Does digital currency have a future – and could it trigger a payment revolution?

Does Bitcoin have a future?

Governments and banks don't like Bitcoin – it's being used to dodge limits on currency being taken out of countries, or getting around limits on ATM withdrawals. "Governments like to control money, that's why they issue currencies and limit the amount in circulation," says Faulkner, who doesn't think they will tolerate an alternative currency over which they have no control. Bitcoin's fostering of total anonymity doesn't help, either; governments would rather have the opposite – a digital currency where every transaction can be tracked and checked.

There's a perception that Bitcoin users are trying to stay 'under the radar'

There's a perception that Bitcoin users are trying to stay 'under the radar'

That's certainly not Bitcoin. What keeps Bitcoin going is the inertia caused by its $4 billion (around £2.7 billion, AU$5.5 billion) worth of stored value, but it lacks the stabilising mechanisms of the regular state-issued currencies we're all used to. "I think it's going to be around for a while, but if it does implode it's going to be speedy and spectacular," says Hrycyszyn.

"Long-term, I see Bitcoin as another facility to move money around, which sits above Fiat currencies," says Garner. "When someone needs the enablement of Bitcoin, they'll buy it, systems will transact in it, and then users exchange Bitcoin back into their local currency." Banks and governments know this is going on, so what they're really after is a technology that helps them compete with Bitcoin. Cue the blockchain.

Combined with the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies could fuel micro-payments

Combined with the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies could fuel micro-payments

What is blockchain technology?

If Bitcoin isn't exciting the banks, then the technology that governs its transactions certainly is. This is about securely tracking and verifying transactions, so much so that fraud will become impossible. "Blockchain technology is a total rewrite of how transactions and contracts are being processed," says Garner. "It will make transactions rapid and impossible to do chargeback fraud with."

On the list of technologists' emerging tech, blockchain is top. "It accounts for the largest spend on emerging technologies this year, a figure close to $1 billion [around £660 million, AU$1.4 billion]," says Faulkner. "The possibilities are incredible for internet commerce [by] creating trust between two counter-parties who don't know each other."

For now, it's the banks looking at blockchain, but some think it could eventually become the de facto way of handling all data in future programmable, automated economies.

Smart fridges could calculate micro-payments in shared homes

Smart fridges could calculate micro-payments in shared homes

What is the programmable economy?

A phrase coined by analysts at Gartner in 2014, the programmable economy describes the coming era where smart machines will act autonomously in a smart economy.

"The global economy is accelerating down a path of massive technology-driven change," says David Furlonger, vice president and Gartner Fellow. "As the move toward digital business gathers momentum, we can already see the emergence of the next phase – autonomous business – [but] beyond lies an era of more radical technology-enabled transformation that will eventually have an impact equivalent to that of the internet."

This is about micro-payments for things we've not even thought of yet, and the enabling technologies are cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. Perhaps a smart fridge in a shared house charges its users according to how much food they store in it, or a privately-owned Wi-Fi hotspot or parking space takes a tiny amount per minute.

"All of this is made possible because of cryptocurrency's ability to handle payments rapidly, of any size, and with a tiny reconciliation cost," says Garner, who thinks malls could charge you to come inside when it's raining, and vice versa when it's sunny.

Taking prime position in front of the stage at a gig could cost you extra, but if you moved to stand at the back of the arena, the venue would start to pay you. Ditto for public transport, where sitting down on the train or bus would trigger tiny payments, and standing a tiny income. For the first time ever, you'll get what you pay for, and pay for what you get. "The programmable economy has an almost infinite number of possibilities and will undoubtedly change our world in decades to come," says Garner.

Making connections

However, the programmable economy is still a very long way off. "A lot of things are still disconnected from each other," says Hrycyszyn, who explains that a great deal of data is still behind firewalls without good ways to securely transfer it between machines in different organisations.

"What if you could combine datasets and logic across organisations easily using APIs, and hook them up to machine learning algorithms without much effort?" asks Hrycyszyn. Add a secure cryptocurrency and multiple autonomous software systems and the concept of value will start to blur. For Hrycyszyn, the future of value is completely fluid. "Things are going to get a lot weirder," he says.

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and He also edits two of his own websites, and that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),