Tweetstorms

Edit: two hours after publishing this, Twitter announced tweetstorm functionality (‘Threads’). Good to see they’re reading the blog… ūüėČ

I wasn’t a fan of Twitter’s recent decision to raise the limits in tweets to 280 characters from the tried and trusted 140. And a cursory review of the various¬† online comments shows that I was far from alone. But today I’m happy to say I was wrong – but not in the way I was expecting

Sure, it’s easier to write tweets these days with the extra room, particularly if you’re quoting from an article in the tweet. That’s not always a good thing. But I think one of the real benefits is actually being seen in some of the more reasoned, multi-part tweets that we’re seeing these days.

Tweetstorms have always split opinions. I remember being asked to take part by CNN in a debate on the future of Bitcoin a few years back and rubbing someone up the wrong way with my multiple answers (“Does he not know how to use Twitter?”). Trouble was, I just had too much to say on the topic. Nothing changed there I guess…

Still, that’s about the only time I’ve done it. The first time I ever heard of them as a defined concept I think was (like many things) back on Fred Wilson’s blog. But the interesting thing to me is that, somewhat counterintuitively, the value of the best tweetstorms to me has increased in line with the available characters.

Now, Twitter is hugely subjective. Maybe I’m just following folk who are good at it (or good at sharing those who are). But it feels like an unexpected step forwards in the value of Twitter for me.

And on that basis, here’s my favourite of the year so far. There’s so much wisdom in this one collection of tweets that I don’t know where to start – other than to say: read it. For non-Twitter users, click on the tweet below to read all 25 connected parts.

There are many more but other notable mentions include¬†Marc Andreessen (pre-280, who actually coined the phrase ‘tweetstorm’) and Taylor Pearson.

I’m intrigued to see that Twitter is actively looking into how to make these kind of tweetstorms far easier. If it helps unique and/or eloquent thinkers to easily share information in a way that rewards quality, I for one will be in favour.

A Trumpless Twitter (and a Twitterless Trump)

A few days ago, the US President’s Twitter account was suddenly deleted. And I can’t have been the only one who found it amusing.

The first thought that struck me was that the tech titan had suddenly grown some cojones. Finally deciding that enough was enough, the company had taken the ultimate stance, showing strong moral leadership in respect of an account that many view as broadcasting a range of offensive and confusing (covfefe anyone?) content. This would qualify as a strident political statement by the tech sector, no doubt of that, and one to dwarf the great SOPA/PIPA protests of 2012.

“Good on ’em”, I thought. And I doubt I was alone.

But before I’d even heard the echo of my chuckle bouncing back off the opposite wall, I realised how unlikely it was that a major US tech company had actually decided to arbitrarily delete the official account of its own President. There might be well-known¬†tensions between the tech industry and the state-sponsored powers of surveillance.¬†But to see Twitter actively remove the chosen mouthpiece of its own President really would be an unbelievable story – even during the onslaught of unbelievable political stories that we’ve seen from across the pond in recent months.

Of course, as we now know, the reality of the situation is that this was nothing¬†more than a failure of company procedure, as opposed to the opening shots of revolution. It turned out that a departing Twitter employee had been unable to resist that big flashing red button and took that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a story to share in pubs for a lifetime, deleting Trump’s account on the way out of the building. Indeed, the reports of the incident took more time to write up in the press than the incident itself. It took Twitter all of 11 minutes to restore the account and put it back online.

But the point here is not the fact that the account went offline. Believe it or not, I do have more interesting exciting things to do than to spend my time commenting on the failings of internal corporate procedures. No, the reason that I found this interesting is simple: I realised that in my initial reaction, I was being two-faced about the whole thing. And, more worryingly perhaps, if I’d been more active on Twitter myself at that time, it’s that initial – and wrong – reaction that I would have shared with the world.

Let me explain. I’m a believer in the principles of decentralisation where technology makes this both safe and possible. I also believe that we’re currently in the midst of a mostly silent (and technical) fight to ensure that we as individuals don’t lose our human rights to freedom of expression online in modern society. I think as individuals, we’re sleepwalking together into a ever tightening web where our views, data and identities are increasingly owned by other organisations (for good or evil, it matters little) and that unless we actively work to find a better way, the chance to find a better way forward will soon be gone.

