Blockchain will forever be tied to the cryptocurrency bitcoin, and understandably so. That, however, is rapidly changing. CB Insights pointed out in April 2020 that over the three previous years, worldwide spending on blockchain solutions had nearly tripled, and predicted that annual outlays would reach $16 billion by 2023. That same organization went on to list no fewer than 58 businesses the technology could impact — everything from banking (naturally) to ride sharing to entertainment.
This is far from a novel viewpoint. Back in 2019, Computerworld predicted that decentralized ledger technology (DLT) such as blockchain exhibited the same potential once shown by TCP/IP, the very foundation of the world wide web. And indeed, by the end of 2020 top organizations in virtually every sector had implemented DLT.
Here are four sectors in which blockchain could make a particularly significant difference:
- Elections: It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the furor surrounding the 2020 U.S. presidential election could have been avoided by using blockchain — that fraud claims would have been a non-starter if e-voting were in place. It is safe, secure and can be done from home. It allows for accurate tracking and counting, as votes cast on a blockchain leave an audit trail. And the thing is, it has already been tried on a smaller scale, as West Virginia used it in a 2016 primary. In addition, a blockchain platform developed by an organization called Follow My Vote was used in a presidential election in Sierra Leone in 2018, and deemed accurate.
- Healthcare: There are those who wonder if healthcare might not be the ultimate use case for blockchain, given issues like patient misidentification and providers’ inability to safely share data. Another thing to consider is the sheer volume of data that must be processed, particularly during a healthcare crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Any of these matters can result in errors and unfavorable outcomes, but they can be avoided with blockchain technology. One prominent example is the manner in which electronic medical records can be accessed by multiple parties. In addition, a blockchain startup called Hu-manity has partnered with IBM on a ledger that according to a news release will enable patients to “claim property rights to their personal data,” allowing them to decide who sees it, and when.
- Real Estate: In 2017 the startup ShelterZoom became the first company to introduce a blockchain-based platform in the real estate space, one that according to a release at the time allows all parties “unprecedented speed, convenience, security and transparency” from beginning to end of a transaction. (And note that transparency is a particular pain point in this sector.) Other companies, like Propy and Ubitquity, have followed ShelterZoom’s lead, well aware that in addition to the aforementioned advantages, blockchain solutions greatly reduce the need for paper record-keeping.
- Supply Chain Management: Blockchain enables any party in the supply chain management sector to track a product throughout its journey, which Deloitte notes brings with it many advantages. A manufacturer can, for instance, ensure that its standards are met. Efficiency is improved. Monetary and material losses are decreased. There is less paperwork. Ultimately the consumer benefits from a better product, and one that is delivered in a more timely fashion. That in turn builds brand loyalty.
In short, the sky would appear to be the limit for blockchain, in any number of sectors. Far from being simply a cryptocurrency platform, it looms as a game-changing technology that allows for greater efficiency and security.
The announcement on Jan. 27, 2021 that two companies, 3D Systems and United Therapeutics Corporation, had successfully bioprinted lungs — organs that, significantly, had vascular structures capable of sustaining them — represented the latest breakthrough in a burgeoning field, and another step toward the day when transplantable 3D organs become a reality.
The companies’ development involved 3D printing vascularized hydrogel scaffolding that can be suffused with living cells, which in turn will create tissue. Dr. Jeffrey Graves, 3D Systems’ president/CEO called the development “absolutely remarkable” in a news release, and his company plans to ramp up development of bioprinting solutions.
Another recent development in this sector saw researchers at Carnegie Mellon University employ a 3D printer to create a model of the human heart. The material that was used in this process, according to a Jan. 7 report on Medical Expo E-Mag, was extracted from seaweed.
Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science at Carnegie Mellon, told Medical Expo that bioprinting a transplantable heart is “decades off,” but added that parts of that organ, like valves and sections of the ventricle, should be available “much sooner and have a major impact in that way in a matter of years.”
Advances like these have become commonplace throughout the medical field in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has presented new challenges and demanded innovative answers. But beyond that is the grim reality that there was a crying need for organ transplants, even before the outbreak. Over 108,000 U.S. patients were on waiting lists as of the end of January, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, and 20 people die every day for lack of a transplant.
But the aforementioned breakthroughs offer hope, as did such 2019 developments as the 3D printing of a rabbit-sized heart in Israel and a pancreas in Poland. There is every expectation that the momentum will be maintained, as indicated by predictions that the 3D bioprinting market size — which encompasses not just organ printing, but that of ventilators, COVID-19 test kits, etc. — will exceed $9.9 billion in 2026, up from $8.3 billion in 2020. That’s a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 19 percent.
Two of the bigger challenges of creating transplantable 3D organs are differentiation (i.e., ensuring that a patient’s body accepts such organs) and, as mentioned earlier, vascularization. Researchers believe that the first issue can be solved by using the patient’s own stem cells to build a new organ, though Robby Bowles, a bioengineer at the University of Utah, told The Scientist that it’s not that simple — that it’s a matter of “coming together and producing complex patternings of cells and biomaterials together to produce different functions of the different tissues and organs.”
