Episode 12: Blockchain Gives Us Hope – Show Notes
In our last episode on Deepfake, we mentioned blockchain as a possible solution for identifying authentic versus altered audio and video. In today’s episode, we look at a number of ways that blockchain can and is already providing positive impact in the world.
In addition to its most famous use of cryptocurrency, blockchain has tremendous capacity for the tracking and verifying of data. It can be used to encrypt information while still enabling sharing of it in a secure way. It can track lineage and authenticity to bring more transparency.
Additional Links on Positive Uses of Blockchain
Could Blockchain Save the Rainforest? YouTube video from The Economist regarding the use of blockchain to capture and encode information on DNA found in rainforest animals. This information, if used to create marketable products, would then provide tracking to ensure that companies repay the countries where the information was first found.
Blockchain to Fight Child Labor Cryptoniam article describing the joint effort between Coca-Cola, the US State Department, and KnowTheChain to fight child labor by using blockchain.
Blockchain Trust Accelerator is an alliance, currently doing pilot projects, using blockchain to combat corruption in many forms. Check out the video on their homepage for more information.
CryptoKitties Where you can buy your own authentic, original, digital cat.
Looks like others are on top of our idea on putting dog pedigree on the blockchain! Check out PetSource.io, HealthyTail.org, and Pawtocol.com. All of these seem to be in pre-ICO (meaning you cannot yet buy tokens/coins) and all are focused not only on capturing the pedigree of your pet but also its ownership history, veterinary records, and more.
Blockchain is Coming for Storage Article from Network World discussing the needs for storage due to blockchain.
Blockchain is Critical to the Future of Data Storage Article from Forbes describing how blockchain could actually help with storage needs while providing passive income to people for use of empty hard drive space.
Episode TranscriptView Episode Transcript
Lexy: Welcome to the Data Science Ethics Podcast. This is Lexy. I’m here with Marie and today we’re going to talk a little bit about blockchain.
This is a fascinating new area that’s come up. You’ve probably heard about it in the news with regard to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Blockchain itself is a technology that I’m really excited about from an ethical standpoint. The idea behind it is that it is a secured way of validating information and verifying its authenticity. It’s a tremendous help when you think about some of the things we talked about last time with Deepfake as well as potentially other uses.
Blockchain is a technology that gives people a way to validate information as being accurate by distributing the official ledger of that information. In this system, many computers simultaneously receive the same information so that even if one system gets corrupted or changed, the official ledger is the same. Every part of the blockchain is encrypted with algorithms that allow multiple computers to solve equations that give them access to the ledger. The ledger itself enables the tracking of a lineage of a given object, typically a digital object, and the validation of its provenance.
Marie: Define provenance.
Lexy: Provenance is a term that’s used in the art world. Where something originated. Who’s owned it. What transactions have taken place all throughout its lifetime.
Marie: So with Stradivarius violins, you know that it was an original Stradivarius. That it was made back in this time. That it’s potentially been owned and played by these people in these opera houses with these performances.
Lexy: Potentially, but it’s also used more commonly with pieces of art. Like paintings where you know that something was painted by a given artist. It then became the property of their patron. That then got transferred to whomever and so on and so forth. And so, when a museum acquires a piece or a collector purchases a piece, they want to see the entire provenance, the entire history of that piece of art to make sure that it kind of aligns to the way that they got it. It aligns with the history of what’s happened to it.
Marie: This also helps with validating it and making sure that it isn’t a fake or that it isn’t a forgery.
Marie: That ties really well with what we’re talking about with the Cryptokitties. The team behind it was thinking of a way that art can be produced and also be validated as authentic. Some of you have heard in the past about that can create forgeries of art. So the idea with Cryptokitties is it’s a way to create art that can’t be reproduced in that way or it can’t be faked. In terms of basically having a system built in so it can have that lineage and have that provenance.
Marie: There are some things that blockchain could potentially help solve in the real world. We’ll kind of take Cryptokitties and we’ll use a similar example. We’ll go into the breeding of real world animals.