The web was invented as an open platform to enable greater collaboration between individuals regardless of national boundaries. But in the internet that we all use today, we’ve moved far away from that ideal. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web itself, for whom this has become a lifelong campaign.

It’s precisely because of these reasons that I support movements such as the SAFE Network and I’m fascinated by attempts to create decentralised versions of identity (see uPort and Civic) and social media/content platforms (see Steemit and DECENT).

So how come in this case my gut instinct was to enjoy this story when it cuts across so many of my beliefs? After reading Daniel Kahneman’s classic ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ earlier this year, one of the explanations might simply be the fact that when you revisit the decisions that you make, it’s often the case that your first, automatic reaction is rarely correct. I’ve been pondering how I took the story here as a result because to me at least, it shows the level of bias – unconscious, unintentional – that can exist. And when you end up finding yourself supporting something, no matter how briefly, that directly contradicts an area that you thought of as non-negotiable, it’s a good a time as any to take note and challenge yourself.

As you move through life, I increasingly think that one of the most important (and underrated) skills to learn is how to avoid becoming fixed in your beliefs and approaches. Whether they’re right or not often depends on the context – but in that case, why not try changing your context? Read a book. Listen to a talk. Meet up with people whose opinions you disagree with. When I suggest changing your context, I’m not saying that you should just give up and change your opinion. After all, it can be just as hard to genuinely connect with someone who holds no opinions as it can be to like someone who refuses to accept feedback about his own (looking at you POTUS). But don’t stop checking whether the context you have today changes the opinions that you formed yesterday. Many people think that it’s a weakness to change your mind. Yet it’s often a strength.

Bias. We all have it. But to my mind, rigidity of thinking and inflexibility must surely be the much greater crime.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

    (Winston Churchill. Or John Maynard Keynes. Or someone else entirely.)

Speaking of which, in the aftermath of The Great SegWit 2X-Hardfork-That-Never-Was Battle of 2017, I think it’s important that we all remember that within the Bitcoin community in particular. Dogmatic opinions – both ways – generally help no one.

 

The Naivety of Expertise

We all have them. Those books that just sit on your bookshelf, unbroken spines catching your eye from across the room. Berating you, each one a silent¬†personal challenge – a demand that you¬†prove that no, you weren’t so naive enough as to believe that by simply buying a book¬†you’d also somehow be purchasing the time required¬†to read it.

For me, one of those books was ‘The Black Swan‘ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like many, I picked it up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. And it’s only taken about 9 years for me to determinedly¬†take¬†it down from its shelf for the purpose for which it was intended.

As is often the case, once you’ve committed to read something, by the time you actually get between the covers, you remember why you bought it in the first place. It would be wrong to claim that there aren’t disappointments on occasion – and life’s too short for bad books of any genre – but not this time. I was immediately sucked in by Taleb’s original (and surprisingly witty) style.

I’ve read many books that hurt my brain. It’s not hard after all. And this one definitely falls into this category – in places. But stick in – the payoff is huge.

For me, there’s a few things that I still find myself mulling over¬†the day after finishing it:-

Narrative Fallacy

Humans have a weakness (stop the press…). We’re¬†unable to see data and accept it for what it is without rushing to create¬†an explanation. Why? Because stories help us to remember and it’s always possible to build a narrative when looking back. However all stories are inevitably simplified – very much a case of inserting¬†a fiction after the fact. As a result, after major events, we humans are great at agreeing that¬†we now understand things – when really, we still have no clue and no ability were we to face a similar situation in the future.

Predictions and Experts

For proof, take a look at predictions made by those that we pay (in terms of salary, time or attention) to be experts. In many areas (say politics or economics, to name a couple), the reality is that these predictions are often totally wrong. Indeed, the evidence shows that experts often get no better results than the rest of us.

