CEO of blockchain company Chain on what everyone gets wrong about the technology

  • Chain CEO Adam Ludwin thinks blockchain technology is not the answer to all problems, but rather a tool like many others that should be applied where relevant.
  • Ludwin thinks there is a false dichotomy between cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchains. Although a blockchain may be able to support a cryptocurrency, it doesn’t mean it has to and has many other use cases.
  • Ludwin says there is no right price for bitcoin just like there is no right price for gold. There is a limited supply of bitcoin and the price is driven by demand. Ludwin says it is a better question for psychologists than it is for entrepreneurs.

 

Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein spoke with Adam Ludwin, CEO of blockchain technology firm Chain, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The following is a transcript of the interview.

Silverstein: Can you help me understand what Chain does?

Ludwin: We build software and sell it to financial institutions — help them with two things. First create a blockchain accounting model in the backend of their business — the sort of transactional back office. It makes it easier to manage and secure the assets in an institution and also increases the integrity of the data for third parties that might want to verify. And the second thing we do is we help those institutions connect into — essentially being on-ramp and off-ramp — into various various blockchain networks including public blockchain networks.

Silverstein: And you’re already working with companies. This isn’t like a future thing?

Ludwin: That’s right. We’re about four years old. We have — I say we were best known for our work with companies like Nasdaq, Visa, Citigroup. But also for a lot of the projects we do with smaller cryptocurrency companies.

Silverstein: And why does the blockchain software — why does that always come with the word integrity?

Ludwin: Because the core innovation in a blockchain — now a blockchain by the way is just a data model; it’s being used — to meet — to address a lot of different things in, you know, corporate marketing at an event like Davos. But the technical reality is blockchain’s just a data model. It’s a database innovation. And that innovation is applying cryptography to every transaction update in that database, so that anyone can independently verify whether there’s been a change to the database and can independently verify therefore, sort of, the state of say a balance in a checking account, or the current custodian of a security, or the current owner of a cryptocurrency.  So it’s really in the context of an institution using a blockchain, it’s really about increasing the trust in them. But, as I think many people know, a blockchain can also be used without an institution — in other words a trust replacement in a more decentralized model. But in our view, a blockchain is as relevant as an accounting model as it is as a mechanism to create decentralization.

It just depends on the design goal and the intention of the company or group that’s deploying the technology.

Silverstein: And this is the biggest question that I have coming out of the these conversations at Davos — everybody is telling me that blockchain can solve all these different problems. I understand why blockchain makes sense for not being able to sell the same asset twice. That makes sense to me. What else — why is blockchain used as a solution for so many things, and why is that any better than a centralized database?

Ludwin: So I think the primary reason around the hype for blockchain is it’s just a part of the hype cycle we’re in. It’s, sort of, captured the zeitgeist of digital transformation and a lot of folks are looking at it as a panacea for a lot of different things. When it’s not. It’s a tool like many other tools in your modern software suite. And it should be applied where relevant. And in the case of financial institution a relevant place to apply it would be where it’s important for a particular product or service to have either more trust from third parties or to engage third parties in building a network without a traditional intermediary. That’s really where it’s most relevant. So I’m also equally, sort of, surprised maybe dismayed by the type of — let’s call them — airport advertisements that I see proclaiming blockchain to be the cure-all for every corporate ail. it’s not.

Silverstein: And when you sell — when you’re talking about of a software for an institution, because when we look at bitcoin and all these currencies, every person that’s involved in the network has a copy of the database right? So they can all verify that. But when you’re talking about selling it to an institution, who are you getting that integrity from where is that security coming from?

Ludwin: Right, so let’s start with bitcoin. So as you rightly pointed out in the case of bitcoin, the model is peer-to-peer network — no predetermined intermediary. There are, in fact, intermediaries in bitcoin known as miners, but they’re not predetermined. They have to compete and you never know which one’s going to actually process those transactions. And that all serves a purpose, which is to create an alternative payment rail that’s censorship resistant, meaning no one can stop anyone from transacting on that network. And whether that is useful really depends on your context.  For some people in some places, having the ability to transact with someone else without censorship is important — whether those are you know people that are facing strict capital controls, or in a country of hyperinflation. Because in a particular place if you donate to a non-profit, you go to jail for political reasons. There’s a lot of legitimate — I would call them —civil society reasons why bitcoin is a powerful mechanism. Very different context if your talking about an organization like Visa or Nasdaq, where we don’t need miners, because we already know in advance who’s going to process those transactions; who’s going to order and ensure that no double spending is happening.