Research is ongoing in that realm, and developments like the one by 3D Systems/United Therapeutics make clear that vascularization is possible. As Courtney Gegg, a senior director of tissue engineering at Prellis Biologics, told The Scientist, a blood supply is vital to organs’ survival.
“It can’t just be this huge chunk of tissue,” she said.
That hurdle, at least, has been crossed, the latest sign of progress in a promising field. These latest developments show that the 3D bioprinting of transplantable organs will one day become a reality.
Quantum computing has long been regarded as the next “big thing.” Now it’s looming ever larger on the horizon, and graphene is part of the reason for that.
Dr. Rajamani Vijayaraghavan, head of the Quantum Measurement and Control Laboratory at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), told Swarajya Magazine in September 2020 that an everyday quantum computer — i.e., one “that is practical and commercial in nature,” as he put it — is still a “couple of years” down the road.
But there have been strides in that direction for several years, and experts relish all that these computers might have to offer. So grand is their processing power, in fact, that it is believed they will be able to meet some of the world’s greatest challenges in a fraction of the time it takes classical computers. They can hasten the development of environmentally friendly technology, for instance. They can shorten the timeline for the development of drugs and vaccines. They can make market forecasting more sophisticated and supply chains more efficient.
The caveat is that the quantum bit (i.e., the qubit), the basic building block of quantum computers, is notoriously sensitive to its environment. In fact, until last year they always had to be supercooled at minus-272 degrees C (1 kelvin). They simply could not operate at higher temperatures.
This is one of the places graphene could come into play. Researchers, already aware of the substance’s superconductivity, discovered in 2020 that graphene was the first material capable of serving simultaneously as a superconductor, insulator and ferromagnet. That resulted in the further revelation, in February 2021, that when three layers of graphene were twisted — one more layer than had previously been attempted — the material’s conductivity was enhanced to the point that scientists could envision them operating at room temperature.
Also in February 2021 came a further development in the field of valleytronics, which seeks to exploit a property in graphene known as “the valley,” which is not unlike the spin of electrons in other materials. This new method again involves twisting layers of graphene — this time two, instead of three — after they are placed between a ferromagnetic insulator. It is expected that this method will increase processing speeds.
A few months earlier, in October 2020, scientists discovered that a bolometer, a device that detects the tiniest of energy changes in quantum computers — changes that can negatively impact qubits — operated far more quickly and efficiently when it was made of graphene as opposed to gold palladium alloy, as had previously been the case.
Taken together, these developments indicate that we are drawing ever nearer to seeing quantum computers become a reality. While experts caution that there are “many, many hurdles yet to overcome,” these are promising strides in the right direction.
Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly impacted by cloud storage. Perhaps you begin your work day by opening a Google Doc or an email sent to you via Gmail. Both of those platforms are dependent upon cloud storage. Or perhaps you spend your lunch hour checking Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. All those platforms make use of it as well.
It’s all around us, whether we’re downloading cat videos or toiling away on a big project, and impacts us most directly when we want to back up or store our own personal data — as will increasingly be the case. Spurred by the advent of such cloud-storage systems as Google One, Amazon Cloud and OneDrive, the cloud storage market size is expected to be $49.13 billion in 2021, then jump to $297.54 billion by 2028, a CAGR of 25.3 percent.
Cloud storage is particularly popular in the business world, as some 85 percent of enterprises around the world use it.
But what is it, really?
It consists not of storage in some mystical place free of Earth’s bounds (as its name might suggest), but in far-off data centers, where files of all sizes are secured and backed up but also constantly accessible to owners via the Internet. In fact, users — who pay for the service either via subscription or on a per-consumption basis — can access their information courtesy of any device.
It is, in other words, a sizable step beyond storing information on thumb drives or external hard drives. It has also been particularly useful during the coronavirus pandemic, given many companies’ pivot to remote work. Files can be shared, and it is possible for multiple users to access a file at the same time. In other words, collaborative projects are a breeze when cloud storage is involved.
Security is, of course, a constant concern, especially given how much data is going to be out there in the years to come. While there were some 33 zettabytes of data (the equivalent of 33 trillion gigabytes) throughout the world in 2017, that total is expected to mushroom to 175 zettabytes in 2025. And rest assured that cybercriminals are always lurking.
The countermeasures adopted by cloud servers are considerable. Most take steps such as encrypting files, storing them behind firewalls, and availing users of two-factor authentication. Some even resort to artificial intelligence to scan their system for weak spots.
In addition, most services make multiple copies of files and store them at various data centers — a practice known as redundancy — to preclude their loss in a natural disaster. A 2019 report even noted that there are occasions where these services back up data on magnetic tape, often considered a relic of a bygone era but actually a reliable, secure means of storage.
The long and short of it is that we continue to be enveloped by the cloud. It is all around us, at all times, and enables us not only to store an ever-increasing amount of data, but also to access and share it. All of that is valuable — particularly the latter, and particularly now.