What Is Blockchain?

Claudio Brecht

Blockchain has long been resonating beyond the walls of the software industry. Every day, messages circulate about the development of the Bitcoin price index, while startups are competing to create the next earth-shattering business model based on this technology.

Yet what do we really understand about it?

At the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, an individual or a group of individuals acting under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto sent a paper entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” to a mailing list. It contained a practical solution to a problem that had left virtual currency theorists scratching their heads: the Byzantine General’s Problem.

Creating consensus among decentralized players

The Byzantine General’s Problem originates in an historical legend at the time of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The fortified city could only be successfully overrun with help of carefully planned troop movements coming from various directions. To achieve this, the commanding Ottoman generals had to resort to communicating through messengers. However, the decision about the moment of attack was severely hampered by one key detail: As some of the generals wanted discredit their colleagues to the sultan, they purposefully provided false information to instigate a premature attack. From that point on, none of the generals could be sure if the incoming messages were authentic or not.

The crux of the problem was the issue of consensus, deriving from the fact that the individual decision-makers could not trust one another.

Money and the role of the intermediary

The same situation applies to digital transactions of value. How can we reach consensus that a virtual dollar will not be paid out twice? To date, the answer could not have been simpler: by involving an intermediary third party to oversee all transactions; in other words, a bank.

This isn’t always smooth sailing. International payments in the form of SWIFT transfers often take several days to process due to the various parties involved. This increases the transaction costs and makes small one-off payments inconvenient. The option of being able to cancel a transaction also has its pitfalls; to be able to minimize fraud, providers of irreversible services are required to collect more information about their customers than is usually necessary.

Yet for physical value transactions the problem has been largely resolved. Take the following example: If Alice wants to pay Bob a certain sum of money, it is sufficient for her to hand him a counterfeit-proof coin that represents the respective value. It is impossible for Alice to make two separate payments simultaneously using the same coin.

There have been many attempts to convert the principle of physical currency into the digital world, yet with varying degrees of success. Bitcoin was the first to largely meet these demands.

Cryptographic signatures and digital value

To ensure that digital coins can only be spent by their lawful owners, Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography. This involves a private key made up of randomly-generated numbers, which, in turn also derives a public key. Conversely, public keys cannot be used to derive the corresponding private key. A digital signature is generated from the private key and a set of data. The public key enables users to determine that the signature derives from the corresponding private key, without needing to know it.

Bitcoin also uses the cryptographic hash function, which converts large strings of data into fixed-length data values, otherwise known as a hash. A good hash function is characterized by a high level of security and can assign various input quantities using as few of the same hashes as possible.

Compared to an encryption, this process cannot be reversed. When applied to the same input quantity, the hash function always produces the same hash yet it cannot be attributed to the original input quantity. Every change to the input quantity generates a completely different hash. For this reason, hashes are also known as digital fingerprints.

A coin in the Bitcoin system is ultimately a combination of digital signatures. The coin is passed on when the owner (Alice) digitally signs a hash from the previous transaction and the receiver’s (Bob) public key. For Bob to be sure that Alice has not already used her coin in another transaction, all transactions are publicly available.

Mathematical race to reach consensus

Bitcoin achieves this through a peer-to-peer network. A network node compiles various transactions together in a block, generates a hash from them, and releases it with a time stamp. Each block contains the hash from the previous block, thereby forming a chain: the blockchain.

This brings us back to the “Byzantine General’s Problem:” all nodes must agree on which transaction has taken place first and whether another block should be added to the chain. Bitcoin here uses the so called proof of work method. To add an additional block to the chain, the respective computer nodes are required to solve a complex mathematical puzzle. The node that first finds the solution then shares it with all the other nodes. Once the solution has been verified by them, every node adds the block to their copy of the chain. The process then starts all over again.

To comply with the changing total computing power in the network, the difficulty of the puzzle is constantly adapted, so that new blocks are added to the chain approximately every 10 minutes. If two blocks are found simultaneously, the next block found determines which sub-chain will be kept. The longest chain wins.

Since the puzzle must be re-solved for every change to the block, which is also the case for all subsequent blocks, the chain becomes more secure the longer it becomes. To change it, an attacker would have to re-solve the mathematical puzzle for all blocks before being able to add a new block to the chain. The element of trust, which currently exists in the form of a bank, is thereby contained within blockchain’s mathematical logic.

The Internet of value

Blockchain functions as a distributed public journal that records irreversible transactions. Users can quickly and cost-effectively verify and audit their transactions without intermediaries.

Use cases of public blockchain have the potential to completely transform existing markets.

