Can blockchain, a swiftly evolving technology, be controlled?Vasilis Kostakis, Tallinn University of Technology; Primavera de Filippi, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Wolfgang Drechsler, National University of Singapore
The headlong pace of technological change produces giant leaps forward in knowledge, innovation, new possibilities and, almost inevitably, legal problems. That’s now the case with blockchain, today’s buzziest new tech tool.
Introduced in 2008 as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, a digital currency that is created and held electronically without any central authority, blockchain is a secure digital ledger for any kind of data. It simplifies record keeping and reduces transaction costs.
Its range of applications in commerce, finance and potentially politics continues to widen, and that has triggered a debate around how to regulate the tool.
Because it does not require a centralised authority to verify and validate transactions, blockchain enables people who may not trust each other to interact and coordinate directly.
With blockchain, there is no middleman in peer-to-peer exchanges; instead, users rely on a decentralised network of computers that interact through a cryptographic, secure protocol.
Blockchain has the ability to “codify” transactions by deploying small snippets of code directly onto the blockchain. This code, generally referred to as a “smart contract”, executes automatically when certain conditions are met.
An early example of smart contracts are the corporate-oriented digital rights management (DRM) systems limiting uses of digital files. Having DRM on your ebook may restrict access to copying, editing, and printing content.
With blockchain, smart contracts have become more complex and, arguably, more secure. In theory, they will always be executed exactly as planned, since no one party has the power to alter the code binding a given transaction.
In practice, however, eliminating trusted brokers from a transaction can create some kinks.
One high-profile smart-contract failure happened to the DAO, a decentralised autonomous organisation for venture capital funding.
Launched in April 2016, the DAO quickly raised over US$150 million via crowdfunding. Three weeks later, someone managed to exploit a vulnerability in the DAO’s code, draining approximately US$50 million worth of digital currency from the fund.
The security problem originated not in the blockchain itself but rather from issues with the smart-contract code used to administer the DAO.
Questions arose about the legality of the act, with some people arguing that since the hack was actually permitted by the smart-contract code, it was a perfectly legitimate action. After all, in cyberspace, “code is law”.
The DAO debate raised this key question: should the intention of the code prevail over the wording of the code?
A new legal realm
Blockchain proponents envision a future in which entire companies and governments operate in a distributed and automated fashion.
But smart contracts pose a series of enforceability issues, which are outlined in a recent white paper by the London law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.
How can we resolve disputes arising over a self-executing smart contract? How do we identify what types of contractual terms can be properly translated into code, and which ones should instead be left to natural language? And is there a way combine the two?
It is not yet clear that code can address the necessary levels of complexity to replace legal language. After all, the vagueness inherent in the language of law is a feature, not a bug: it compensates for unforeseeable cases that must be assessed on a case-by-case basis in a court of law.
Traditional contracts acknowledge that no law can index the entire complexity of life as it is, let alone predict its future development. They also precisely define terms that can be enforced by law.
Smart contracts, by contrast, are simply snippets of code both defined and enforced by the code underpinning the blockchain infrastructure. Currently, they do not have any legal recognition. This means that when something goes wrong in a smart contract, parties have no legal recourse.
The DAO’s founders painfully learned this lesson last year.
The creative friction of the law
If blockchain technologies are ever to go mainstream, governments will have to set up new legal frameworks to accommodate such complexities.
Positive law prescribes behaviour and penalises non-compliance. It can encapsulate the normative ideal that a respective government seeks to achieve, demonstrate an ethical vision for society or reify the power structure of the current regime.
Technological developments, on the other hand, are often oriented toward profit and change.
There’s an inherent tension here. Laws may delay the development of technology and hence hurt the competitive advantage of an entrepreneur or even a state.
Take the case of nanotechnology regulation in the European Union versus in the United States. European law so mitigates risks that it may end up limiting the technology’s potential, losing its competitive edge against the US.
That’s another fact about the law: slow and reactive, it can be a gross annoyance.
But ever since technological advances began speeding along on an exponential curve last century, the law has played a critical role in helping societies maintain certain previously negotiated standards for cohabitation.
