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Scott Ruoti is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, where he focuses on security and privacy, usability, and human-computer interaction. He takes a diverse and multidisciplinary approach in studying everything from optimized emailing systems to the distributed ledger, and we are thrilled to get his perspective on use cases for the blockchain.

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Top Questions

What are the major use cases for the blockchain?

The best application for blockchain right now is the one it’s already most used for: decentralized finance. With bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto was able to combine several different technologies in a way that solved the double spend problem for a digital asset. For the first time, it became possible to use non-physical money without the need for a centralized, trusted third-party verifying transactions and reconciling the books. 

Another potential use case is closely related: tracking assets or commodities. Because the blockchain’s distributed ledger is an immutable, public log, this would make it ideal for verifying and proving ownership over almost anything–property, vehicles, artwork, etc. 

Though it wouldn’t work in games which require randomness, blockchain could possibly be used for other types of gambling. Sports betting, for example, would benefit from having a permanent record of activity. This would allow it to quickly and (relatively) painlessly prove it was in compliance with local regulations. 

More generally, anytime a group of people wants to work together in a way that doesn’t require them to fully trust one another, there’s at least the chance that the blockchain would be a good underlying technology. 

What would it take for the blockchain to be useful in elections?

We can roughly divide elections up into two categories — low risk and high risk.

There’s not much risk in choosing who’s going to win a Nobel Prize. Depending on the country there’s quite a lot of risk in choosing who’s going to win a national election, because people pretty routinely get shot for that choice. 

The riskiness of the election will determine what sorts of privacy guarantees are required, and therefore how difficult it will be to use a blockchain. For risky elections there need to be ultra-strong privacy guarantees, which substantially increases the theoretical and practical difficulty of carrying the election out via a blockchain system. 

But in general, many serious researchers are studying the issue because a secure, private, public blockchain would be incredibly useful in ensuring free and fair elections. 

When does it make sense to use a blockchain?

Blockchains have three basic properties — a system of distributed governance such as bitcoin’s proof-of-work algorithm, a record which cannot be changed, resilience to data loss. 

Using a blockchain makes sense when you need all three of these properties. This is quite rare. Though it’s not unusual for a project to need two of the three it’s pretty unusual to need all three. 

Many, if not most, blockchain projects don’t actually require a blockchain. There’s still a lot of hype in the space. 

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