The Grateful Turkey

Say you run a farm in which you breed turkeys. You keep them for 99 days and ship them to the butcher¬†on the 100th day. If you asked any of those turkeys how they felt their¬†lives were going on Day 99 and also to predict the future, I suspect you’d get pretty positive feedback (in turkey-speak of course). Nice food, well-looked after, big social circle…

But then ask the last one standing the following day.¬†He’d¬†be (understandably) shocked at the day’s events (no doubt pyschologically scarred also). After a great life, the slaughter came from nowhere, there was no advance warning.

A true Black Swan event. An unknown unknown (for turkeys).

To grossly oversimplify his point: Taleb points out that the more we continue to predict the future from a position in society of being on the 99th day (our standard method of prediction, through reliance which is what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, by a lazy reliance on such models as the standard Gaussian (Bell) Curve, the more we’re going to have problems.

Speaking Without The Full Knowledge

The final thought that struck me was that I’ve been using the term ‘Black Swan’ to describe an unforseen significant event for a number of years now. Yet it took me until this week to actually read the book. So at what point did the terminology actually cross that tipping point and make it into the popular lexicon?

And more importantly, how many other concepts and points of view are inadequately¬†wielded by others with less than complete knowledge of what it is that they’re talking about across many different fields of society?

Thankfully, plenty of people have written plenty of words about Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Indeed, amazingly Mark Suster released a blog post (‘Don’t Be Fooled By Your Own Expertise‘) on this ‘old’ book yesterday on the day that I finished reading it.

A recent article¬†told of the books that so many of us have claimed to have read but never ploughed through. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think I’d be too bothered if you’d claimed to have read ‘War & Peace’ because you felt it made you sound erudite. Whatever. But¬†as the General Election approaches and once again the country considers appointing representatives, some of whom you would hope to be ‘experts’, perhaps our standards need to be higher.

Or expectations lower.

Because this is a narrative in which we accept individuals expounding on concepts that they may have never fully (or partially) digested. And in a modern world, where knowledge is becoming increasingly specialised and the possibility of Black Swans is increasing, not reducing, that has to give us all some food for thought.

Turkey sandwich anyone?

 

 

Picking On Small Birds

When I was young, I thought that being ostracised was when you picked on someone because they were small (like a bird, see?). But it was only today that I came across the true origin of the word.

Back in the fifth century BC, Athenian democracy had a concept of Ostracism¬†where the Greek citizenry could banish for 10 years a person that they didn’t like from society. Once a year, they’d have the option to do so by writing a name on a broken piece of pottery (ostracon, plural ostraka). Any individual who polled more than 6,000 votes was deemed the ‚Äėwinner‚Äô and given 10 days to leave the city.

Seems pretty harsh by today‚Äôs standards – although preferable to the death sentences that weren’t uncommon back in those days. It doesn’t appear to have been invoked too frequently either (the last recorded incident involved the superbly-named Hyperbolus). Interestingly, it didn’t actually result in a loss of status or confiscation of assets for the individual either. They could return after a decade and pick up where they left off (in theory at least).

Which made me think: what if we still did this today? For politicians (albeit with a goalpost set higher than 6,000 votes I suspect….)? Work colleagues? Even extended family members?

It‚Äôs often said that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you found yourself writing the name of a member of your inner sanctum on that piece of pottery, what impact would that have on your life?

How would you alter your daily behaviour if you knew these rules were in play? Would you (or could you) consistently modify the hundreds of daily interactions to minimise your chances of being the centre of attention on that single day each year?

I suspect our collective egos permit few of us think that we’d be the ones chosen. But then again most of us tend to ascribe success to our own abilities and efforts but ascribe failure to external factors (the¬†self-serving bias).

Perhaps one impact might be to normalise some of the extremes of negative, emotional behaviour within society. I doubt it though. Most of us would find it hard to associate this distant result with their daily actions. I suspect actions would alter most markedly with the proximity of the vote.

Interestingly, this isn’t just some random ancient story from a past civilisation¬†either. Ostracism remains alive and well in today’s society as we know. The effects might have changed but social psychologist Kipling Williams¬†who specialises in the subject¬†has pointed out that it finds its¬†modern-day equivalent when we refuse to communicate with somebody – the so-called cyber-ostracism¬†of ignoring emails.

