Can a 10-year-old idea be an emerging technology? In 2008, someone under the name Satoshi Nakamoto wrote a white paper that described a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash known as bitcoin. For this new-age currency to work, it needed a system of trust. Hence, blockchain was born.
While bitcoin has at times mystified and outraged the public, blockchain has steadily grown in popularity thanks to its unique form of transparency — sometimes referred to as a decentralized ledger — that uses time stamps to securely record transactions between two parties without the need for third-party authorization.
Just about every industry in the private sector has begun testing ways to use blockchain and wring efficiency and cost out of transactions, while at the same time providing greater security. But the public sector could, perhaps, be the biggest beneficiary of blockchain. CIOs are investigating existing databases that handle a wide range of transactions to see whether blockchain can make them simpler to operate, more secure and less costly. Possible uses range from motor vehicle and land record registry transactions to authenticating professional licenses and managing birth and death certificates, to name just a few.
On a more transformative level, blockchain could create a safe and reliable platform for online voting. Already, the state of West Virginia has begun testing blockchain voting in federal elections. Last year, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers added blockchain to its list of the “next big, transformative technologies” that state CIOs need to follow.
Blockchain has its skeptics and detractors, however. Some worry about the disruption that it could trigger before the technology has proven reliable. In government, CIOs have stressed the need for sound governance before blockchain can move forward.
These are the kinds of questions that should be raised, even for a technology that has been around for 10 years. The fact that there are hardly any broad deployments of blockchain anywhere — private or public sector — indicates the caution CIOs are taking with this highly promising, still emerging technology.
The saga of blockchain fits neatly with the emerging technologies profiled in this issue of Government Technology. Age isn’t necessarily a factor in judging whether a technology is new and innovative. There can be other reasons, including hype of course, that put a technology into this category. Wireless tech has been around since cellphones were introduced, but 5G promises to take it to an entirely new level, though not without passing some hurdles. And as writer Adam Stone explains, 5G could help the Internet of Things break out as the driving force for smart cities.
Next-generation wireless will also help another emerging technology: autonomous vehicles. In fact, so many AV projects are underway and beginning to impact a broad swath of government policies and practices that we’ve created an infographic to help explain it all. And what’s an issue on emerging technologies without a deep look at pivotal developments in artificial intelligence and aerial drones. We cover the opportunities and challenges for those two technologies as well.
Ultimately, an emerging technology has less to do with just how new it is (AI has been around in some form since the 1960s) than with the growing recognition that it can be tested, often at low cost, and applied in new ways that bring significant value to a problem at hand. State and local governments will never rush to deploy emerging tech, in part because they know it’s important to understand them before embracing them.