I recently attended a two-day event called After Money, which heralded the end of an 18-month research project of the same name, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council in collaboration with the Royal Bank of Scotland and the New Economics Foundation. It took place on the 20th and 21st of November at the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh and was organised by The Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh.
On the first day I attended the symposium, which aimed to help us understand what impact cryptocurrency and smart contracts may have on the economy, government, and members of society. We heard from a variety of speakers throughout the day that included industry specialists, academics, and politicians. Their talks encouraged us to think about how new forms of banking and programmable money could impact our lives. In addition to talks there were informative and entertaining panel sessions and questions from the audience. Speakers included Sarah Meiklejohn (UCL), Gavin Littlejohn (Money Dashboard / Fintech Scotland), Dave Shaw (Tesco Bank), Philip Godsiff (University of Surrey), Alexandre Polvora (European Commission), Doreen Grove (Scottish Government), Pip Thornton (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Dominic Smith.
The talks were clearly aimed at newbies, but this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism by the organisers because most of the attendees I spoke to during the networking breaks were there only to gain a general understanding of how crypto and blockchain worked. Some of the most pressing issues raised during the panel discussions included the need for social inclusion; specifically the widening gap between tech- and non-tech literate citizens. Also the role of government going forward, and the potential impact of technological disruption on the banking industry.
Anonymity = Anarchy?
One issue that really grabbed my attention, raised by blockchain expert Dug Campbell, related to online identity. He explained that it remains a major challenge that has yet to be resolved. Pro-privacy advocates who like the idea of a libertarian utopia believe it is essential that identity shouldn’t be linked to blockchain transactions. Others believe anonymity will lead to anarchy because it will prevent governments from being able to collect taxes, enforce regulations, and protect citizens from crime and terrorism. Today government agencies can link transactions with identity at the point at which cryptocurrency is converted into fiat. However this won’t be possible with the introduction of zk-SNARK (zero-knowledge Succinct Non-interactive Arguments of Knowledge) as they conceal all data relating to blockchain transactions and identity.
The symposium ended with a drinks reception, the launch of a book called Artists Rethinking the Blockchain, and the final panel session of the day chaired by Mark Daniels (New Media Scotland). Panellists included Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield), Nathan Jones, and Sam Skinner (Torque).
The second day consisted of two After Money workshops. The morning one was about understanding and designing distributed autonomous organisations, and the afternoon one was about virtual currency. Both workshops were run by Chris Speed, a Professor of Design Informatics at Edinburgh University.
The morning session started with us being split into teams. We were given examples of different types of organisations, and asked to plot them on an axis based on their level of decentralisation and autonomy. Examples included Good data (a charitable web browser plugin), Terrao (a self regulated forest), Decentraland (a virtual land registrar), Bitnation (a new form of governance), Provenance (verified ethically sourced goods), BitBarista (a bitcoin coffee machine), KASH cups (smart coffee cups), Democrachain (community energy app), and FairCoin (equality cryptocurrency).
GeoCoin Meets Google Maps
In the afternoon Professor Speed asked us all to visit a website on our smartphones that had been developed by the Design Informatics team. The aim of this exercise was to encourage us to explore how value could be exchanged within the context of a ‘smart city’. Using the Ethereum blockchain platform and our phones’ GPS, the app enabled us to view icons that represented caches of a virtual currency called GeoCoin that were overlayed on Google Maps. It reminded me of the location-based augmented reality game, Pokémon Go. We were asked to go outside and earn as many GeoCoins as possible by walking through the streets of Edinburgh. Unbeknown to us, if we entered certain designated areas our phone’s GPS coordinates would instruct an Ethereum smart contract to deduct coins from our wallets! Needless to say, I didn’t win the competition. It was, however, a really fun way to learn how smart contracts and cryptocurrency could be used by city planners to influence human behaviour.
Opt In Surveillance
On my way home I reflected on how this technology could potentially be used by governments to influence my behaviour. Perhaps I will automatically gain some bitcoin if I decide to walk instead of drive, or automatically be compensated when my bus or train is delayed or cancelled. I then thought to myself that it could also potentially be used by law enforcement to automatically identify criminals via facial recognition and, using algorithms to process verdicts autonomously based on all available evidence, it could act as judge and jury. The entire British judicial system would be dramatically streamlined, saving taxpayers millions in legal fees alone! Technically this could be implemented in only a few years, and wouldn’t be a giant leap as many aspects of our lives are already ruled by algorithms. We also don’t seem to care about the fact that almost everything we do today is being monitored and tracked by government via our smartphones, so what’s not to like?
Hmm perhaps zk-SNARKs aren’t such a bad idea, after all.