Transcript: A - Z of Tech Episode 2: B for Blockchain

Louise

Hello and welcome to the second episode of our A-Z of technology podcast. I’m Louise.

Felicity Main

And I’m Felicity and we’ve got Seamus Cushley here in the studio today to talk about B for blockchain.

So Seamus, thank you for coming in. It’s the kind of topic that people get a bit scared of, is one of those terms, where people are like, ‘what on earth is that?’  So, where would you start on that question?

Seamus Cushley

How would I start on blockchain, yes, it’s absolutely misunderstood and confused. Lots of people think they know what it is, and very few people do. Very simply, blockchain as an invention and interesting conversation, we have invented a technology for the first time in the history that allows two people, two machines, or two corporates to share information and data without a third party to verify either party, and it’s a really simple concept. Let me bring that to life, for those who’ve bought a property, before you had two third parties of trust, you have the solicitor for your contracts, and the bank for your money.  Assume you could then do that transaction without either of those parties, that’s what blockchain gives you the opportunity to do, that’s it in a nutshell.

Felicity

Okay, that would be dreamy.

Louise

When we are talking about trading and cryptocurrencies, that’s what most people, I think, associate bitcoin with. Could you explain in a bit more detail what’s actually behind this and how it all works?

Seamus

Yeah absolutely.  One thing we need to really put to the side is the misconception that blockchain is bitcoin. Think of bitcoin as the first implementation of blockchain, same that the car was the first implementation of the combustion engine. So it’s a technology that can be invented upon. Cryptocurrencies are there to allow us to exchange or trade. The technology allows us to develop as many currencies as we want, for as many communities as we want.

Felicity

So I think one of the use cases that really helped me to understand blockchain, firstly, the diamond one, everyone talks about that one - trying to take blood diamonds out of the system by assuring where those diamonds have come from, but the food supply chain one is so interesting as well, it could help us avoid the next horse meat scandal from a few years ago.

Seamus

Absolutely, so there is lots of companies looking at the food supply chain and understanding.  So, tuna is another huge example and the food thing around horse meat versus actually cow meat in your meat. So, there is lots of companies looking at this supply chain challenge, anywhere you have multiple parties handling something, it becomes more complex. The key thing that we’ve looked at over the last number of years in the food supply chain is, it’s not about so much the transparency of the “happy path” scenario, it’s the traceability. So, let’s say you are going to a store, you buy chicken or meat, and it’s not what you expected to buy. The store needs to be able to trace that from the store to the warehouse, to the abattoir, right through to the farm. So, it’s the traceability that the food supply is really interested in. The challenge we have today is that this is an implementation of technology, which costs money. So, when you look at supply chain around food, you have to look at where there is a margin to introduce new business models.

The one that’s really interesting to me is something that’s high value, like whiskey is a really interesting example. The whiskey industry with the margins that it has, the fact that it is a high end product that people would pay above and beyond for, it’s a luxury good, that’s an interesting application of this technology, where you introduce transparency, traceability and then the whole trust conversation as well is part of that.  But I think it’s a really honest conversation to have around supply chain and the margins, does it justify the application of any new technology, just not blockchain.

Felicity

What do you think are some of the most exciting future applications for this technology could be? There’s people talking all the time about, ‘it could be the magic solution to this.’ Obviously it is not going to be the magic solution to all of our problems, but are there any societal good examples that might be really interesting?

Seamus

Yes, technology is a tool right. So, you have to fix a proper problem and a real problem, so where I am really interested in this, from a more holistic perspective is, community-driven business models and community driven industries, and you’ve mentioned tech for good.  What this technology allows us to do is to form new communities digitally all over the world and for people to trust people based on a technology and the consent around that technology as opposed to having to trust any other institution.

Where I am seeing a really interesting one is at a city level. The development of city currencies to develop contribution models. So, where you contribute to your community and therefore you get awarded in a currency or token, and then you contribute that back to your community. It gives an opportunity to drive economic development at a regional or community base level, that’s a one of really interesting application.

Felicity

So, there might be like a London coin or something…

Seamus

Well absolutely, we had the Brixton Pound that has been here for a number of years. It was based on centralised technology, the concept still held, it was to develop community-based contribution, and a sense of identity, and a sense of economic development, and that whole broader piece around community-based currencies, or what I’d refer to as complementary currencies, has been around for hundreds of years. But this technology allows us to do that on demand with a level of transparency never possible before. So, we are seeing that now in lots of the smart cities conversations that’s come to the fore.

Louise

So that seems like a really good point at which we can cut to a conversation which, Felicity, you had a couple of days ago over Skype and that was with Niall Dennehy who is the co-founder of AID:tech a blockchain for good startup.

