Technology is causing business transactions to change their very nature. Automation is making them quicker, more accurate, more secure and with fewer errors. With the help of the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, human travel and paper trails are quickly becoming inconveniences of the past. Enter the smart contract.
Smart contracts are agreements between people executed through computer code. The business exchange, be it keys for rent, candy for vending machine change or money for groceries, can be done entirely electronically. There is no stroke of a pen, swiping of a credit card, signing of a check or shaking of hands. Since its discovery in the early 1990s, smart contract technology is helping more secure and efficient business practices launch into the future.
Smart contracts are possible through blockchain technology, a digital ledger that keeps records of financial transactions, notably those involving such cryptocurrencies as bitcoin, on a peer-to-peer network. Blockchain, also known as distributed ledger technology (DLT), stores transactions on a public database, making them more secure.
These so-called “smart” contracts bring many benefits. The electronic nature of each transaction standardizes the rules, significantly reducing the costs of reaching, formalizing and enforcing an agreement. When it comes to any agreement between two parties, DLT can track a transaction’s performance in real-time. The peer-to-peer network keeps track of each transaction so that no third party can interfere and/or manipulate it, ultimately making transactions much more secure and the people making them less vulnerable to identity theft and other forms of fraud.
The automobile industry will see the benefits of smart contracts through self-driving cars and a reduction in car thefts. Automated keys store the owner’s identity on the blockchain. Banking can be improved by automating several transaction processes and making them more secure.
When voting through smart contracts, security is no longer as much of a concern due to the reliability of blockchain technology. Voting processes and turnout can also benefit. Simplifying voting execution and making it done remotely can increase voter participation significantly.
Healthcare is also expected to benefit from smart contracts. Processes like authenticating patient data and executing insurance trials will be simpler and cheaper. Schools, law firms, supply chain companies and real estate agencies should also reap the rewards of smart contracts, and other businesses figure to benefit, as well. In fact, many argue that smart contracts will prove valuable to nearly every business on the planet that handles transactions.
Though smart contracts bring the promise of many improvements to modern business practices, they may not be as smart as they seem. They are only as intelligent as the people doing the coding and the information available to them at the time. It is also still a new technology, making it vulnerable to pitfalls and bugs. Possibilities for mistakes make smart contracts much more accessible to hackers.
As mentioned, today’s smart contracts primarily center around cryptocurrencies. There is much to do before smart contracts are a regular part of daily life. Questions linger on governmental regulation, taxation, and backup plans for when transactions go wrong. However, as technologists work to solve the pitfalls of smart contracts, they become more and more woven into the fabric of our business culture.
America’s most pressing problems span many political, religious and economic situations. When identifying the cause and solution to these problems, the opioid crisis is often directly connected. It affects people of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and education levels. However, solving it requires more than just addiction treatment. It inevitably means preventing addiction before it even begins.
The truth about opioids
Opioid addiction has grown from a crisis to an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that nearly 50,000 people in America died of opioid addiction overdoses in 2017 alone, which equates to approximately 130 deaths per day and a 10 percent increase over 2016. What’s more, the United States consumes about 80 percent of the world’s supply of opioids while only accounting for roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. Since 1991, opioid abuse has been exasperated by the fact that prescriptions have increased by 300 percent.
Opioid addiction leads to a slew of other devastating problems such as increases in diseases like HIV, decreased life expectancy overall, and gateways into other drugs. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that about 80 percent of heroin users began their downward spiral by misusing opioid prescriptions.
Other than cutting off opioids altogether, how can pain be managed and addiction prevented and treated? The answer may be growing in the yard. Cannabis, the controversial drug often associated with recreation, is proving to have significant medical uses.
The cannabis effect
As a drug, cannabis can treat pain and also prevent/combat dependence, helping to curtail addiction by decreasing tolerance for opioids and thus reducing needed doses of narcotic medications. Research on chronic pain treatment shows medical marijuana can reduce or even replace opioid prescriptions.
