‘Towards a Democracy of Devices’ at the COALA Blockchain Workshop in Hong Kong

This afternoon saw the first round of talks at COALA’s Blockchain Workshops in Hong Kong. The main event began with keynote speaker Henning Diedrich, an employee of IBM focussed on blockchain technology and Internet of Things, came up to deliver his speech, entitled ‘Towards a Democracy of Devices’.

After introducing himself, Diedrich began by explaining that the focus for the talks would be a non-technical primer on blockchain, and to give some insight into smart contracts and other buzzwords in the industry.

20151012_143446Throughout his speech, Diedrich gave an overview of the current state of blockchain and where it can be expected to go in the future, starting with his view on what blockchain was. Using a rather effective metaphor Diedrich compared historical and modern living environments to the possibilities offered by blockchain. Currently, he explained, we are living in spartan cities which are often plain and dull, with nothing to differentiate it from a city in another country. In this kind of environment Diedrich pointed out a focus on competitiveness, solitude and a lack of community spirit and linked it with the connotations of the word ‘spartan’ and its derivation from the ancient Greek civilisation often associated with war (although the Spartans actually had a number of things going for them). As a counterpart, Athens was used to represent an idyllic city – the birthplace of democracy and somewhere that very much has a unique character. The value, Diedrich stated, was that whilst our modern, spartan cities work, blockchain can allow a new way to interract and possibly bring a return of values from the more cooperative and collaborative ideals of democracy.

Following on from this vision, the lecture gave examples of possible applications of blockchain technology in the future. Some were focussed on giving machines and services the ability to be self-sufficient: fridges that ordered milk when you’d run out, or taxi services that could decide when they needed to be refuelled. Other examples were based in the near future, when drones are flying through their air-lanes, the highways and priorities they use will use smart contracts. Hospital records were touted as being a vital piece of evidence that could be shared on blockchain to give potentially life-saving information to anyone who might need it. All very good uses for blockchain technology which is often mostly associated with cryptocurrencies.

After this taste of the possible future, Diedrich moved on to describe (using some rather racy metaphors) the real benefit of the ability of blockchain technology in allowing computers to reach a consensus – something that humans do naturally but machines have a hard time verifying. Facilitating this ability allows people using blockchain to trust the information their computers are receiving as they all have the information to process. The ability to check everything that is being said on an immutable ledger allows people to avoid being caught out by misinformation. That the blockchain works on achieving a general consensus also allows minor inconsistancies to be recognised and removed by the system itself – something Diedrich pointed out was basically a form of artificial intelligence (It’s A.I. Jim but not as we know it!).

One area of concern that was pointed out was the effect of a network failure on a system, leading to two seperate systems with different data. Although he was quick to point out that bitcoin have a solution to this, Diedrich emphasised that it was an area in which much research was currently being carried out.

Returning to the notion that blockchain is a basic form of A.I., Diedrich compared the functioning of the blockchain to a network of many minds, although not self-aware. He highlighted that the blockchain was really the fool-proof method of getting computers to agree and although that might not seem flashy or high-tech, it was a vital system and one which would probably be putting a number of professions out of work in the near future.

Diedrich then touched on the current use of blockchain technology in cryptocurrencies and posed the question “could it be co-opted by banks or governments” before answering that it was not an issue: the basic principles behind the technology could be used regardless, although having the cryptocurrency tied to it was a boon.

Although he stressed the necessity for every detail to be shared every time to create trustin a system, Diedrich stated that at the moment it is not possible to carry this out as the technology is too slow but that was another area of research that was being focussed on.

Rounding off his talk, Diedrich gave a brief view of smart contracts, describing them as a program being run in the same manner as blockchain (i.e. a network of computers agreeing on the result of a simultaneously-run program). Blockchain in an Internet of Things allows for automated commerce between entities who do not trust each other without the need for a middle-man they trust: it allows for efficient, sustainable negotiations and processes (a core part of democratic trade) to take place between anyone, hence a ‘democracy of devices’.

In conclusion, Diedrich highlighted the benefit of trust, agency and sustainability with smart contracts and smart cities, having decentralised smart components that don’t rely on a single entity, allowing long-lasting results. To end he noted that whilst paint and concrete may need to be regular upkeep, the aim was to build software like bronze and marble, which just need a little polish to return to their original condition.

After Diedrich’s keynote, a discussion on ‘Blockchain and Applications’ was scheduled. During this, five people with strong ties to the blockchain industry answered a variety of questions put to them by Deidrich (although some didn’t answer the question that was asked!).

The five participants in this panel were:

  • Vitalik Buterin, programmer, writer and founder of Ethereum.
  • Peter Todd, bitcoin core developer.
  • Pavel Kravchenko, lecturer and Chief Cryptographer at Tembusu Systems.
  • Dominic Williams, Working on infinitely scalable decentralized cloud & fintech ventures at dFinity.
  • Vlad Zamfir, working on the analysis and specification of “proof-of-stake” blockchain architecture with Etherium.

After a brief introduction to themselves and their current area of work, the five pannelists were asked to use a metaphor to describe consensus on blockchain. With answers ranging from ‘a trustworthy method of voting’ to ‘a magic computer in the sky that you can run programs from’ it is probably accurate to say some of them went off track!

The second question posed to the panel was their view on the most important application of blockchain technology. Similarly, the answers to this differed somewhat – some focusing more on the uses of blockchain generally whilst others picked out a specific area. Zamfir went first and answered that having the ability to access any information (for a small fee) was what he felt most important, whilst co-worker Buterin disagreed, saying there was no one ‘killer app’ but that the greatest benefit was simply making things ‘more convenient’. Todd, after making a lighthearted remark about the purchase of illicit substances, highlighted the ability of blockchain to remove the issue of needing to trust someone. Williams went along a similar vein to Zamfir, stating the access to open trade and more reliable information was key, wheras Kravchenko was of the opinion that bitcoin was the current greatest application of the technology, followed by having access to public infrastructure and financial history.

Along a similar line of though, the group were asked to state the blockchain they felt most important. Kravchenko and Todd were of the opinion that bitcoin had the most important blockchain currently but Williams disagreed and chose Etherium. Naturally Zamfir and Buterin were on the side of Etherium, however, both conceded that bitcoin had value and, when asked if bitcoin had a place on Etherium, Buterin conceded that it did as ‘online gold’.

Conversation after this turned towards the state of blockchain and its readiness for widespread use. Williams declared that we areclose to the technological implementation but Todd disagreed, citing a lack of security as his main concern. He believes that there is too much fraud and noted that you ‘can’t reverse blockchain for fraud’. Buterin agreed with this, saying that the main problem was user-side security. Kravchenko thought that the technology was there but that it was not easy enough for widespread use, jokingly hypothesising a particularly bleak situation in which his poor grandmother starved to death in front of a smart fridge as she lacked the knowledge to use it!

Questions were opened up to the floor and linked back to issues such as security following Mt. Gox and FBI objections. Todd compared this to having gold in that it could be stolen but not counterfeited and it was still in the blockchain somewhere, before noting that just because a government dislikes something, it doesn’t make it bad. Williams provided an answer to a question regarding the responsibility of regulation of synthetics by governments, saying that the decentralised cloud didn’t belong to any government and that he envisaged going through intermediary country regulators depending on the location of the user.

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