Blockchain technology use cases are by no means restricted to Bitcoin. Blockchain is far more a message about the transmission of value — the “Internet of Value.” The database serves as the ultimate determination of ownership rights. All kinds of assets that can be transformed into digital twins can be included in blockchain: diamonds, buildings, good deliveries – the possibilities are endless.

Whether this innovation is disruptive or incremental depends on the areas of operation. Reaching consensus within or between companies means evolutionary change, while use cases of public blockchains have the potential to completely transform existing markets.

One blockchain use case is Everledger, a startup that produces digital twins for diamonds. These digital twins are calculated from 40 data points and are stored on blockchain, enabling the stone’s ownership to be traced from when it first mined to when it becomes a piece of jewelry. Over 1 million jewels have already been digitally secured — a real success story.

Learn more about how SAP is bringing blockchain to the enterprise.

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Claudio Brecht

About Claudio Brecht

Claudio Brecht is a Communications Specialist at SAP.

Blockchain Meets Life Science: Where Trust Is A Matter Of Life Or Death

Susan Galer

Walt Disney, Bill Gates, and Shakespeare have more in common than anyone could imagine, united by the business imperatives embodied in the promise of blockchain technology.

This was just one of the things I learned after tuning into a recent SAP Game-Changers Radio broadcast entitled “Changing the Game in Life Sciences.” Host Bonnie D. Graham adroitly guided three experts through a fascinating exploration of blockchain’s potential to transform the life sciences industry with undreamed-of trust and efficiency for everything from drug discovery and tracking, to patient control of their own data.

Dream it, do it

Peter Ebert, senior vice president of business development and sales at Cryptowerk Corp., had every right to quote Walt Disney’s maxim, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I saw proof of his company’s co-innovation during a VIDEO interview at SAP TechEd demonstrating a blockchain POC to help the pharmaceutical industry better track drugs. On the radio, Ebert was unsurprisingly optimistic, comparing Disney’s vision for Mickey Mouse in 1928 with blockchain’s potential to change people’s lives.

“Blockchain will not only be a technical technology or technical thing in our lives. It will impact all our experiences,” said Ebert. “If you go to the doctor and you’re getting blood drawn or you’re taking a pill…you want to make sure that this pill is not a counterfeit, that the technology around you and the devices are not counterfeit. Think about the doctor or other people treating you—you want to make sure that they have the education [and] the skills to treat you well and correctly.”

Blockchain’s trust has special significance to #lifescience where digital assets actually mean life or death @SAPRadio 

Ebert thought blockchain’s ability to prove authenticity to any digital asset had special significance to life sciences. “You can infuse this irrefutable trust into your supply chain of digital data assets,” said Ebert. “In life sciences, digital assets actually mean life or death. They’re not just any old assets; they are very precious data that relates to your life, to my life.”

Find blockchain architects for life science

While Deloitte reported 35 percent of surveyed health and life sciences organizations plan to deploy blockchain by 2018, Eric Piscini, principal, financial services practices, injected some caveats. His inspiration was a Bill Gates quote that stated, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

“In the next two years we’ll talk about the blockchain, and 10 years from today we will not talk about blockchain anymore because blockchain will be embedded into everything that we do,” said Piscini.

The number-one challenge is finding people who understand both blockchain and life sciences.

“You need someone who understands what blockchain is capable of, the limitations, the challenges, and the opportunities from a technology point of view,” said Piscini. “You also need someone who can understand clinical trials, content management, and adverse effect management from a business point of view, and bring all of that together.”

Love all, trust a few

Joe Miles, global vice president of life sciences at SAP, turned to Shakespeare’s quote “Love all, but trust a few,” to describe how blockchain can deliver trust that helps patients and the medical industry.

“Blockchain is one of the many things that has a capability to really help simplify and automate trust,” he said. “To ensure that the appropriate people are seeing your information or your business information across all the different constituents that you deal with daily in a way that is productive and efficient.”

Miles thinks blockchain can streamline clinical trials, getting lifesaving products to market faster and more safely. “How do we reduce the time from compound to approval? How do we get this in the hands of the patients who need it to save lives all over? It’s expensive, it takes a lot of years,” he said. “Blockchain presents an opportunity to streamline that process to make it more transparent.”

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How Will Digitization Effectively Transform Agriculture?

Cedrik Kern

“If you eat, you’re in agriculture.”

That old adage is more true today than ever before. It’s expected that by 2050 our world population will approach 10 billion. That’s double what it was only thirty years ago in 1987. Increased land, water, and resource use for the growing population competes directly with farming needs to feed that population. It’s fortunate that digitization is helping to connect agricultural concerns around the world. But what will the future of farming look like?

