Blockchain and the Limits of Trust

Last week I was privileged to be a guest on This Is Imminent, a new form of Web TV hosted by Simon Waller. The given topic was Blockchain and the Limitations of Trust.

For a replay of the Web TV event go here

As regular readers will know, I have been immersed in the world of Blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital assets for over four years – and while I am not a technologist, I think know enough to understand some of the potential impact and implications of Blockchain on distributed networks, decentralization, governance, disintermediation, digital disruption, programmable money, tokenization, and for the purposes of last week’s discussion, human trust.

The point of the discussion was to explore how Blockchain might provide a solution to the absence of trust we currently experience in many areas of our daily lives. Even better, how Blockchain could enhance or expand our existing trusted relationships, especially across remote networks. The complete event can be viewed here, but be warned that it’s not a technical discussion (and wasn’t intended to be), although Simon did find a very amusing video that tries to explain Blockchain with the aid of Spam (the luncheon meat, not the unwanted e-mail).

At a time when our trust in public institutions is being tested all the time, it’s more important than ever to understand the nature of trust (especially trust placed in any new technology), and to navigate how we establish, build and maintain trust in increasingly peer-to-peer, fractured, fragmented, open and remote networks.

To frame the conversation, I think it’s important to lay down a few guiding principles.

First, a network is only as strong as its weakest point of connection.

Second, there are three main components to maintaining the integrity of a “trusted” network:

  • how are network participants verified?
  • how secure is the network against malicious actors?
  • what are the penalties or sanctions for breaking that trust?

Third, “trust” in the context of networks is a proxy for “risk” – how much or how far are we willing to trust a network, and everyone connected to it?

For example, if you and I know each other personally and I trust you as a friend, colleague or acquaintance, does that mean I should automatically trust everyone else you know? (Probably not.) Equally, should I trust you just because you know all the same people as me? (Again, probably not.) Each relationship (or connection) in that type of network has to be evaluated on its own merits. Although we can do a certain amount of due diligence and triangulation, as each network becomes larger, it’s increasingly difficult for us to “know” each and every connection.

Let’s suppose that the verification process is set appropriately high, that the network is maintained securely, and that there are adequate sanctions for abusing the network trust –  then it is possible for each connection to “know” each other, because the network has created the minimum degree of trust for the network to be viable. Consequently, we might conclude that only trustworthy people would want to join a network based on trust where each transaction is observable and traceable (albeit in the case of Blockchain, pseudonymously).

When it comes to trust and risk assessment, it still amazes me the amount of personal (and private) information people are willing to share on social media platforms, just to get a “free” account. We seem to be very comfortable placing an inordinate amount of trust in these highly centralized services both to protect our data and to manage our relationships – which to me is something of an unfair bargain.

Statistically we know we are more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a plane crash – but we attach far more risk to flying than to driving. Whenever we take our vehicle out on to the road, we automatically assume that every other driver is licensed, insured, and competent to drive, and that their car is taxed and roadworthy. We cannot verify this information ourselves, so we have to trust in both the centralized systems (that regulate drivers, cars and roads), and in each and every individual driver – but we know there are so many weak points in that structure.

Blockchain has the ability to verify each and every participant and transaction on the network, enabling all users to trust in the security and reliability of network transactions. In addition, once verified, participants do not have to keep providing verification each time they want to access the network, because the network “knows” enough about each participant that it can create a mutual level of trust without everyone having to have direct knowledge of each other.

In the asymmetric relationships we have created with centralized platforms such as social media, we find ourselves in a very binary situation – once we have provided our e-mail address, date of birth, gender and whatever else is required, we cannot be confident that the platform “forgets” that information when it no longer needs it. It’s a case of “all or nothing” as the price of network entry. Whereas, if we operated under a system of self-sovereign digital identity (which technology like Blockchain can facilitate), then I can be sure that such platforms only have access to the specific personal data points that I am willing to share with them, for the specific purpose I determine, and only for as long as I decide.