Cannabis’ function as a positive alternative to opioids is undeniable. The National Academies of Science and Medicine showed cannabis reduced opioid usage by up to 60 percent. Another study showed a 70 percent drop in opioid dependence when replacing narcotics with cannabis. Ingesting cannabis also resulted in fewer side effects and improvement in cognitive function.
The research speaks for itself on medical marijuana helping to curb the opioid crisis. Even so, cannabis may have a long way to go before becoming widely accepted as an alternative form of pain relief.
Cannabis is now legal for medical use in 30 US states but struggles with continued taboo stereotypes. The government classifies it only as a Schedule I drug, defining it as unuseful medically and potentially dangerous recreationally, like heroin or LSD. These obstacles make it challenging for researchers to obtain grants, which in turn limits their ability to study cannabis’ true nature. Nonetheless, there are those who are making headway.
In June 2018, the FDA approved the first pure cannabis-derived drug, Epidiolex, a liquid formulation developed by GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: GWPH) for the treatment of two rare and severe forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. While GW Pharmaceuticals’ focus is not on pain relief, according to GlobalData, there are currently 60 other ongoing clinical trials with cannabis-based products with the majority of these products being tested in pain or psychosis.
Though there is still much to be done in the form of research on cannabis’ potential to curb the opioid crisis in the United States, the evidence thus far points to much potential. Speeding up the implementation of medical marijuana across the country requires more investment and political backing. Perhaps, then, it can help make the opioid crisis a distant memory.
In the debate as to whether a business would be better-served using a private or public cloud for data storage, the answer that has emerged is quite simple: All of the above.
The hybrid cloud would more often than not appear to be the best answer, as it combines the security of a private cloud with the speed and flexibility of the public cloud.
The debate, however, figures to rage on, as different companies have different needs. One thing that is indisputable, however, is the value of data: Globally it is worth some $3 trillion, trailing only the oil and banking industries. As a result, data integration technology, worth $6.44 billion in 2016, is expected to nearly double in value to $12.24 billion by 2022.
To date the use of public clouds is more common. Under that scenario, everything — every bit of infrastructure, every bit of hardware and software — is in the hands of a third-party provider. Things are more efficient and easier to use. A company has no worries about maintenance or reliability, and it doesn’t cost much to make use of the public cloud.
But, once again, security is a potential issue, as your business shares network space with others — no small matter, considering hackers stole some $12.8 billion of data in 2016 alone. And that is not the case with the private cloud. Yes, your IT team has to maintain it. But it can also customize it and make it more secure.
In a hybrid situation, however, a company can cherry-pick the best aspects of both technologies. There is the security of the private cloud and the reliability of the public cloud, all rolled into one. It was suggested in one report that it would be best to use the public cloud for such things as web-based email, while more sensitive data, such as financial reports, could be shielded in the private cloud.
Such a configuration also allows a business to break apart the data silos that can plague companies — i.e., the set-up under which different groups within the same walls are able to access certain information, while others cannot. One blog pointed out that that divide can fall under cultural, structural or technological lines, but the result is always the same — massive inefficiency.
Forbes noted that third-party providers have already begun to implement hybrid solutions, as evidenced by Microsoft (with Azure), HPE (with Cloud Tech Partners) or VMware (with Cloud Health Technologies).
To date cloud integration strategies can be divided into seven categories:
- iPaaS (Integration Platform as a Service): Application-programming interface (API) communication simplified, via a console.
- Big Data Integration Platform: Data collected from various sources and fed to external databases, via processors.
- Cloud Migration: Enterprise files transferred to the cloud.
- Ecommerce Data Integration: Ecommerce platforms melded with with external apps and databases.
- Enterprise Service Bus: Joining and monitoring of internal apps.
- Extract, Load and Transfer: The oldest service of the bunch; takes data from various sources, organizes it and delivers it to its final resting place.
