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ScotChain17: Crypto, Containers, Fog, And The Blocktopus

Brian Baglow



As the hype around blockchain grows and the value of cryptocurrencies climbs ever higher, ScotChain17 looked behind the hysteria to see how the technology is actually evolving.

The twelve months between ScotChain16 and ScotChain17 have been decades long in terms of blockchain hype. From the initially obscure ‘magic’ technology behind Bitcoin, to the saviour of the Internet which will honestly and totally transform all businesses and the whole internet forever, rarely has a technology promised so much – or been so widely misunderstood.

ScotChain17 brought some much needed clarity and sense to the debate around distributed ledger technologies, blockchain and crypto currencies, with a stellar line-up of speakers and experts.

The event took place in the conference centre at RBS’ headquarters on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Seating around 300 people, the venue was noticeably busy with most sessions standing room only.

A Public Sector Perspective

Paul Wheelhouse, the minister for business, innovation and energy kicked off the morning. He noted the ongoing inclusion and increasing value of tech across all sectors and industries and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to innovation and support for technologies to help Scotland’s economy grow. He mentioned several initiatives including the country’s innovation centres and the CivTech programme to highlight the ways in which technology is being utilised in innovative and practical ways to drive change.

Alexander Holt, the head of the CivTech programme followed. If you’ve not yet come across CivTech, it’s one of the most pioneering and disruptive projects to hit the public sector. The goal is to transform the way in which public sector procurement (a notoriously tortuous and protracted experience) operates and make far greater use of the agility and creativity the private sector and startup scene can offer. “How can you procure what you don’t know exists?” asked Holt. The focus on and a fear of breaking ‘the rules’ is part of the reason for such a cautious approach to procurement, argued Holt. He challenged this idea by looking at the the three key areas the public sector must adhere to: guidance, legislation and rules. If you are complying with legislation and guidance, he suggested, then you can bend (or ever so slightly ignore) the rules to help innovate and find new ways to address the ever evolving challenges facing society.

Presentation: Alexander Holt – Scottish Government CivTech® presentation

This focus was maintained by Peter Ferry from Wallet.Services who took to the stage to discuss the ways in which blockchain can be used in the public sector. The company was an early beneficiary of the CivTech programme and has grown to the point where it’s not only helping to advise the Scottish Government on Blockchain policy, but recently received an award from the International Monetary fund for it’s innovative SICCAR service.

Ferry highlighted the issue that in many cases, public sector services are simply a web front-end on an existing process, or ‘the webpage lipstick on the paper process pig.’ Calling for data to be shared openly, privately and securely, Ferry called for ‘disclosure without exposure’ and a radical reformation of the public sector to put the citizen at the heart of services.

Introducing the Blocktopus

Kent Mackenzie and Ross Laurie from Deloitte were next. A tag-team looking at the rapidly evolving blockchain landscape and the ways in which it’s already changing businesses. Starting with basic questions about the very nature of value, ‘Rosstradamus’ led the audience through a turbo-charged series of concepts and new technologies which are changing business, from Directed Acyclic Graphs (no idea) to the ‘world computer (mostly got it) and Fog Computing (think we understood this one…) This led inexorably to the ‘Blocktopus’, an infographic of the businesses and activities which are already being transformed by blockchain and DLT. It all starts with identity, Laurie told the crowd. We haven’t cracked that. It needs to happen before everything else can.

Professor Bill Buchanan OBE followed, with a hugely entertaining and informative presentation which touched on a huge range of topics, from why GDPR is a good thing (once CEOs realise they could end up in jail they’ll have to start taking data seriously), to the fundamental problems with the infrastructure of the Internet (if Google lose their private key, we’re all stuffed). Professor Buchanan’s presentation built from the basic realities of cyber security and focused on building a new Internet in which the citizen is at the heart of a truly secure new service.

The inherent insecurity of the current Internet, the almost total lack of trust within systems such as e-mail were contrasted alongside politicians failure to grasp things like the laws of mathematics, or the difference between hashtags and hashing. As an example, Professor Buchanan highlighted the fact that many police forces in the UK do not yet use the more secure HTTPS standard, leaving them vulnerable to hacking.

It was an astonishing, illuminating, fascinating and terrifying presentation about the realities of the Internet and just how much radical reform is needed before trust becomes built in.

Beyond The Hype

The afternoon session kicked-off with a panel inviting many of the speakers to join a discussion looking ‘beyond the hype’. The debate was wide-ranging and lively. Professor Buchanan again pointed out the fact that GDPR may well be one of the best things to happen to the tech sector, thanks to its impact at a board-level. He also pointed out that the Internet was a bit of a ‘bodge job’ and with one good shove, the whole thing will collapse. He advocated replacing the whole thing with ‘something good’.

Deloitte’s Ross Laurie suggested that the actual technology isn’t the difficult part. It’s the regulatory issues, the jobs and the existing infrastructure which are limiting the growth and implementation of blockchain.

The limitations of the technology in terms of speed was highlighted by David Birch. China’s AliPay will hit 250,000 transactions per second at some point in 2018. Will blockchain be able to offer that level of speed? If not, then it’s unlikely to reach or transform every market.