At the same time, the value that they see and gain from the technology is being able to cryptographically prove to third parties that they’re not manipulating data; no one in their company has manipulated any data — intentionally or accidentally; no hackers have changed any state. So it’s simply about increasing the robustness of that institution. It’s a security and transparency innovation when we use it there. So very different uses — both in my mind legitimate, but both serving different goals depending on how it’s deployed

Silverstein: Great, that was a wonderful explanation actually. So this leads me to another question — there’s bitcoin is very associated with the blockchain that the bitcoin’s based on; a lot of people look at the blockchain as supporting the value for cryptocurrencies, like this cryptocurrency is as valuable as the blockchain that it’s on, because that’s what’s basically funding it and keeping it going.

Ludwin: Right

Silverstein: So how does — but your blockchain, many blockchains exist without a cryptocurrency.

Ludwin: Right

Silverstein: So how important is the connection between the two or do you envision a future of blockchain without cryptocurrency?

Ludwin: So I think there’s this false dichotomy that’s pretty popular at conferences like Davos where you hear — you hear many different languages at Davos. But when I don’t understand what someone is saying, I just assume they’re saying, “you know, I don’t like bitcoin, but the underlying blockchain technology…” I think I know how to say that in 20 languages now.

So yeah, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Like I said, they’re both useful and they’re actually on more of a continuum than people appreciate. So a lot of the work we do, for example, is linking private blockchain — where there is no cryptocurrency — into a public blockchain.

But to answer your question, you’re right our protocol does not have a cryptocurrency. And the reason for that is we don’t need one, because the cryptocurrency — or cryptoasset — its purpose is to provide an economic incentive to a decentralized operating group.

Silverstein: To keep it going?

Ludwin: To keep going and we don’t need that, because we already know who’s going to run the business. So yes, we could create a currency to cash in on the the hype, but we’re much more interested in building a real business. And so that’s why we’re focused on that. And that’s not to suggest that there’s anything wrong with creating new cryptocurrencies. Again, I think it’s just such a different context; it’s hard to compare them. And I think over time, especially this year, I think one of the big trends is they’ll converge more than people are expecting.

Silverstein: They’ll converge in what way?

Ludwin: They’ll converge in the following way — we have different payment networks and financial markets all around the world quite fragmented; there’s very little mesh or interoperability between networks. So right now, for example, if you’re in China, and you open up the Alipay app and you want to send money out of China, do you know what option you have? Do you know what it says in the app? It says Western Union. So, you know, I think that is going to change. I think the interoperability between say WhatsApp — if they ever have payments — and Alipay will be something that looks somewhat like a public blockchain. So I think that’s where we’re going to see real penetration and links between the existing financial institutions — some of which run blockchain architecture, some of which don’t — and public networks, which will, sort of, drive interoperability. And then in parallel, I think you’ll continue to see cryptoassets that are serving, you know, these alternative software models that for many people, don’t get them anything new, but for certain people in certain contexts, it’s really a good solution for them.

Silverstein: And what do you think about where cryptocurrency values are if you have an opinion?

Ludwin: I think they’re high. It’s a very hard question to answer, because it’s as if I asked you what is the right price for gold?  You know there’s no — there’s no like business school like, “oh we’ll do a discounted cash flow or we’ll look at a property, and we’ll look at the rents and the market.” There’s really nothing like that. There’s a fixed supply in the case of bitcoin.  And so the price is driven by demand.  So it’s really a question of what’s driving demand and what’s driving kind of the mass psychology of belief in the potential of this thing. And that’s a question for the psychologist here like, you know, not for the entrepreneurs.