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…

 

The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down

 

 

 

 

 

 

Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired

 

 

 

 

 

My Four Years in Crypto

It’s four years since I began my career in Blockchain, crypto and digital assets. (I can’t claim to be an early adopter, although this blog first mentioned Bitcoin in 2013.) My knowledge on the topic was quite rudimentary at the time, and it was like jumping in at the deep end when I joined the small team at Brave New Coin. Apart from the 3 co-founders, there were 3 other core team members already on-board, so I was lucky 7.

My professional career has mainly been in law, publishing and financial services, plus a range of consulting, contract and freelance roles across various sectors. My point of entry into crypto was my experience with Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters in market data, indices, analytics, content, research and portfolio tools – the basis of Brave New Coin’s business, and therefore an appropriate fit with my experience and skills set.

In the past four years, I have been privileged to witness at close hand the market exuberance of 2017 (fuelled by the ICO phenomenon and the incredible bull market), the regulatory backlash of 2018, the crypto winter of 2018-19, and the stop-start messages coming from regulators, markets, institutional investors, central banks and major corporations.

Getting to grips with some of the technical and other idiosyncrasies has been a steep learning curve – but I have tried to adopt a dual approach to expanding my own understanding. First, focus on the major components before getting to far into the weeds on any particular area of technical detail; second, create a personal framework of analogous concepts, and identify practical metaphors that you can also easily explain to others – self-education is critical to personal survival, but sharing knowledge is the path to wider adoption.

It’s also important to maintain an anchor based on your original point of entry – not only does that become a constant point of reference, it also enables you to build areas of personal expertise and domain knowledge. So, while many early proponents and adopters were drawn to crypto because of their underlying belief in Libertarianism, or their fascination with cryptography, or their distrust of centralised banking systems, my own points of reference continue to be around financial services (asset origination, tokenisation, digital wealth management), market data (indices, industry standards, benchmarks), regulations and analytics. While I am an advocate for Blockchain technology, I am not a hardcore technologist, but I realise that it will take time for issues such as scaling, interoperability and mass adoption to be fully resolved.

At the very least, a great deal of that market experience (especially driven by the decentralized, project-intensive and ICO-related activity of 2016-18) has demonstrated the following truths about Blockchain technolgy:

1. This is a new model of capital formation – just as companies no longer have a monopoly on human capital, banks and traditional intermediaries no longer have a monopoly on raising financial capital

2. This is a new means of asset creation, wealth distribution and market access – backed by Blockchain solutions, crypto is the first asset class that was retail first, in a distributed/decentralized bottom-up approach to issuance

3.This is a new platform for commerce – whether via tokenomics, network incentives, value transfer, smart contracts or programmed scarcity

4. This represents a paradigm shift in governance models – via the use of decentralized, autonomous, trustless, consensus and incentive-based operating structures and decision-making systems

5. This introduces new principles of distribution – assets are consumed closer to the source of value creation (fewer intermediaries and rent seekers)

6. But, it is not (and should never be) the solution for everything

Given what is happening at the moment around the COVID 19 pandemic, Blockchain, crypto and digital assets will prove to be perfect solutions to a number of problems such as: establishing the provenance of medicines; identity verification; managing supply chain logistics; enabling the distribution of assets; computing power for scientific modelling and testing; and providing alternatives to cash.

Next week: Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…