Williams has done some interesting work in the area, including the Cyberball experiment. It’s an open-source ball toss game which involves three players who choose to throw a virtual ball randomly¬†amongst each other on a screen. After a couple of minutes, two of the players throw it only to each other, excluding the third (the human). It’s shown that¬†he or she then¬†experiences feelings of rejection, anger and sadness –¬†all despite knowing it’s a computer that’s ‘picking on them’.

So here’s a thought experiment: it’s real and voting starts tomorrow. What are you going to do?

Look No Hands! 

One story that caught my eye today was the Tesla that managed to predict a car crash ahead and react before a human could have responded. 

The Autopilot technology, rolled out overnight to all Tesla cars by way of an software update, includes a radar processing capability – in effect, the ability for your car to see ahead of the car directly in front of you. 

There have been a few stories about the value of this newfound driving superpower kicking around but today’s story comes with a video of the incident which demonstrates precisely how powerful this technology could be in helping to avoid accidents


I drove a fair distance today, the last hour or so of which was in the worst fog I’ve seen for many years. Whilst nothing’s going to be perfect,  I would 100% have preferred to have been driving a Tesla (obviously…). But what’s really interesting here is the potential for so-called ‘fleet learning‘ – each car uploading data from its daily experiences to a central database, with this improved collective knowledge then being recycled for ongoing use by the same vehicles. 

A Safety Skynet anyone? 

The Death of Celebrity

As the year wraps up, there must be some news websites seriously considering whether to introduce new ‘Obituary’ sections alongside their usual News, Sport and Entertainment pages. After all, nothing drives click-throughs like a reminder that even the famous remain subject to the same rules as the rest of us and its been a busy year.

Yet even as the number of fake reports increase (although nothing that can top the original ‘Paul Is Dead‘ story from the heyday of The Beatles), is it the case that more of our celebrities are shuffling off this mortal coil than ever before? Perhaps some kind of Faustian pact is now a compulsory precursor to fame, a contract that must be signed in secret before your image, name or content may be shared online? Or is this just another case of the wisdom of the crowd, collectively latching onto another story, this time about the so-called ‘Curse of 2016’?

With no hard evidence either way, here’s my thoughts. We’re only now starting to see the effects of an increasingly heavily networked and interconnected world play out. Think of the number of minor celebrities we have today. The fifteen minutes of fame both bestowed upon and grasped at by so many leaves a trail of famous names, regardless of whether such fame is well-deserved or the inevitable byproduct of some mostly forgotten minor notoriety.

I can’t see the current situation changing. Indeed, as we each become aware of more people through a mesh of our networks covering locale, music, video, politics, profession and, in more general terms, TV, the chances of the number of ‘famous deaths’ doing anything other than increasing year on year must be tiny.

So 2016? It’s not good, it’s not bad.

It just is.

As an aside, it used to be the case that reading the Obituaries section of olde worlde newspapers used to be as valid a destination for learning as the reports of current affairs that monopolised the first few pages. With the passage of time, at least some of the bias can be erased and actions placed into context. If you want a place to learn about those who’ve done something special with the time they were given, you could do far worse than listen to the excellent ¬†‘Last Word‘ podcast.

Alas as the years pass, I suspect that increasing numbers of subjects for inclusion won’t translate into an equivalent increase in lives worth reporting. Our am I too cynical?

Where Do We Go From Here?

The recent win by Google’s AlphaGo computer program in a 5-game Go tournament against the world’s top player for over a decade, Lee Sedol made headlines around the world.

And once you look¬†past some of the more superficial tabloid predictions of imminent robot enslavement, you’ll find¬†a number of intelligent and fascinating accounts¬†detailing exactly why the event represents something of a technology landmark.

It‚Äôs worth digging into Google’s blog post¬†for the background. Because¬†this was not just another case of a computer learning how to win a board game. Nor was it a resumption of¬†competition between man and machine following our previous defeats¬†in chess (against Kasparov)¬†and in¬†Jeopardy (by Watson).

