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Bitcoin set a new price record as the industry gathers for its biggest event of the year

Big money.
Big money.
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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New York City

“Blockchain! Blockchain! Blockchain!”

Taariq Lewis, a bitcoin entrepreneur wearing a tuxedo, is chanting as he sprints down from the ballroom stage of the Marriott Marquis in Time Square. He high-fives the dark-suited executives seated in the front row before returning to the stage to close out his routine—a song about blockchains and cryptocurrencies—with two sequin-studded backup dancers. It’s 8:30am on a Monday morning.

The bitcoin and wider blockchain world is gathered in New York for the annual Consensus conference, an industry confab organized by trade publication CoinDesk. (Full disclosure: I started the conference in 2015.) They have good reason to be singing and dancing: The cryptocurrency’s price has rocketed in recent weeks. On May 22, the day of the event, the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index pegs it at $2,230.

The unusual kickoff to a conference aimed at 2,500 financial and technology executives sums up the schism at the heart of the blockchain world. Blockchain tech was meant to be the grown-up version of the freewheeling, anarchic, bitcoin scene that it descended from. Yet it’s clear from Lewis’ dance routine that the wilder impulses of cryptocurrency culture—fueled by euphoria over an ascendant price—aren’t so easily tamed by its would-be corporate overlords.

It’s not just bitcoin’s price that’s climbing. Etherum, the second most valuable cryptocurrency on the market, with more powerful computational features than bitcoin, is setting records too. Indeed, one speaker remarked on stage that everyone at the conference seemed more interested in ethereum than bitcoin this year.

While these cryptocurrencies are often treated as speculative financial instruments, the point of the Consensus event is to showcase their potential real-world usefulness. To that end, conference-goers were presented with a slew of announcements from corporations hoping to harness the technical principles behind blockchains. Here are some of the most interesting:

  • Toyota Research Institute is using blockchains for self-driving cars. They could be used to share data between car users or about a car’s environment, to handle payments between users for car-sharing platforms, or to store data about how a car was used for insurance purposes. Blockchains could even help record information about whether a car’s trunk is available for rent.
  • CoinList, a platform for launching so-called Initial Coin Offerings, was launched on May 18; at Consensus, co-founder Juan Benet talked about its progress and high-profile partnership with Naval Ravikant’s AngelList. ICOs are upending traditional fundraising mechanisms by making everything automated and on the blockchain. Benet was mobbed by business-card waving executives as he tried to leave the hall.
  • Microsoft, Ideo, Accenture, and others launched something called the Decentralized Identity Foundation, a nonprofit with the ambitious goal of creating a blockchain-based identity layer for the internet. That means users would control how their data is stored and accessed. Such a development could potentially curtail the increasing dominance of Facebook or Google accounts as our online identities.
  • Alibaba is using a blockchain to track dairy supplies, vitamins, and more in Australia, part of a partnership with consultancy PwC. The idea is to reduce fraud in the food supply chain using a blockchain’s tamper-proof logging abilities and smart contracts.

The breadth of companies plunging into blockchains suggests that enthusiasm for the technology has not waned, though some projects are closer than others to showing real cost savings. The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporationwhich is responsible for processing trillions of dollars of securities transactions daily, said its blockchain-based platform developed by IBM would slash clearing and settlement costs across the entire industry by a quarter when it goes live next year. In a separate project with shipping line Maersk, IBM promised savings of “tens of billions” for the company by digitizing supply-chain paperwork with a blockchain.

The exuberance in the blockchain world is matched only by the enthusiasm of speculators who trade in bitcoin, ether, and other cryptocurrencies that are exploding in value. From inside the ballrooms of the Marriott Marquis, the value of blockchain tech really does look like it’s going “to the moon,”—a popular refrain among cryptocurrency investors—as Taariq Lewis sang to a room full of suits.