Felicity

Hi Niall, thanks so much for speaking to me today. So we’re doing an episode all about blockchain today, so I wondered if you could just tell me a little bit about AID:tech and the problem you were looking to solve with it?

Niall

I can indeed, and great to be on the show Felicity. To tell you a little bit more about AID:tech, I’ve got to go back to the year 2009, believe it or not. When my good friend and co-founder and CEO of AID:tech ran a marathon called the Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan desert. He ran 151 miles and raised a big sum of money in the process but the money went missing. We weren’t able to trace where the money ended up hence we hadn’t got transparency on the delivery of entitlements.

Originally, that was international aid but we’ve since expanded it to welfare, to remittances. We’ve got a brand new product released just before Christmas, called TraceDonate which allows a member of the public to trace their donations, see what the money was spent on.

Really AID:tech is empowering transparency but the key thing that we’re doing is we’re bringing new insights, driven by data for enterprises, governments and consumers. I’m happy to share a little more about how we’re doing that and the tech we use and I guess the way that we’re doing it.

Felicity

Yeah, it’s such an interesting story and it’s so interesting to hear all these start-up stories – that moment when you thought, gosh I could do this better.

Was there consumer demand for this sort of thing, more broadly than your co-founder? Is it something you think people are really interested in, like ‘where is my money going when I donate to these kind of things?

Niall

It really is. We recently found out that back in the year 2008, about the same time Joe did the Marathon de Sables, people had quite a lot of trust in charities and NGOs and according to a lot of the surveys in Ireland that was running at just above 80% in general, across all the different proof points we could find.

But what happened was, I guess a lot of scandals have hit the industry in the last decade that trust, depending on which survey you look at nowadays, has plummeted to around the 50% mark. So there’s a bit of a trend globally that people have a little less trust in institutions. We can probably talk about the geopolitics all day, but we think the technology is a really good way to address that and we’ve got blockchain. Given the nature of the technology, given that it’s permanent, it’s immutable, you can’t change the record of events once they happen, was the perfect technology to do that.

To give you one example, we’ve built an app. You can go to TraceDonate.com today and you can find our consumer app there. We call it TraceDonate, unsurprisingly, and what you can do with that technology is you can make a donation to an organisation, that could be an NGO, that could be a charity, that could be a corporate. We’ve got a couple of big banks now using the technology, they see that as a way to drive engagement with their staff. But effectively, what we do is we enable people to make a donation, we digitise their donation into a real world product, good or service.

To give you an example, we are now live with the Red Cross here in Dublin and what we’re enabling people to do is to send entitlements to individuals and organisations around the world. One concrete, tangible example I can give you is we’re helping to raise money for tuberculosis kids in India. What we’ve done with the technology is, we’ve digitised the TB kit to enable a member of the public to make a donation, what that will do then is trigger a payment and we create a digital asset called ‘TB kit’, we then send that to the organisation and we can equally send that to an individual. They redeem that then at a distribution point on the ground in India and you as a donor - that could be you Felicity - you will get a note to tell you that your donation was spent by an individual to buy a TB kit at the location. But what we’re keen to point out is that the people that obtain their TB kit, that they have complete ownership of their own data and that they can choose what they want to reveal and what they don’t.

The whole idea is to restore more trust in institutions, in this case it’s a charity, but more broadly speaking the technology can really be applied to a broad spectrum of industries.

Felicity

It’s so interesting, building more transparency into this donation chain. Do you think this kind of thing would work with any other technologies, or did blockchain stand out to you as the only way of solving this problem?

Niall

It can kind of work with pretty much any technology but if you think about it that basically - people in the industry will know – that anything you can do with blockchain you can arguably do with a database. Right now, you can argue that, because of the scaling issue, that you could arguable do it better with a database.

But the thing that we believe is the game changer with blockchain is that we’re distributing trust. If you think about it then as, if you’re enabling a pool of people and take that example that I spoke of, if you’re a donor or a beneficiary, if you’re a charity. If you want everybody to be aligned, to be incentivised, to ensure they’re all viewing the same data and that that data is distributed and there would be trust, that’s where we believe blockchain comes in.

That’s why it’s a game-changer in that everybody is viewing the same, shared record of events. That cannot be overwritten, its permanent, its immutable, its non-corruptible. That really is the game changer.

Felicity

So you mentioned that really interesting example of tuberculosis. Are there any other real use cases in other countries around the world that you’ve been working in?

Niall

Yeah and that’s something we’ve been focussed on since day one, it’s to bring real uses cases to the technology because there aren’t that many of them out there. Maybe I can give you a couple more that we’re quite proud of?