Our legal system may sometimes seem antiquated in today’s fast-moving world. But before changing our laws to accommodate new technologies that may (re)define our lives, it is important to have room for debate and time for social struggles to take place.
The law serves this function of creative friction. It can restore human agency against fierce technological development.
Given all the excitement over blockchain technologies, it is probable that interested parties will soon enough seek legal recognition and state-sanctioned enforceability of smart contracts.
These emerging technologies are still too new to have been subjected to a sufficiently thorough analysis of their social, economic and political implications. More time is also needed to assess how blockchain could be deployed in a socially beneficial way.
Blockchain technology seems poised to constitute an important component of tomorrow’s society. The legal system – slow-paced as it is – might be just what we need at this juncture to ensure that this new tool is deployed in a way consistent with established principles and values, with the common good at its core.
Vasilis Kostakis, Senior Researcher of Technology Governance, Tallinn University of Technology; Primavera de Filippi, Permanent Researcher, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Wolfgang Drechsler, Visiting professor, National University of Singapore
An industrialized global food supply chain threatens human health – here's how to improve itRobyn Metcalfe, University of Texas at Austin
In an outbreak that has now run for more than 28 months, at least 279 people across 41 states have fallen ill with multidrug-resistant Salmonella infections linked to raw turkey products. Federal investigators are still trying to determine the cause. In response to food company recalls, more than 150 tons of raw turkey products have flowed back through the supply chain as waste.
In an age when companies envision drone pizza delivery and hamburgers prepared by robots, why is it so hard to locate the source of food-borne diseases like this one?
As I show in my new book, “Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating,” the challenge of tracing food-borne illnesses in the United States demonstrates that our high-tech food system is broken in fundamental ways. It also reveals a lag between announcements of new, cool tech advances and applying them to solve real problems. In the meantime people get sick, some die and food piles up in landfills.
Assembling food from far-flung sources
Unsafe food sickens about 600 million people every year – nearly 10% of the world’s population. Susceptibility to food-borne disease is rising as populations age. In addition, people are taking more medications, which often cause negative interactions with chemicals in highly processed foods. These interactions contribute to food-related illnesses.
And the costs of food-borne illnesses are significant – over US$15.6 billion yearly in the United States. Some of the recent increase is due to better tracking of food in the supply chain, which has improved tracing of outbreaks that might have gone unreported in the past.
But it’s one thing to detect outbreaks and another to prevent them. Globalization of the food supply chain makes this task more challenging. Ingredients come together from remote parts of the world to make pizza sauce. A simple hamburger patty from McDonald’s contains meat from 100 cows. Some 85% of the seafood Americans eat is imported, mostly from countries with lax food handling practices.
Improving the global food system in ways that address food safety offers enormous payoffs, but will require compromises. In response to consumers’ insatiable desire for more personalized, individualized food products, snack companies produce popcorn in dozens of flavors, and bakeries make cupcakes with multiple types of nuts and cookies with and without gluten.
Tracking, reporting and recalling contaminated food needs to occur in real time and become more precise, and even predictive, based on a food producer’s track record. But the proliferation of food products makes efforts to track a contaminated nut back through the supply chain ever more challenging.
Siri, find my lunch
Already, food suppliers are using new digital tools to optimize the journey foods take from source to plate. Companies are embedding packaging with smart sensors that will measure how long individual shipments have been in transit, reducing the need for plastic packaging.
For example, as a shipping container of ham hocks moves from Liverpool to New York, a small sensor can send real-time internal temperature measurements to the buyer, documenting that the product has been kept cold throughout transit in conformance with established food safety requirements. GPS tags can track turkeys on poultry farms to monitor where they wander before entering the food supply chain.
Paradoxically, however, making the food system more transparent may make it more vulnerable to attacks. Food terrorism – deliberately contaminating food as it travels through the supply chain – could increase as bad actors locate sites where they can trigger food-borne disease outbreaks. On the other hand, new digital tools that can test for contamination are entering the market and will make it easier to identify such breaches.
Blockchain for mangoes
However, sharing data as food travels from farm to plate cuts against ingrained practices in the food industry. Many food processors and logistics companies guard their practices in much the same way that tech companies protect intellectual property.