Complex Choices

Instead, the choice of game here is significant. Go is an ancient game with more possible legal board positions than there are¬†number of atoms in the universe. In fact, we’ve only managed to calculate¬†that number in 2016 after some 2,500 years. Why is this important? Because it means that¬†a computer cannot possibly find the best options simply by brute-force guessing combinations. Building a system to index all possible moves in the game and then rely on the¬†computer to look up the best¬†move each time is simply not possible.

Instead, a successful Go player needs to use¬†something that we can best understand as intuition. A human has to be¬†able to act on no more than a feeling that one move is better than another – something that it was generally accepted that this was something that computers couldn’t do.

Turns out general opinion was wrong.

Self-Taught

By ‚Äėsimply‚Äô learning 30 million possible moves played by human experts, the program showed that it could predict which move a human¬†would make 57%¬†of the time. But this would only go so far. To win, the AlphaGo algorithm needed to learn new strategies – by itself.

And it’s here that the outcome was stunning. During the games (live streamed online to massive audiences), the computer made certain moves that made no sense to Go experts. And yet (for the most part) they worked. As one commentator mentioned, this was, at some level, an alien intelligence learning to play the game by itself. And as another put it:

“..as I watched the game unfold and the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I felt physically unwell.”

When it comes to AI, it’s particularly important to reign in the hyperbole. Playing Go in a way that’s unrecognisable to humans at times is hardly Skynet. But it‚Äôs fascinating to think that the program reached¬†a¬†level of expertise that surpassed the best¬†human player in a way that no one really fully understands. You can’t point to where it’s better because the program teaches itself to improve incrementally as a consequence of billions of tiny adjustments made automatically.

Neural Networks: Patience Pays Off

The success of computer over man came from¬†a combination of different, but complementary, forms of AI – not least of which were Neural Networks.¬†After reading a little about the godfather of Deep Learning,¬†Geoff Hinton, and listening to an another excellent podcast from Andressen Horowitz, it turns out that the approach of using Neural Networks (at the heart of AlphaGo) was¬†an A.I. method that was ridiculed as a failure for a number of years by fellow scientists, particularly in the 1980’s.

It¬†Turns out that the concept was¬†just been too far ahead of its time. As Chris Dixon points out in ‘What’s Next In Computing?‘, every¬†significant new technology¬†has a¬†gestation period. But that often doesn‚Äôt sit easy when the hype cycle is pointing towards success being just around the corner. And as the¬†bubble bursts,¬†the¬†impact of the delays on the progress of innovation are usually¬†negative.

Nowhere has that been seen so clearly as within the field of Artificial Intelligence. Indeed, the promise has exceeded the reality so often that it has its own phrase in the industry РAI Winters Рwhere both funding and interest fall off a cliff. Turns out that some complex things are, well, complex (as well as highly dependent on other pieces of the ecosystem to fall into place). So in the UK, the Lighthill Report in 1974 criticised the utter failure of AI to achieve its grandiose objectives, leading to university funding being slashed and restricting work to a few key centres (including my home city, Edinburgh).

Expert Systems: Data Triumphs

Thankfully, the work¬†did¬†continue with a few believers such as Hinton¬†however. And whilst the evolution of AI research and progress is far outside this blog post,¬†it’s¬†interesting to see how things evolved. At one stage,¬†Expert Systems were seen as the future¬†(check out this talk by Richard Susskind¬†for how this applied in the context of legal systems).

To simplify, this is a method by which you find a highly knowledgeable human in a specific field, ask them as many questions as possible, compile the answers into a decision tree and then hope that the computer is able to generate a similar result to that expert when you ask it a question. Only problem is that it turns out that this doesn’t really work too well in practice.

But thankfully, those other missing pieces of the ecosystem are now falling into place. With massive computation, bandwith and memory available at extremely low cost these days, those barriers have now fallen. Which has led to the evolution of Neural Networks from a theoretical, heavily criticised approach into something altogether far more respected and valuable.