- Stream Analytics: Coordinating and monitoring Internet of Things (IoT) endpoints.
No matter the path a business chooses, this would appear to be the wave of the future, the ultimate answer to an ongoing debate.
It appears that the only limits on distributed ledger technology (DLT) are those of the imagination. Its use cases, once limited to cryptocurrency, can run from elections to energy, from food safety to online dating.
That should not, however, lessen the excitement over DLT, the tamper-proof digital ledger which in its guise as blockchain served as bitcoin’s backbone. So if we were to ask about its potential, it would not be inaccurate to say that it is nearly limitless.
More specifically, a distributed ledger is essentially an asset database that can be shared across a network of multiple sites, geographies or institutions. All participants within a network can have their own identical copy of the ledger – a ledger that can be distributed widely in a precisely controlled fashion. Any changes to the ledger are reflected in all copies in seconds; and the assets can be financial, legal, physical or electronic. In summary, DLT provides the framework for organizations to achieve granular transparency and enhanced privacy, while reducing fraud, corruption, error and the cost of paper-intensive processes.
As a result, DLT continues to impact the financial services industry — as shown when Santander (among other banks) merged blockchain with its app — and other uses for DLT in this space can be expected to emerge as well.
Along with that is the trend in some countries toward state-run cryptocurrencies. That has most notably occurred in Venezuela, where a crypto known as the petro raised $735 million when it was released in 2018, according to Nicolas Maduro, president of that cash-strapped nation.
Alas, it did nothing to relieve Venezuela’s financial turmoil, and there are questions going forward about the worth of a state-run crypto. Such nations as China, Russia, Qatar and Iran, seeking to minimize the influence of the American dollar within their borders, are nonetheless considering a move in that direction, as are Singapore and Switzerland.
As mentioned, elections are another arena in which DLT has shown promise. In 2018, West Virginia became the first U.S. state to employ the technology in a primary, using biometrics to verify a voter’s identity and third-party verification to legitimize results. This model could prove to be scalable, as it would presumably eliminate voter fraud — again, the system is tamper-proof — and boost turnout.
Another use of DLT is in supply chains. A United Kingdom pilot program allowed that nation’s Food Standards Agency to access the data of a cattle slaughterhouse, which in turn enabled that body and the business to see the same information at the same time, as opposed to being forced to review various hard copies.
It has been theorized further that DLT could be used in other ways in food safety — that, for example, a piece of fruit could be tagged at an orchard and then scanned by a grocer or customer, enabling either to determine its freshness, whether it had been exposed to pesticides, etc.
And a word or two about one of the far-flung applications of DLT: online dating. As shown with a site called Loly, the tech could eliminate fraudulent profiles and also be used to verify consent.
Again, the only limits on this technology are those of the imagination. The possible applications know very few bounds.
What was little more than a heavy metal ballad over a quarter-century ago is fast becoming a hard-and-fast reality today: Where computing is concerned, we are all livin’ on the edge, or about to do so.
Edge computing is viewed as an efficient, cost-effective, secure means of data processing that has impacted (or will impact) such fields as energy, transportation, entertainment and government. Savvy investors would do well to take note, as the edge computing market, valued at $158.3 million in 2016, is expected to balloon to $3.24 billion by 2025.
The research firm IDC defines edge computing as a “mesh network of micro data centers that process or store critical data locally and push all received data to a central data center or cloud storage repository, in a footprint of less than 100 square feet.” In layman’s terms, that means data is processed at or near the point at which it is ingested, making for lightning-quick speed.
Put another way, processing is performed at the best location for each task, allowing apps and services to perform at optimum efficiency. This is regarded as a natural progression from processing as it was performed first in data centers and more recently in the cloud. Gartner, a research firm, projected in April 2018 that by 2025, 80 percent of traditional data centers will be shut down, compared to 10 percent at that point.