For example, getting turkeys to market faster than the competition may give a poultry company its competitive edge. Moreover, I have seen firsthand that many food companies still maintain records on slips of paper, handwritten and kept on clipboards, reflecting how slow technological change can be.
Partnerships between companies will help to modernize the system. For example, IBM and Walmart are utilizing IBM’s blockchain system to track food through the delivery process, starting with mangoes. Origintrail, a supply chain management company, is working with sensor designer TagitSmart to track the movement of wine in southern Europe from vineyard to point of sale as a way of preventing adulteration or counterfeiting.
But making food more traceable will take time. Large-scale food manufacturers will need incentives to step out from behind the curtain. In my view, however, the goal should be to find and address supply chain breakdowns, like the current turkey meat crisis, in days, not years.
Skills like 'crap detection' can help kids meet cybersecurity challenges head onMatthew Riddle, University of Melbourne
How well are we preparing the typical primary school kid for life when they graduate in 2032?
Current attitudes to education around cybersecurity and online safety skew towards caution at all costs. We often focus on schools’ duty of care rather than fostering skills and frameworks of digital ethics which empower students.
There is a danger we are letting kids down with a fear-driven mentality instead of engaging their challenges head on. Both parents and teachers can help kids in this capacity: let’s take a look at how (tips below).
Fear can be a barrier
We educational technologists often have cybersecurity discussions with students, parents and teachers with digital fluency levels ranging from expert to little-to-no knowledge.
As parents and teachers we can understandably be fearful of the role of technology in kids’ lives, however this can sometimes be a barrier to student learning.
Around six years ago, Wooranna Park Primary School in Victoria, Australia introduced new technologies that had an immediate positive influence on student outcomes. Yet some drew negative feedback from parents, due mainly to misconceptions and fear of the unknown.
Communication is vital
Sandbox video game Minecraft is a powerful tool for collaborative learning. It provides an infinite 3D space where students collaboratively learn just about anything you can think of: from numeracy and literacy, to 3D printing, coding, science, financial literacy and art.
Many schools use Minecraft now. Yet it was met with a lot of trepidation from parents when first introduced as a learning tool at the school. One parent had specific fears about Minecraft (“isn’t it about murdering babies or something?”), taking these directly to the principal, who took the time to share the benefits and provide detailed information. This particular parent now plays Minecraft with their children.
Likewise when YouTube was first allowed within the school, some parents and even staff were worried about it. However as a video sharing service where people can watch, like, share, comment and upload videos, it is now a core technology supporting self-directed learning. Today the school would feel like it was coming to a standstill without it.
Read more: Curious Kids: what makes an echo?
The pedagogic context is the key here — and it wasn’t until learning engagement data was communicated to the school community that overall negative opinion changed to a positive one. Now students aren’t just consuming content from YouTube, they are uploading their own work and sharing it with their parents.
Personal responsibility, healthy conversations
Minecraft and YouTube are examples of Web 2.0 technologies. We are now transitioning into the age of Web 3.0 – the decentralised web, where personal responsibility is paramount.
We’re at the cusp of the widespread adoption of a whole range of disruptive technologies that work less like curated gardens and more like ecosystems. These are based on new core technologies like blockchain and the distributed web (also known as Interplanetary File System, or IPFS).
These approaches effectively eschew the “platform”, and allow users to connect directly with each other to communicate, create and transact. These will benefit students in the long term, but will inevitably draw alarm due to misunderstanding in the short term.
The way we can get ahead of this as a community is by introducing a culture of having healthy conversations at home and in school much more often.
Start them young
It is almost never too early to start teaching kids about cybersecurity.
The kids learn these topics within the context of active inquiry, giving them choices about the software and devices they use in order to empower them as technology-enhanced learners.
A recent study of 1:1 classroom projects by researcher Theresa Ashford found a strongly regulatory culture in education focused on “filtering and monitoring”. This failed to instil a critically important framework of digital ethics, with students quickly finding ways to navigate around barriers.
We can avoid this by not being fearful of technology use by children, but instead helping them navigate through the complexities.
Tips on how to talk to your children about cybersecurity
Terms to search and explore with your child
Security tools to explore with your child
This article was written with significant input from Kieran Nolan, a Melbourne-based educational technologist.