Welcome to self-learning algorithms – algorithms that (in this case) teach themselves how to play Go better – but without asking a Go expert.

Neural Networks aren’t new in any way. They started as a mathematical theory of the brain but didn’t make much progress for 40 years. But with the barriers gone, we‚Äôre now seeing neural networks being piled on top of each other. And AI is improving significantly not¬†because the¬†algorithms themselves are getting better. It’s improving because¬†we‚Äôre now able to push increasing volumes of data into models which can in turn use this data to build out a better model of what the answer should be.

Learning By Intuition & Iteration

Instead of trying to capture and codify all existing knowledge, deep learning techniques are using data to¬†create¬†better results. It’s an approach that is¬†scary to some people because it’s inherently un-debuggable. If you get the wrong result, you can’t simply check out each entry¬†in a decision tree and fix the one that’s wrong.

But it’s got legs, particularly in the development of¬†self-driving cars. So we¬†don‚Äôt need to paint roads with special paint and maintain a huge global database of all roads and cars. Instead self-driving cars are going to use a collection of these machine learning techniques and algorithms in order to make the best guesses about how to drive each and every day.

Learn, iterate and improve. Scary? It shouldn‚Äôt be – because that’s exactly what we do as humans.

It’s a huge and fascinating field but the AlphaGo victory feels like an important bridge has been crossed, an inflection point when popular awareness coincided with a genuine step forward in the possibilities that the technology affords.

And of course, Google’s ultimate goal has¬†never been to simply be better at winning games. Unless you define a game as being a challenge that is extremely difficult to beat. If so, then bring on the games –¬†disease analysis, climate change modelling, the list is endless. When it comes to these contests, we might not expect them to be streamed live online. But as¬†they increasingly become games that we have no option but to win, I’m pretty certain that the interest will be there.

Opening Up The Banks

It was a FinTech-tastic week in Edinburgh last week as Рhot on the heels of the Bitcoin Meetup with Colu and the FinTech Scotland Conference Рthe Hack/Make The Bank hackathon took place, run by the hugely friendly team at the Open Bank Project. Well over 120 hackers and enthusiasts piled into the RBS Technology Solutions Centre in the New Town to build innovative ideas on top of the Open Bank API.

Open Bank Project Hackathon Visualisation
Hack/Make The Bank Hackathon, Edinburgh (9th to 11th October 2015)

The concept of open bank data is pretty much a no-brainer once you start to think about the implications. Providing free, standardised access to the banks in real time liberates developers, entrepreneurs and Рmost importantly Рconsumers around the world who are otherwise hampered by legacy technology deployed by financial institutions.

The team from TESOBE did a sterling job over the weekend leaving no stone unturned in their quest to create the ideal environment for those burning the midnight oil, providing a selection of massages, whisky and bagpipe accompaniment (!) in addition to the obligatory Red Bull, food and support throughout.

Ismail Chaib introducing the Hackathon
Ismail Chaib (Open Bank Project) introducing the Hackathon Prizes

I was delighted to be asked to act as a mentor at the¬†event. It’s something that I’ve done at a few times at a number of hackathons (in different capacities) and it’s always an honour. I’m always full of admiration for anyone who chooses to¬†come together to work – hard – over a weekend out of choice out of a simple desire to create and build something new and worthwhile.

The final pitches were great.¬†As usual, I’m not going to share the ideas here (it’s not clear yet who wants to go forwards with these). Needless to say I¬†was happy to see the guys from miiCard¬†bring home the prizes for most disruptive (believe it or not, I had no say in the judging!)

All together, big congratulations go to Ismail Chaib, Simon Redfern¬†and the rest of the Open Bank Project team; Kirsten Bennie and the rest of the RBS team who are clearly¬†engaging positively with the upcoming disruption that’s undeniably en route; and last, but not least, all the developers and disruptors who proved that Scotland is now starting to really build on¬†a burgeoning FinTech reputation.

Can’t wait for the next one.

Hackathon Collage

 

Time flies…

So – it’s been a while huh?