Finally, taking control of, and being responsible for managing our own personal information (such as a private key for a digital wallet) is perhaps a step too far for some people. They might not feel they have enough confidence in their own ability to be trusted with this data, so they would rather delegate this responsibility to centralized systems.

Next week: Always Look On The Bright Side…

 

Pitch X – Launch Into A New Decade

Last week I was invited to be one of the judges at the final Pitch X event of 2019 (and of this decade), organised by Academy Xi and Melbourne Silicon Beach Group, and hosted by YBF Ventures. My fellow judges were Abena Ofori of MAP and Michelle Bourke of Foresight Digital.

As usual with Pitch X, each pitch was given 90 seconds to present, and the top 3 were then invited back for a 5 minute pitch. After each pitch, the panel of judges were given time for Q&A. The pitches in order of presentations in the first round were:

MotionAI

Remote monitoring system for people who require care, in case they fall or need assistance in their home. Designed around a combination of machine learning, AI and motion sensors (that don’t track facial recognition). Only decision-based information is sent to the monitoring network.

Sola.io

Investment platform to fund solar power under a virtual power plant structure, bringing together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

Oyumz

Bringing home-cooked meals to the food delivery market. Currently in beta launch, looking to bring on new cooks and suppliers. Limited number of providers at this stage, and having to manage regulatory (food hygiene and licensing) and logistical (delivery, inventory, geography) challenges.

CPAP Buddy

Developing CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) oxygen masks, designed for premature babies, and intended to prevent brain damage or other injury that can arise from incorrectly fitted or poorly designed devices. Combines real-time monitoring with continuous visual feedback and detection of interfacial contact pressure.

Travels by TM

Helping people to gain the confidence and resilience to go travelling alone. Part curated travel planner, part counselling course, part self-help guide. As judges, we felt it was difficult to see how this business would scale, given the very personal nature of the service.

Mentor Community

Positioned as a match-making mentoring platform, it is designed to overcome some of the challenges people can experience in trying to find a suitable or appropriate mentor. Very difficult to know what technology is being deployed (to match mentors and mentees), in what is an uneven “market place” – more people seeking mentors than there are people willing or able to mentor them. And no opportunity to examine the financial model.

Fulfilled

Bringing “zero waste” cleaning products to the market. Distributes concentrates, that simply need diluting in water, and avoids the use of single-use packaging. Using Australian-produced botanical ingredients. There was some confusion on the business model – the pitch mentioned a home delivery subscription service, and supplying to professional cleaning companies.

VibeDate

Describing itself as a curated service offering unique and personalised dating experiences. No doubt there is a market for outsourcing your date decisions (or just to get some fresh ideas), but this was another pitch that would be difficult to scale, and again, it wasn’t clear how technology is being deployed in the solution.

PetMate

A total marketplace for pet products, services and solutions that also uses ML, AI and data analytics to track, recommend and predict your pets’ needs.

Cari

Another customised CPAP solution for premature babies, but also targeting neo-natal infants with sleep apnea conditions. Already at prototype stage (and scoping manufacturing options for medical grade silicon), but with at least 2-3 years of clinical trials before achieving medical device approval, the team have already identified multiple channels to market including hospital purchasing committees.

The three winning finalists were 1st: Sola.io; 2nd: MotionAI; and 3rd: Cari

As part of their prize, the winners will be featured in this blog in the near future. Stay tuned for more updates…

Next week: Signing off for Saturnalia

Bring Your Own Change

I receive frequent requests for advice or suggestions on how to make a career change. Having been through a significant career transition myself (in fact, I am probably on my 3rd or 4th career…), I am usually more than happy to help if I can.

Networking Image by Ghozt Tramp sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has had to navigate a career change will no doubt have been introduced to the concept of networking, primarily as a means to access the hidden or non-advertised job market. The strategy usually involves targeting a particular industry (or even a specific company), and approaching a known contact in that sector (or company) with a view to learning more about their industry, their organisation or their role – and hopefully to gain an introduction to someone in their network who might be able to help in accessing or identifying a suitable role or opportunity.