One really cool thing that happened last year, in 2018, was we delivered – if you’ll pardon the pun – the very first baby on the blockchain. What we did was to partner with a Dutch NGO on the ground in Tanzania. What we did was, we gave individual mothers a digital identity and they were able to control their own data. What we did with the smart contract and the blockchain in the back was that we took and mapped out the ideal journey that a pregnant woman should go on before she gives birth to a child. Back to your point about blockchain for good, we looked at the Sustainable Development Goals which are backed by the UN and 193 countries and we thought: ‘look, we’ve got to make an impact and we’ve got to find a way for medical entitlements to get to the people who need them most.’

What we were able to do was to digitise entitlements, like folic acid, iron tablets and the different check-ups women should get. We used smart contracts to deploy them to the women so the women could go to the clinic, they could obtain the entitlements that they were supposed to get. More importantly, back to the point about the data, we were able to show in that case to the Dutch NGO we were working with that the German government who were funding the project was a snapshot at one point in time, in a really remote part of Tanzania, as to what was happening and were the women getting – and not getting – the correct entitlements.

With the data then - the idea of transparent and trusted data that we are creating, that cannot be changed, the clean data as we like to refer to it – they were able to tell at one stage that the women weren’t getting the correct entitlements that they should have been receiving. Believe it or not then, they were able to make a decision that they needed to ship more medical entitlements to that clinic in a remote part of Tanzania based on the data that they could trust and that they had not had access to beforehand.

To paint a picture, what had happened before we came along was that the women who come to a clinic have a paper booklet, written in Swahili, and every time they get given their entitlement – like folic acid – the doctor or the midwife would literally check the book with a pen. They would then take that back to the capital city. They would input that into a database. We had been told that it was likely that the database was being tampered with but back to what we can do with blockchain’s permanency is what we did was generate this transparent and trustworthy data that the government could ensure that the money was being spent where it should be.

Felicity

Great! Thank you so much.

Niall

It was great, thank you! Great speaking to you Felicity, I appreciate your time.

Louise

So that was a really interesting conversation you had there Felicity, looking at specifically at transparency and accountability in the aid sector. If we go back to you Seamus, what are you most excited about seeing in the next 12 months when it comes to blockchain?

Seamus

Personally, it’s the calming of the wave of enthusiasm. We are going through this disillusionment piece - the cryptocurrency market is dying down, ICOs had their first wave, things went wrong, but the application itself, the ICO as a funding mechanism is a fine construct that just needs to mature. The ability to create currencies for particular demand still makes sense. So, I think we are going through a maturing of the conversation, and a refinement of where it applies, and I think that’s a very healthy conversation, because when I joined this area five or six years ago, there was too many people solving all of the world’s problems with this technology. I think we are going to get to real problems being solved in this year, or next two years possibly.

Felicity

I think this is quite a difficult topic to get started on, is there anything that you would recommend people looking into, where to find more information about blockchain?

Seamus

How to get started? Yeah it’s like, most things in terms of technology, if you search for blockchain you’ll get millions and millions of hits, and so you will get quite confused quite quickly. Like everything new, there is lots of people making it more complicated by design, because that’s how they get paid.

I suppose the best way to start understanding this application is going back to its origin. So, if we think of the origin of the bitcoin technology as its first application, it was allowing two people to transfer something they owned, and that’s the essence of power and the value really around this. I would sign up for a wallet, I would buy a few pounds worth of cryptocurrency, find a friend and then transfer that, and just understand the service that provides, and the speed at which that interaction happens, and then broaden your remit from there, because everything has really begun, its origin at the cryptocurrency space.

 

Felicity

Is it true that this technology had a shady dark beginning? I read Jamie Bartlett’s Dark Web book recently, which was fascinating, but it seems like bitcoin and crypto came from the underground as it were?

Seamus

It absolutely did, the early adopters of bitcoin, bitcoin’s what 10 years old now, so we are going back to 2008. It was born out of a movement post 2008, and the financial crash, that things could be better, and as the technology really evolved, and this currency evolved, where you could transact value without being monitored to some extent.

But the whole aspect of being anonymous, even on the bitcoin network, is somewhat of a misconception, unless you are technically very astute. So, lots of that came through early transactions on the dark web/dark net - particular parties transacting particular listed goods.

As part of that and the trusted way that underlines the value and the technology itself, those individuals obviously trade certain goods and properties and make lots of money with that. The fact that they used this technology in the early days as part of that, but what they didn’t realise, and I suppose lots of people don’t realise this, that it’s pseudo-anonymous technology, you can always transact and trace.  Now, if you look right back to the Mt. Gox, which was one of the big stories of the early parts of the application of this technology. Lots of those bitcoins are still locked in certain wallets or accounts and haven’t moved since, and they are fully monitored by all authorities. So, those coins will never be able to being moved, without someone being aware of that. So, there is a huge transparency activity on the network that your identity is somewhat protected, but not the dark web type concept.