Edge computing’s uses are many. An example offered by Network World Senior Editor Brandon Butler was that of sensors on an oil rig — how they sift through a mound of data, determine what is most critical (like that which might involve safety issues) and process it in real time. It is, Butler wrote, a form of data triage, which sees the most important information processed immediately, the irrelevant cast aside and the amount of traffic to a central site reduced as a result.
The other example Butler offered was that of telecom companies looking to implement 5G technology — how those businesses can buy or rent space in micro-data centers installed in or near cell towers, affording them unfettered network access.
Edge computing has also come into play in ecommerce, where it allows content to be disseminated and customer data to be collected; renewable energy, where smart meters monitor the efficiency of solar panels and wind farms; entertainment, where mobile edge computing (MEC) provides fans at concerts or sporting events real-time video; and traffic management, where sensors identify road snarls and hazards.
The most dramatic application of edge computing might yet prove to be in driverless cars, in that it allows vehicles to host artificial intelligence, which in turn results in a minimal latency between the gathering of data and using it to run the car — crucial for safety and performance.
Edge computing also figures to play an increasing role in government, where according to nextgov.com it bridges the gap between older machines and modern technology.
The caveat about edge computing involves security. There are those who believe it adds a buffer against hackers, since there is less data being circulated. But there are also those who believe the micro-devices might prove to be more vulnerable to attack.
Assuming that doesn’t emerge as a larger-than-expected issue, edge computing is expected only to grow in prominence over time. And before long, perhaps, a great many of us will be livin’ there.
“Press one for more options.”
“I want to talk to a representative.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Press one for more options.”
If you desire more human interaction when making phone calls or searching the Internet, the outlook for that is often bleak. Instead, you are prompted to speak with a chatbot, a robotic assistant that functions as the automated voice answering services, popup chats, and more. On the phone, the robot disguised as a recorded human voice prompts you to press numbers along the windy path to answering a question or getting the information you need. While doing an Internet search on a website, sometimes a chat box with a person’s face will pop up and ask you if you’d like to talk. Most often, those faces are not the actual people typing, at least initially. In all cases, the chatbot feature allows for customer service to begin without manual human effort.
What do the robot woman on the phone at the bank and the woman on your smartphone all have in common? Essentially, voice assistants are for personal use while chatbots are for businesses. Voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana help individuals. Chatbots are designed for the public, leading them down a funnel that hopes to solve problems in an automated way. If necessary, though, chatbots may eventually result in speaking to an actual human.
In 2019, 40% of businesses will be using chatbots. The same study shows that in that group, 46% will use them for voice commands, 26% for team collaboration efforts, 24% help with scheduling, 14% for customer service, and 13% for IT management purposes. In all, 16% of companies are currently using artificial intelligence (AI) for sales and marketing. Those numbers are bound to increase over time.
When executed well, the rewards of using this technology are numerous, particularly for big businesses. Chatbots’ natural language processing (NLP) capabilities make them robust virtual assistants. Their increasing intelligence can also provide companies with data about their customers.
Chatbots are becoming very common, but not all companies are buying into the trend so easily. About 50% of organizations have not started using chatbots or AI because of concerns with privacy, security and costs.
Peter Tsai, a senior technology analyst at Spiceworks, comments on the chatbot trend, “While AI has the potential to drastically alter life as we know it, the technology is still in its infancy. As a result, many companies aren’t thinking about the tools and expertise they’ll need to support artificial intelligence.”
The clear trajectory of chatbots makes preparing for them a must-do for businesses. Obtaining education on the technology’s inner workings, implementing best practices, and beginning implementation at a comfortable pace is advisable.
Despite the trend, the common fear that robots will replace humans is not as urgent a threat as many think. For the most part, businesses are investing in improving employee skills instead of replacing them with machines. Even still, the humans who design customer service could often use a little more humanity. Empathy seems to be the missing element in most situations. Whether chatbots can learn that, only time will tell.