How will digitalization effectively transform agriculture?

Though robotic farming may seem far-fetched, it’s here today. Much like yesteryear’s use of satellites for precision agriculture, the additional data provided through the Internet of Things (IoT) allows us to grow more food with fewer resources on less land. With analytics, a farmer in Kenya uses a drone to release beneficial insects in a problem patch. A Kansas wheat farmer helps keep the water table pure by only fertilizing areas in need. Yields are boosted without waste through very specific irrigation management. Total corn production savings can reach 4.5% with yield mapping, 2.4% with GPS soil mapping and 2.7% with guidance systems. Here are some recent innovations we’ve helped bring to life.

What does palm oil’s future look like?

Planting a palm oil plantation requires strong long-term planning. But what does the future hold for this important crop? As palm oil’s popularity has grown, so have the industries it services. Biofuels, cosmetics, and other industries are all impacted by palm oil production in addition to its traditional uses in food. Fortunately, there’s a strong push to improve sustainability in the palm oil industry.

Most palm oil production in the past has been based on overall yields. But tomorrow’s plantation can determine production by every plant. IoT technology allows tracking the exact growing conditions of the palm tree. This means its exact needs are met to maximize yield and minimize waste. But how does this happen?

Aerial photos play a vital role in this process. Drones, planes, and satellites provide imagery to help producers make smart decisions in oil palm plantation management. Sensors provide climate, soil condition, and other data. This collection of data and strong analytics options let the producer manage stressed areas while boosting production in other parts of the plantation.

This process is being moved forward through collaboration across multiple sectors. Research, genetics, machinery, inputs, and the farmer all work hand-in-hand to provide more palm oil with less waste and a more sustainable environmental impact.

The future is sweet with sugarcane production

Though it’s still one of the world’s top sweeteners, sugarcane has also branched out recently into the biofuel and electrical production sectors. A single ton of sugarcane produces 120 kilograms of sugar, 85 liters of ethanol and 25 kilowatt-hours of electricity. But the tropical origins of the plant means it’s always been planted in developing countries with plenty of land and labor. That made it a cheap crop to grow.

Today’s population growth is limiting sugarcane production. This means more care must be taken in crop techniques and inputs to provide maximum results on minimal land. To complicate matters even further, the land it is raised on is often very different. This requires different approaches to achieve these results.

Different climates require the use of different techniques and methods. Ratoon planting allows the crop to be grown from the prior year’s plant stubble. But the number of years can vary greatly. Production-leading Brazil replants new cane every 5 or 6 years. As second-highest producer, India’s climate demands planting new cane every two or three years.

Hand harvesting uses manpower and a sharp hand-tool while providing 500 kg per hour, with rising labor rates making this practice less profitable than in the past. Mechanizing the process allows manual labor to be focused in different area as a single harvester will handle 100 tons of sugarcane per hour. Except for on steep slopes, mechanical harvesting provides a more ecologically sound approach. Satellite-based tractor navigation uses permanent wheel tracks to maximize production while minimizing wasted time and fuel.

Combining sustainable farming practices with economical technological advancement allows us to grow as a people and as a planet. Smarter crop rotation, precision pesticide and fertilizer application, yield mapping and weed sensors are only a few of the advancements farmers will see in the years to come. IoT technology is expected to see a 20% annual compounded growth from 2015 to 2020. New agricultural business models are expected to see a 15%–25% growth in revenue above the industry average.

Farms that add IoT capabilities, Big Data analytics, and similar connected agriculture tools are making strong strides. Imagine yields 10%–20% higher than in the past. They’re also seeing an average increase in profits of 18%. Some farms have seen profit increases of up to 76%.

Learn how to bring new technologies and services together to power digital transformation by downloading The IoT Imperative for Consumer Industries. Explore how to bring Industry 4.0 insights into your business today by reading Industry 4.0: What’s Next?

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Cedrik Kern

About Cedrik Kern

Cedrik Kern is Solution Owner of Digital Farming at SAP. He drives the development of the SAP platform for digital farming as a key innovation for agribusiness. Cedrik is part of the SAP solution management team for Agribusiness and Commodity Management. This team is responsible for defining our global strategy for agribusiness and commodity management. As an expert for agribusiness and commodity markets, he influences the SAP solution portfolio and has architected co-innovation solutions with global leaders in the commodity trading and consumer products industry. He is a regular speaker at events and conferences presenting SAP’s solution portfolio and innovations for this space.

Human Skills for the Digital Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

Technology Evolves.
So Must We.


