Blockchain – What Is It Good For? [slides]

Last week I gave a 20 minute talk on the way I see blockchain applicability. I’ve always been skeptical of the blockchain hype, having voiced my concerns, my rants and other thoughts on the matter. I’ve followed actual blockchain projects that didn’t really need blockchain but managed to yield some very good results by digitizing processes, by eliminating human error, and occasionally, by guaranteeing the integrity of data. And recently I read an article that put these observations into perspective – that blockchain is just a tool for digital transformation (a buzzword broadly meaning “doing things on a computer and more efficiently”). That rarely the distributed consensus is needed, let alone public ledgers. But that doesn’t matter, as long as the technology has lead to some processes being digitized and transformed. So here are the slides from my talk: And people are usually surprised that I have a blockchain-related company and I’m so skeptical at the same time. But that’s actually logical – I know how the technology works, what problems it solves and how it can be applied in a broad set of domains. And that’s precisely why I don’t think it’s a revolution. It’s a wonderful piece of technological innovation that will no doubt solve some problems much better than they were solved before, but it won’t be the new internet and it won’t change everything. Doesn’t that skepticism hurt my credibility as a founder of a blockchain-related startup? Not at all – I don’t want to get a project just because of a buzzword – that’s not sustainable anyway. I want to get it because it...

Technical Innovation vs. Process Innovation

We are often talking about “innovation” and “digital innovation” (or “technical innovation”) in particular, when it comes to tech startups. It has, unfortunately, become a cliche, and now “innovation” is devoid of meaning. I’ve been trying to put some meaningful analysis of the “innovation landscape” and to classify what is being called “innovation”. And the broad classification I got to is “technical innovation” vs “process innovation”. In the majority of cases, tech startups are actually process innovations. They get existing technology and try to optimize some real world process with it. These processes include “communicating with friends online”, “getting in touch with business contacts online”, “getting a taxi online”, “getting a date online”, “ordering food online”, “uploading photos online”, and so on. There is no inherent technical innovation in any of these – they either introduce new (and better) processes, or they optimize existing ones. And don’t get me wrong – these are all very useful things. In fact, this is what “digital transformation” means – doing things electronically that were previously done in an analogue way, or doing things that were previously not possible in the analogue world. And the better you imagine or reimagine the process, the more effective your company will be. In many cases these digital transformation tools have to deal with real-world complexities – legislation, entrenched behaviour, edge cases. E.g. you can easily write food delivery software. You get the order, you notify the store, you optimize the delivery people’s routes to collect and deliver as much food as possible, and you’re good to go. And then you “hit” the real world, where there...

Resources on Distributed Hash Tables

Distributed p2p technologies have always been fascinating to me. Bittorrent is cool not because you can download pirated content for free, but because it’s an amazing piece of technology. At some point I read and researched a lot about how DHTs (distributed hash tables) work. DHTs are not part of the original bittorrent protocol, but after trackers were increasingly under threat to be closed for copyright infringment, “trackerless” features were added to the protocol. A DHT is distributed among all peers and holds information about which peer holds what data. Once you are connected to a peer, you can query it for their knowledge on who has what. During my research (which was with no particular purpose) I took a note on many resources that I thought useful for understanding how DHTs work and possibly implementing something ontop of them in the future. In fact, a DHT is a “shared database”, “just like” a blockchain. You can’t trust it as much, but proving digital events does not require a blockchain anyway. My point here is – there is a lot more cool stuff to distributed / p2p systems than blockchain. And maybe way more practical stuff. It’s important to note that the DHT used in BitTorrent is Kademlia. You’ll see a lot about it below. Anyway, the point of this post is to share the resources that I collected. For my own reference and for everyone who wants to start somewhere on the topic of DHTs. Bittorrent DHT protocol – a nice explanation how DHT is used in bittorent (here’s a list of all bittorrent protocol enhancements) Kademlia: design...

Algorithmic and Technological Transparency

Today I had a talk on OpenFest about algorithmic and technological transparency. It was a somewhat abstract and high-level talk but I hoped to make it more meaningful than if some random guy just spoke about techno-dystopias. I don’t really like these kinds of talks where someone who has no idea what a “training set” is, how dirty the data is and how to write five lines in Python talks about an AI revolution. But I think being a technical person let’s me put some details into the high-level stuff and make it less useless. The problem I’m trying to address is opaque systems – we don’t know how recommendation systems work, why are seeing certain videos or ads, how decisions are taken, what happens with our data and how secure the systems we use are, including our cars and future self-driving cars. Algorithms have real impact on society – recommendation engines make conspiracy theories mainstream, motivate fascists, create echo chambers. Algorithms decide whether we get loans, welfare, a conviction, or even if we get hit by a car (as in the classical trolley problem). How do we make the systems more transparent, though? There are many approaches, some overlapping. Textual description of how things operate, tracking the actions of back-office admins and making them provable to third parties, implementing “Why am I seeing this?”, tracking each step in machine learning algorithms, publishing datasets, publishing source code (as I’ve previously discussed open-sourcing some aspects of self-driving cars). We don’t have to reveal trade secrets and lose competitive advantage in order to be transparent. Transparency doesn’t have to come at...

Random App Ideas

Every now and then you start thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to have an app for X”. When I was in that situation, I took a note. Then that note grew, I cleaned up some absurd ones and added some more. I implemented some of these ideas of mine, the rest formed a “TODO” list. At some point I realized I won’t be able to implement them, as the time needed is not something I’m likely to have in the near future. But I didn’t like to just delete the notes. So here they are – my random app ideas. Probably useless, but maybe a little interesting. Receipts via smartphone NFC – there are apps that let you track your expenses, but they are tedious. There are apps that try to OCR receipts, but they vary too much in different parts of the world for that to be consistent (there are companies like Receipt bank that do something like that, but it’s not the way I’d like this problem solved in the long run). So I thought stores can offer the option for NFC receipts – you just tap your phone to a device (or another phone) and get the receipt in an electronic form. Not the picture, but the raw data – items, prices, taxes, issuer. Then you have to option to print it if you like. Of course I realized at some point that first legislation should allow for that – in many cases you must issue a paper receipt and the digital one is not “legal”. But the idea still remains viable and probably not hard...

Models for Electronic Identification

Electronic identity is an important concept as it lies on the crossroads of the digital, the physical and the legal worlds. How do you prove your identity without being physically present? I’ve previously given an overview talk on electronic identification, tackled the high-level and philosophical aspects, and criticized biometric-only identification as insecure. Now I want to list a few practical ways in which eID can be implemented. First, it’s important to mention the eIDAS regulation which makes electronic identity a legal reality. It says what an electronic identification scheme is and what are its legal effects (proving that you are who you claim to be). And it defines multiple “levels of assurance”, i.e. the levels of security of a method of authentication. But it is a broad framework that doesn’t tell you how to do things in the technical world. And while electronic identification is mostly cited in the context of government and municipal services, it applies to private companies as well. Currently in the US, for example, the SSN is used for electronic identification. This is a very poor approach, as leaking the SSN allows for identity theft. In the EU there are many different approaches to do that, from the Estonian PKI-based approach, to UK’s verify initiative, which relies on the databases of private companies. You can see electronic identity as a more legally-meaningful login. You still perform a login, in many cases using username and password as one of the factors, but it carries additional information – who is the actual person behind that login. In some cases it doesn’t have to even give information on...