Brian Forde admits that bitcoin isn't a no-brainer.
Right now it's hard for most people to grasp the vast potential in the technology behind it, allows the director of digital currency at the MIT Media Lab. "Having this cryptocurrency is kind of a weird idea," said Forde, who was previously a senior advisor for technology at the White House. "It's hard to explain."
But he believes the technology could quickly break into the mainstream with one development: a "hero app."
Someone needs to create "that killer app that all of you are dying to download," said Forde, just like Uber very quickly made the idea of what Forde called "digital hitchhiking" mainstream.
Forde made his comments during a panel discussion on digital currencies at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday. It's a timely topic: The price of bitcoin has rocketed in recent weeks. After a long fall from its high of around $1,100 in 2013 to near $200 in August, bitcoin just jumped above $400.
One reason for that surge is a growing appreciation for the potential of the network that makes bitcoin function—the so-called blockchain, which acts like a giant ledger keeping track of who owns each bitcoin and when it has changed hands. The possibilities of the peer-to-peer system were examined in a recent cover story in The Economist.
Fee-heavy financial services could be massively disrupted by digital currency payment systems. "Where is the potential and who is potentially scared?" said Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former minister of economics and technology for Germany and now an investor in blockchain technology. "The third-party intermediary sees potentially an apocalyptic moment."
On the other hand, millions of people in the developing world could get access to financial services for the first time via a "digital wallet" powered by the blockchain, opening new markets. Blockchain verification tracking has the potential to transform everything from human resources functions to elections.
When will a breakthrough app emerge? According to the panelists, venture capital investment in companies based on the bitcoin-blockchain infrastructure have recently passed the $1 billion mark. And the number of programmers working on the blockchain globally is growing fast.
"The developer community around this stuff is worldwide," said Bill Tai, a venture capitalist who serves on the board of BitFury, a large bitcoin mining company. "There are kids all over the world that can open it up and just build."
The venture community, said Tai, has begun to envision an app-store like environment with applications built on the blockchain network. "The possibilities are endless," said Tai.
To unlock them, we just need to start with that first hero app.