What if you could use blockchain to validate who the parents were of a particular set of puppies? Obviously, we have those types of systems kind of already set up and in place because we keep track of dogs’ lineages. We have different canine societies where you can register your dogs and make sure that all that information is validated. But again, that is not a distributed ledger.
So with a blockchain you could have the same type of thing happening but it would be distributed. That it might make it harder for people to try and say “this dog is a descendant of somebody that won an award or did really well in a competition” when maybe that wasn’t actually the case.
Lexy: This episode goes out to a friend of ours who recently bought a puppy and we are still trying to determine the lineage of that puppy.
Marie: Inspired by a real world example.
So it went from Cryptokitties to puppies. Another example that we’ve seen talked about is how blockchain could potentially help with rain forest preservation.
The idea here is that the different countries that are potentially involved around say the Amazon rain forest could go through the Amazon and help identify all of the different species that are in the rain forest and make sure that they document their DNA. They then validate that DNA signature with blockchain and also monitor when different companies use that DNA for developing a medicine. If they have used the science and DNA that comes from the rain forest to develop a medicine that becomes commercially viable, any of the money that is produced from that technology, a portion of that gets used to help with preserving the rain forest and goes back to the country of origin.
There are several different organizations involved with this including the Amazonian Bank of Codes, the World Economic Forum, the Earth Bank of Codes, and the Earth Biogenome Project. So it’s a very big undertaking. The idea is that by having the information of the rain forest mapped and the genomes understood, we can have more scientific advancement and there’s also the economic advancement that we can get from understanding the genetics. The more successful these economic endeavors are, the more that the rain forest can be saved because they’ll want to make sure that those sources of information can be preserved and they’re going to have a financial way to actually do that.
Now, in this way, it would be an opportunity say the rain forest is actually helping the country make money because of the knowledge with inside the rain forest, so we’re going to continue to preserve this environment in this ecosystem. Those are some areas where it’s very exciting to see what people are looking at blockchain to potentially do and the problems that they’re looking to solve with it.
Lexy: The other one that comes to mind that I’ve heard about was another supply chain sort of example. It was trying to reduce the use of child labor in sweatshops by tracking the supply chain of produced items, manufactured goods. As long as you can gain visibility into the full supply chain, there’s less ability for them to mask that in false ledgers, in false documentation. There has been some push from especially very large companies to use blockchain technology to prove that they’re producing goods in an ethical manner.
Marie: And this could also provide better transparency to everyday consumers. If blockchain basically shows you everything that has happened to something before it gets to you, you could then look at things like, where did this vegetable that I’m using in my dinner tonight really come from? You’re not just going to get country of origin. You could get where it was grown, who the farmers were that worked on it, who picked it, who packed it, who shipped it, who inspected it, who from the grocery store or put it out for a display. Again, this gets very detailed but is this type of detail that can allow people to really have confidence in the supply chain and really know the whole process. There could be a time in our future whereby purchasing something from the store and maybe scanning a code, we can see the past history of it.
Lexy: Well, that has the potential for a lot of things. I could see that leading towards a value-added economic system. That gets really minute really fast in terms of being able to track that your contribution lead in some attributed way directly to a certain amount of value. Then having that associated back, which be a lot of data. I’d certainly totally dig into that data. But it’s also a lot of information and some consumers may not want that much information.
You talked about vegetables. Thinking of just wanting to label something as organic or non-GMO or other types of certifications that people are trying to see on labels today. If there were that much more information, you get to a point with information overload where you kind of go, “okay, it’s cool if you’re gonna start looking at maybe compensating people for their contribution towards a specific good, but how much of it do I have to know as a consumer? Do I have to really know that this particular person was the one who picked the vegetable? And this particular person was the one who was running the machine that washed it? And then this particular individual was the one?” Think about how many things you put in your grocery basket every time you go to the store. How much of that are you really gonna try to sink into your memory? Great that the computers remember, not necessarily something that, unless something goes wrong, you need.