The panel also discussed the nature of identity and the nature of power in the decentralised world of tomorrow. The current Internet behemoths may not be the people with the power, but the widespread adoption of blockchain and DLT technology is unlikely to remove all power centres and empower every individual.

The panel ended with the intriguing question of what will happen if only the Internet giants can afford the legions of lawyers required to successfully implement GDPR? It was a great discussion and raised a number of issues which were explored by speakers later in the day.

Mark Simpson, a ‘distinguished engineer’ from RBS spoke about escaping Plato’s cave, asking more philosophical questions about Blockchain. Simpson looked at the evolution of processing, from mainframes and desktop devices through to cloud, container and transactional computing: where next, he asked? Simpson then argued for the smart application of blockchain. Rather then throwing it at every problem, introduce it where it will disrupt and introduce new opportunities. There’s unlikely to be a single blockchain solution that will ‘rule them all’, rather more tailored solutions will appear for specific use cases.

Ask The Hard Questions

Angela Walch from St. Mary’s University School of Law & University College London called for more critical thinking when it comes to Blockchain and DLT. In the midst of the hype and hysteria, it was a refreshing and much-needed reminder that we have to remain objective and focused on reality.

Walch discussed reputation, trust, immutability, truth, trustlessness, security and resilience. She pointed out that almost every activity humans undertake in business and society relies upon record keeping. Trust in humans – and the major institutions is at an all time low, people are ready for an alternative. “My assumption is that my data has already been compromised,” said Walch. “Wouldn’t it be nice to not think like that?”

“Why do I think that blockchain records are not immutable?” she asked. “Because it’s been empirically proven that they’re not immutable.” She used Bitcoin as an example, with the ledger splitting in March 2017. “Let’s stop talking ‘immutability’,” said Walch “and start talking ‘hard to change’.” Walch also reminded the audience that data is not necessarily true or accurate, simply because it’s on a blockchain. Strive for a nuanced understanding of the technology, she advised. Ask the hard questions. We couldn’t agree more.

Stopping Salad Oil Fraud

Consult Hyperion’s David Birch was the next speaker, dispelling some of the more outrageous claims about the capabilities of blockchain’s transformative powers. In the recent past, it has been claimed that blockchain will transform the entire global financial industry, solve world poverty and even fight fires. It would also prevent horse meat being put into burgers and stop fake viagra. “The point,” said Birch, “is that people are talking absolute bollocks about blockchain, on an industrial level.”

Birch stated that one of the most disruptive aspects of blockchain technology is that of transparency. The fact that records can be checked and audited in a visible way promises to reduce theft and fraud in entirely new ways. Birch used the panopticon prison and glass police stations in Georgia as examples of visibility as a deterrent. The key phrase is ‘ambient accountability’ he told the audience. Remember that…

A hugely entertaining speaker, Birch reminded the audience that blockchain can be truly transformative, but that the most interesting aspects of the technology are being overlooked.

Beware Conflation With Big Data

The last speaker of the day was Susan Ramonat, the CEO of Spiritus Partners. Ramonat explored the uses of blockchain in healthcare and the limitations of the technology.

Ramonat began with some context for the value of blockchain within a medical context. In any given hospital there are now around 40 x different devices per bed, she told the audience. A growing number of which are now connected online. While blockchain would enable the opportunity to track every aspect of the device supply chain, it offers far broader capabilities. The embedded software on the device, the associated patient data and the whole chain of custody can be incorporated to give a far broader holistic view of the device and its usage.

Two key uses of blockchain fall at opposite ends of the use spectrum, noted Ramonat. At one end insurance claims are transaction intensive, but require little time. At the other, precision medicine requires a huge amount of data and are incredibly complex. Both can utilise blockchain, but require very different approaches.

Ramonat did however urge caution around the tendency to confuse and conflate blockchain with other, non-DLT technologies. The use of big data and analytics can be incredibly useful in healthcare, but they’re not blockchain.

At the end of her presentation Ramonat then introduced the winners of the Hackchain competition, a satellite event which was part of the ScotChain17 programme. The TrustChain team created a solution to fake online news and reviews. The team pointed out that somewhere around 40% of the reviews on TripAdvisor may well be fake. The team asked if blockchain could help to tie reviews to real transactions?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. By ensuring an actual transaction took place as the basis of a business review, the team’s TrustChain solution can tie the elements together in a verifiable way and introduces a weighting system to the level of trust in each party, as well as the review. The bottom line, verified, trusted sources have more credibility than those with low trust and the reviews will reflect that more accurately.

For a hack project, TrustChain was a very well considered and well realised idea which could have significant benefits to a wide range of business review sites.

At this point it was all over, bar the networking. While the hype around blockchain and the certainty that cryptocurrencies are ‘in a bubble’ continue, ScotChain17 offered real insight and valuable perspective into this rapidly evolving technology.

MBN Solutions pulled together an excellent range of speakers and offered a fantastic event for novices and blockchain experts alike. As the blockchain bandwagon rolls on, we can only imagine the craziness and context for ScotChain18.

Movers and shakers

Brian Baglow


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