through political efforts. Consider for instance the groundbreaking technological and social changes that the Internet has brought about all over the world. The rise of Bitcoin and Blockchain technologies in general embody such a new model capable of moving our world to the next level while rendering the old paradigm obsolete.

The prospect of technologically induced change should not let us forget the warning awareness that technology is never neutral. We have to distinguish the elements rendering freedom, fairness and prosperity from those amplifying existing power structures.

The Internet of money

Before the Internet the production and distribution of information was much more limited to an elitist circle (journalists, writers, teachers, publishers,…). Only the process of consuming the information was freely accessible for most people (newspaper, radio, TV,…). Today, everyone with access to the Internet is enabled to write, read and distribute information at a global scale with basically no cost.

Other areas where information technology has been adopted are still lacking that kind of liberation. Interacting with money is still highly restricted to the narrow channels the gatekeepers of the financial institutions are willing to provide us. With crypto currencies we get access to the creation, the distribution and the processing of that kind of information which represents value – money.

With the Internet we have seen an explosion of new use cases emitted by the liberation of information: From usenet to mailing lists to web pages to blogs to forums to videos to chat rooms to social networks to peer to peer networks and much more. We can expect that the new space opened by Bitcoin and Blockchain technologies might have the potential to fill up a new universe similar to that opened by the Internet and which is as hard to imagine today as it was for the early birds of the web.

Killer apps

Email – the digital equivalent of postal mail – was not the killer app for the Internet. Nor was it the online version of newspapers or videos. All those who transferred traditional use cases to the Internet did a great job to enrich the ecosystem, but they did not provide the motivating reason to use the Internet for newcomers. Following the analogy with the Internet it would mean that replacing today’s traditional payment methods (like cash, credit cards, PayPal, banks transfers,…) will unlikely lead to a killer app for Bitcoin. They simply do not add enough value to exceed the mental costs for an actual change of behavior for the majority of people.

More promising use cases are the ones which were simply not possible in the pre-Internet or pre-Bitcoin era: Search engines do not exist outside the web (you can search in a certain application but not at global scope). Social networks represent another example, since there exists no equivalent to it in the non-digital world. Bringing together the power of the crowd in projects like Wikipedia or crowdfunding platforms could likewise not be accomplished without the Internet. I leave it open to the reader to add more.

My definition for a killer app is that it is focussed on a use case that did not exist before being enabled by that new technology. Furthermore it needs to add enough value for the user to exceed the mental costs of trying out new behaviors that might tap into new and uncertain territories. That added value has the power to give that new technology the needed significance for entering the mainstream.

It is not easy to imagine use cases which do not exist yet but which are important enough to gain traction and to evolve over time within the new technological framework. It is likely that they will arise not from a single center but from a network of emerging technologies, tools and concepts. I would like to try to spot a few building blocks to get a better picture of the fertile ground where killer apps might grow, and perhaps we may – over time – learn how a potential killer app could look like.

Building blocks

With the rise of Bitcoin a much wider audience has been made aware of the power of cryptography. Not only Bitcoin but also other important achievements like PGP/GPG or Web Of Trust are becoming more accepted while they are being used more frequently. Bitcoin, like many other relevant IT is standing on the shoulders of giants; most prominently the idea of Free and Open Source Software, a concept so fundamental and carrying such an importance that I believe we should add it to our list of crucial ingredients. One of the most important properties of Bitcoin is censorship resistance – a property that is achieved through the adoption of a distributed network architecture. To avoid single points of failure not only on the technical layer but also in the way how the development is organized is crucial to fulfill that property. Maybe Satoshi’s vanishing was motivated to achieve that. The removal of the need for trusted third partiesis another key accomplishment. The solution to the double spend problem for digital currencies with the byzantine fault tolerant Blockchain technology was Satoshi Nakamoto’s major breakthrough. That is mandatory for a global ledger used for value representation, but we might find new applications in a wider space which do not have that strict requirement. Although DHT (Distributed Hash Table) networks generally lack byzantine fault tolerance they nonetheless represent a powerful and useful tool in combination with other means (like Bitcoin). Bitsquare is a child of such a combination.

The actual situation of privacy and data protection is a huge unsolved problem although many people are still not aware of that. I consider the usage of ubiquitous end-to-end encryption and technology helping to protect against surveillance of meta data like TOR crucial for the society and would not like to miss that in any emerging relevant technology. This road does not stop at cryptography and software but needs to be extended to the physical network infrastructure (Mesh networks) and to open source hardware (Arduino). 3D printing and Maker Spaces depict other family members of our fertile ecosystem.

I don’t consider Internet of Things (IoT) as a building block for those kind of killer apps I am interested in. In fact, IoT will represent an enormous threat as long as security and privacy issues are not sufficiently addressed and solved.

Let us turn our perspective to a conceptual point of view:

The leap from a digital currency to voting is small and a few projects have already started to develop this space. A digital currency or money more generally can be defined as a representation of value. Reputation, identity, registries, DNS, property rights and smart contracts are all applications, which can extend the usage of the Blockchain technology beyond the narrow notion of money.

Perhaps Bitcoin itself represents only a transition technology and other transformations of valuable information may evolve to become more important in future. It is not set in stone that a generalized value transfer system like today’s national money system depicts the ultimate solution. If the conversion of different forms of specialized moneys becomes near frictionless, money as we know it might become less relevant.

In addition, prediction markets are able to harvest the wisdom of crowds. Delegative (or liquid) democracy platforms could serve as a tool empowering people to attain consensus in a much more efficient and fair way than it is accomplished today.

As technology reduces the need for human work we are ceaselessly heading towards a society where there will simply be not enough work for everyone. Work and financial income will have to be uncoupled to liberate humanity from inappropriate and pointless activities thus opening up a space for a currently untapped potential of creativity. An unconditional basic income might become an important enabler of these conditions.

What has that all to do with Greece?

While our world is facing tremendous, unsolved social, ecological and economic problems, it turned out that those whom we have put in charge of solving them, are a persistent unsolved problem by themselves. We use political structures created ages ago but they are not adequate to today’s situation, possibilities and challenges.

We have seen incredible progress in the scientific and technological world, but we seem to be stuck in the fields of politics and the way how our society is organized. We need new approaches to solve global threats never seen in history.

While we already hold some promising puzzle parts in our hands, most of them are still rather randomly distributed and lack important interconnections necessary for developing it’s full potential and sparking network effects. If we manage to combine them to create a fertile ground for growing and inspiring each other, we might be able to set new pillars for a new society – replacements for obsolete paradigms.

From some of the above (incomplete) list of technologies, tools and concepts we might see new applications changing fundamentally the reality we live in.

Those are the killer apps I am interested in – they might help us to not get killed by ourselves.