Felicity

Do you think some of that shady past might be affecting people’s opinions of the technology now?

Seamus

Absolutely, when I started in 2014, bitcoin was the conversation, and crypto, and litecoin, and then came ripple and all these other cryptocurrency alternatives. I suppose about 2016, bitcoin was a bad word, dirty word, you weren’t allowed to use it. Then it was all about blockchain technology kind of reborn as something different, and then we go full circle to 2018, it was all back to crypto and ICOs. 

So, it’s got back to its origin. There absolutely is waves or generations of misconception and misunderstanding, and the more and more, I suppose, we start to apply this to real life, they will become invisible. I think that’s the key component about any technology, it’s only good when you don’t know it exists, and that’s what we are aiming for in lots of technology.

Felicity

I think there has been quite a lot of hype around this technology and some people are quite cynical about its potential usage.  Are there some real world applications that you are working on at the moment?

Seamus

Absolutely, so I think yes. It’s right to say that lots of the early hype was misled. That’s what we did probably two to three years ago, was experimental driven, and lab based, small proofs of concept, proofs of value that help prove to us that this technology is worth playing for.

What we are doing from a PwC perspective, we have a number of clients using this technology. We have one that’s about to go public hopefully in 2019, and the use case it’s solving for is really digital assets, ability for individuals to collect digital cards. If you remember anything with Pokémon cards or soccer cards, anything to digitise that experience, and to look at a global market around that. So I think that’s a really interesting application and it wouldn’t have been possible without blockchain, because going back to the whole conversation around community driven business models.

Something where we are going to internally again, is focus on the trust transparency piece. We identified a pain point over the last number of years for professionals who earn qualifications and achievements, when they go for a new employment, or they begin to look for an opportunity, they can’t prove or qualify that without background checks and issuance checks. So, this pain point we have seen in a number of clients. We have developed a platform, that’s called Smart Credentials, and its focus is allowing you as the owner of our credential, to share that with a perspective employer under certain conditions, for a particular opportunity, and that’s already been pre-signed and pre-certified by an issuing authority.  So, really reduces the time and money it takes to on-board new people from an employer’s perspective, and as an employee, it really leads into this future of work concept, where I can work for multiple employers over a given year and move between opportunities quite easily, but we see Smart Credentials, or the ability to passport your credentials, earnings or achievements as a fundamental principle of future work.

Felicity  

So it’ll allow employers to check that you are who you say you are, and you have the qualifications you say you do? I suppose employers must spend quite a lot of money calling up universities or whatever?

Seamus

Actually it was borne out of that university conversation. So, if you come into an employer of the size of PwC or some of my previous employers, that’s a background check, that takes days or weeks.  But if I can provide a digital passport that says, ‘I have a qualification or a degree and you can trust it, because the university signed it last month,’ then it reduces a huge amount of effort there, but that’s just the first building block of this. We see then that building on to just everything that you do professionally, is in this wallet, your experience. 

So, where we are seeing really interesting applications is in aviation for pilots and mechanics, in the health industry for health professionals and medics. So again, the application, the ability for you to own something as an individual that’s your value if you like.  Then to passport that across different employment opportunities on your grounds, I think that’s really an interesting business, because up until now you had to really trust everybody else for you to get a job.

Felicity

And the identity side of that is really interesting - you could potentially put your birth, marriage, death certificates on that kind of thing as well?

Seamus

You could absolutely. So this whole identity piece again has been, I suppose, aligned with the whole blockchain discussion, and is highly emotive for many reasons. We need to divorce our sovereign identity from our digital identity, and I think in the digital world we have many identities for many reasons.

The identity that you protect to go on to a social platform versus the one that you do your banking or payments are slightly different identities, but yes the technology provides us the ability to have multiple profiles for many, many different uses, and one could be to hold your certificates around marriage, death, landownership, property ownership, so anything that you believe is an asset, which today is just data to be honest, would put you in control of your own data.

Felicity

Thanks for coming in to chat to us today Seamus and where can people follow you on social media?

Seamus

Pleasure to come in and have a conversation about blockchain and its application. I am easily found on any social media, it’s just @seamuscushley on Twitter, on LinkedIn, interesting to have a discussion on Twitter anytime on this technology.

Felicity

So, that’s it for this episode, thanks for tuning in. Next up ‘C’ for cyber security, going to be hearing from a few different people on various aspects of all things cyber, Louise’s favourite topic.

Louise

Please also don’t forget to subscribe on whichever podcast app you use, also feel free to rate and review what you’ve heard so far.

Felicity

I finally got Louise on Twitter. So, you can follow her on @LouTagTech and I am on @felicitymain. 

We will see you next time!