Technology replacing human effort is as old as the first stone axe, and so is the disruption it creates.
Thanks to deep learning and other advances in AI, machine learning is catching up to the human mind faster than expected.
How do we maintain our value in a world in which AI can perform many high-value tasks?


Uniquely Human Abilities

AI is excellent at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data — but humans know what they don’t know.

We’re driven to explore, try new and risky things, and make a difference.
 
 
 
We deduce the existence of information we don’t yet know about.
 
 
 
We imagine radical new business models, products, and opportunities.
 
 
 
We have creativity, imagination, humor, ethics, persistence, and critical thinking.


There’s Nothing Soft About “Soft Skills”

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level. There’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

We must revamp how and what we teach to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and persistence. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, and most people will need help acquiring and improving them.

Anything artificial intelligence does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique abilities into account. While we help AI get more powerful, we need to get better at being human.


Download the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.


Read the full article The Human Factor in an AI Future.


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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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Finance And HR: Friends Or Foes? Shifting To A Collaborative Mindset

Richard McLean

Part 1 in the 3-part “Finance and HR Collaboration” series

In my last blog, I challenged you to think of collaboration as the next killer app, citing a recent study by Oxford Economics sponsored by SAP. The study clearly explains how corporate performance improves when finance actively engages in collaboration with other business functions.

As a case in point, consider finance and HR. Both are being called on to work more collaboratively with each other – and the broader business – to help achieve a shared vision for the company. In most organizations, both have undergone a transformation to extend beyond operational tasks and adopt a more strategic focus, opening the door to more collaboration. As such, both have assumed three very important roles in the company – business partner, change agent, and steward. In this post, I’ll illustrate how collaboration can enable HR and finance to be more effective business partners.

Making the transition to focus on broader business objectives

My colleague Renata Janini Dohmen, senior vice president of HR for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, credits a changing mindset for both finance and HR as key to enabling the transition away from our traditional roles to be more collaborative. She says, “For a long time, people in HR and finance were seen as opponents. HR was focused on employees and how to motivate, encourage, and cheer on the workforce. Finance looked at the numbers and was a lot more cautious and possibly more skeptical in terms of making an investment. Today, both areas have made the transition to take on a more holistic perspective. We are pursuing strategies and approaching decisions based on what delivers the best return on investment for the company’s assets, whether those assets are monetary or non-monetary. This mindset shift plays a key role in how finance and HR execute the strategic imperatives of the company,” she notes.

Viewing joint decisions from a completely different lens

I agree with Renata. This mindset change has certainly impacted the way I make decisions. If I’m just focused on controlling costs and assessing expenditures, I’ll evaluate programs and ideas quite differently than if I’m thinking about the big picture.

For example, there’s an HR manager in our organization who runs Compensation and Benefits. She approaches me regularly with great ideas. But those ideas cost money. In the past, I was probably more inclined to look at those conversations from a tactical perspective. It was easy for me to simply say, “No, we can’t afford it.”

Now I look at her ideas from a more strategic perspective. I think, “What do we want our culture to be in the years ahead? Are the benefits packages she is proposing perhaps the right ones to get us there? Are they family friendly? Are they relevant for people in today’s world? Will they make us an employer of choice?” I quite enjoy the rich conversations we have about the impact of compensation and benefits design on the culture we want to create. Now, I see our relationship as much more collaborative and jointly invested in attracting and retaining the best people who will ultimately deliver on the company strategy. It’s a completely different lens.

Defining how finance and HR align to the company strategy

Renata and I believe that greater collaboration between finance and HR is a critical success factor. How can your organization achieve this shift? “Once the organization has clearly defined what role finance and HR must play and how they fundamentally align to the company strategy, then it’s more natural to structure them in a way to support such transformation,” Renata explains.

Technology plays an important role in our ability to successfully collaborate. Looking back, finance and HR were heavily focused on our own operational areas because everything we did tended to consume more time – just keeping the lights on and taking care of our basic responsibilities. Now, through a more efficient operating model with shared services, standard operating procedures, and automation, we can both be more business-focused and integrated. As a result, we’re able to collaborate in more meaningful ways to have a positive impact on business outcomes.

In our next blog, we’ll look at how finance and HR can work together as agents of change.

For a deeper dive, download the Oxford Economics study sponsored by SAP.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Richard McLean

About Richard McLean

Richard McLean, regional CFO for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, oversees all key finance and administrative functions for field and regional headquarters, supporting more than 16,000 employees. He has more than 20 years of experience in senior finance roles with leading global companies across a range of industries, including financial services, investment banking, automotive, and IT. He joined SAP in 2008.