Now, I am a strong proponent of networking – both to learn and to share – although I am not a huge fan of “open networking”. So I tend to be suspicious of unsolicited requests to connect with me – especially when there is no defined context, or there is no specific purpose underpinning the approach, other than a general desire to access my professional network, or a vague notion of hoping to learn from my experience.

I appreciate that making a career change is sometimes very difficult, especially in the challenging workplace environment (thanks to rapid change, digital disruption, and the gig economy, etc.). Change often becomes harder the older we are. Plus, our path may be complicated the more niche our qualifications, and/or the more generic our experience. (See my previous blog on generalists vs experts.)

I also acknowledge that the transition may not be made any easier because traditional notions of “work” and “employment” are no longer as relevant or as valid as they were. (Conversely, Australia continues to enjoy relatively low unemployment rates, in combination with strong new jobs growth, and greater workforce participation.) Plus, many large employers are still fixated on hiring square pegs to fill existing square holes.

Do I think that more needs to be done to help people transition into and within the new workplace environment? Absolutely. Even if it’s simply to provide them with encouragement, or to challenge their assumptions about what a contemporary career trajectory looks like. (As a society, we are not very good in helping people to make sideways moves, or to adjust their ways of working.)

So, having gone through significant career changes and work transition myself, I am a great believer in “bringing your own change” – i.e., start doing what you need to, in order to effect the change or transition you desire. But what worked or works for me, may not work for you, and my career choices may not be the right choices for you. I can maybe provide some insights on why/how/what I did, but in many situations, I was very fortunate that someone was willing to take a chance on me, and give me an opportunity. Yet equally, I probably helped to engineer these situations because I try to keep an open mind, I maintain a sense of curiosity and I like to think I ask the right questions. By demonstrating flexibility and a willingness to challenge the status quo, I believe it is possible to create the right environment to effect the change you seek in the type of work you do, or the role you perform.

Next week: Equity crowdfunding comes to town

The network(ing) effect

To paraphrase Metcalfe’s law, the value of a network is proportional to the number of connections, squared (n²). Which is why valuations on social media platforms like Facebook and networking services like LinkedIn are mainly calculated on the number of users and subscribers, based on the volume of transactions and a notional value of each member engagement that can be sold to advertisers and other third parties. But as a user, these networks are largely two-dimensional – you are either “connected” to someone (or not), or you “like” something (or not? – Facebook does not support “dislike”). Whereas, in the real world, our relationships and connections are more multi-faceted, and our preferences are more nuanced than binary.

I was recently reminded of the 1990’s dinner party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and the notion that we are all connected to each other by no more than six degrees of separation. At a networking event last month, I was talking to a senior executive from a major bank, whom I had just met. Within 5 minutes, we realised we had a number of mutual connections. In fact, when I looked at LinkedIn, I discovered we had more than 20 “1st degree” relationships in common, most of them deep network connections I have maintained over many years. And although LinkedIn was helpful in confirming the “proximity” of our business and personal networks, it was only by meeting in person that these links would have been identified.

Similarly, at lunch last week, a business associate I’ve known for several years’ mentioned names of two people he had been working with this year, in completely separate contexts and in unrelated situations. Turns out that I knew both of them personally. Again, LinkedIn may have been able to “confirm” these relationships, but the “value” was in already being connected.

So, this may suggest that the true network value of Facebook and LinkedIn is overstated, because:

a) the number of potential network connections far outweighs the number of actual connections

b) the limitation of binary classification of relationships does not allow for the depth and complexity inherent in our networks of relationships

c) neither platform allows users to build contextual connections (apart from basic linear profile information).

In the end, the quality of relationships wins out over the number of connections. As Kevin Bacon so aptly put it:

If social media and networking platforms measure success only by the number of “likes” and “followers”, then they devalue the importance of building deeper connections and sustainable network relationships.

Next week: Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?