Think about, for example, a lot of the cases recently of leafy greens having Salmonella or e. coli or some of those types of issues where we’ve seen food recalled. Having the full supply chain logged – having that blockchain technology to be able to quickly and easily validate all the steps that that particular piece of produce has gone through – you can start to find the connections much more readily. So that you can help identify problems and their sources to then be able to get information out to the public about recalls or about potential problems
Marie: And it could be a type of situation where recalls can be more targeted. Instead of just saying “all of the cabbage from California needs to be recalled,” you could say, “we know that it was these farms and we know that these farms had their produce go to these grocery stores” If that blockchain had continued, we know that these people are the ones that actually purchased it so we can call them and say, “hey, we’re issuing a recall.”
The other side of it, and maybe this is one of the ethical aspects to think about, is could there be too much information? Because blockchain does need to store all this. How minute do you get with this? Or what are the pieces of information that really make the most difference to track and that you do want to keep within the blockchain? So those are decisions that people make along the way.
Lexy: We’ve seen a lot of growth in the ability to store information. That said, the more information we create, the more we need to store it and eventually we will start to hit capacities. We’re finding new and interesting ways to store data, but there are limits. Some blockchains need to be more distributed than others. They need to have more validation.
One of the benefits that cryptocurrencies have enjoyed is the fact that, because there is value created by them, people are willing to contribute storage capacity and compute power. There’s a lot of compute power required to calculate the equations that are going on to validate information. They volunteered this on the chance that they will receive some of the financial benefit of receiving one of these cryptocurrency coins.
There may be some opportunity for business to cooperate with government. I could envision something like the FDA having a copy and, for anyone who’s in the food or pharmaceutical industries, anything that is covered under the FDA’s purview, that they would have to send their part of their ledger to the FDA. Part of the ledger would live there, thereby making it, at least to some degree, not owned by them. It would be more available, potentially, for the public, or at least for the government. That way, if the FDA has to get involved, they can track that. There are definitely economic and technological considerations in this.
The other thing I will say is we’ve put on our rose-colored glasses here. However, it’s not perfect technology. Especially, recently, we’ve seen in the cryptocurrency markets, people trying to hack the ledger and trying to manipulate prices of cryptocurrencies. The things that we originally were promised by blockchain technology – that it’s unhackable, that it’s protected – it just takes a really enthusiastic hacker, right? Anticipate your adversaries because they’re going to come for that value. We’ve absolutely seen motivated individuals try to wipe out people’s cryptocurrency accounts or adjust the value of crypto coins artificially by trading in certain ways or injecting information into the ledger. Things like that. So it is possible to tamper with these things. The more we see the value in crypto and the more we see the value in blockchain as a technology, the more we have to invest in that same type of arms race of protect versus hack. Protect. Hack. This constant battle back and forth to try to maintain control and maintain authenticity.
Marie: So in terms of blockchain, it’s definitely a technology that has some promise in the future. And I think, Lexy, what you just pointed out is very valid to reemphasize in terms of it not being a perfect technology. It’s still the type of technology where you have to anticipate adversaries and you have to think about the choices that you’re going to make. It can’t feasibly track everything for all the different ways that people potentially want to be able to apply it in the future. And anytime that you are making decisions about what to include or not to include, we’ve talked about how that is also an ethical decision. So those are things that are going to come into play with these types of applications of blockchain in the future.
Again, we hope that we’ve painted at least some rosier options in terms of how blockchain could be applied in the future. We know that we cover some pretty heavy topics in the podcast and we wanted to cover something that shows some of the data science work that is potentially going to bring some positives in the future.
Lexy: Absolutely. And while no technology is perfect, I think we can all strive to do better things with the technology that we have and create.
Lexy: Thanks so much for joining us for the data science ethics podcast and we’ll see you next time.
Marie: Thanks so much.
Lexy: We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode of the Data Science Ethics podcast. If you have, please like and subscribe via your favorite podcast App.