My only excuse for the lack of action round these parts in recent months is the same one that‚Äôs recycled by bloggers around the world. Namely life off-blog (believe it’s known as ‘real’ life) got crazy-busy over the summer months.

Can’t share all of the activities on here yet but here’s a quick roundup of some of the cool things (well I think so anyway) that have been taking up some of my time recently:

1. Paul Puey, CEO of my favourite Bitcoin wallet company Airbitz popped across from San Diego to chat at the Scottish Bitcoin Meetup a couple of weeks back, delivering a great talk on keeping Bitcoin decentralised.

Paul Puey (Airbitz CEO)
Paul Puey (Airbitz CEO)

2. We followed that up with the good news from The Royal Dick at Summerhall that it was to be the first bar in Edinburgh to accept bitcoin. And I’m glad to say that the meetup group took it upon itself to, er, thoroughly stress-test the new technology to the fullest. Let’s just say, we ensured that future customers wouldnt be at any risk of having a fractured experience in the future with staff who had no experience of dishing out drinks in return for bitcoin. Happy to report that everything held up beautifully under the strain.

 

360D Conference, Glasgow SECC (September 2015)
360D Conference, Glasgow SECC (September 2015)

3. I gave a talk on Bitcoin at the 360D Conference at the SECC in Glasgow earlier this month. Getting out of a sick bed to deliver it, it unfortunately wasn’t my finest performance but still seemed to provoke quite a bit of conversation afterwards.

4. I helped organise the Blockchain Workshop at this year’s Turing Festival and watched with disproportionate pleasure as 25 or so developers – all but a couple of whom had never had any exposure to blockchain tech beforehand – learn how to mine, send money and create simple smart contracts in little under 6 hours, all under the watchful eye of Konstantin and Ken from Ethereum. A fantastic example of the potential that this technology is providing for everyone.

5. Nine major banks announced they’d agreed¬†to¬†work¬†together under the talented eye of new CTO Richard Gendal Brown at R3CEV¬†in an ongoing investigation around how blockchain technologies can be incorporated into their current businesses. BIG news when you consider where we were 12 – even 6 – months ago. In case you‚Äôre wondering, the banks are: JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, State Street, UBS, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, BBVA, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland.

6. A few weeks ago, I took part¬†in¬†a British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) panel on ‘Can FinTech Make Banking More Human’¬†in Edinburgh, exploring disruption¬†across the sector.

The Ivy, London
The Ivy, London

7. I gave another talk on Bitcoin and the promise of Blockchain technology at The Ivy of all places in London as part of an event put together by the Tayburn Agency and Engine. Thanks to Nadine and the rest of the team for inviting me down. I tell you – for all the furore about this so-called ‘geek money’, it doesn’t half get you into some interesting places ūüėČ

Swiss Embassy, Bitcoin & Blockchain Event
Swiss Embassy, Bitcoin & Blockchain Event

8. I went along to a fascinating event run by the Swiss Embassy in London on, yup, you guessed it (no prizes) the B thing. Fantastic panel (Mike Hearn, Christian Decker, Richard Gendal Brown, Vitalik Buterin,¬†Robleh Ali from the Bank of England and Oliver Bussman of UBS). Held under Chatham House rules (hmm, hate that concept – really, in a world of permanent mobile and social network connection, are we really going to still hang onto the pretension that we can restrict such conversations and attribution spreading?), I can’t really say too much of value about¬†the discussion¬†– other than it was a fantastic event, with loads of old and new faces from the scene in attendance. Interesting to note Switzerland’s drive to become a base for¬†crypto-based businesses in the future as well.

And yeah, there’s been a lot more. But this is turning more into a diary entry now so I’ll wrap it up.

So we might still be no clearer to finding out where this roller coaster will finally stop and what the scenery will look like if it finally does. But to me,¬†the outlook’s never been so positive. As a great man once sung – keep on keeping‚Äô on

London Blockchain Conference 2015

Blockchain Conference London 2015
Blockchain Conference London 2015 – Jon Matonis (ex-Bitcoin Foundation), Marc Warne (Bittylicious), George Hallam (Ethereum) & Alex Kotenko (XBTerminal)

It’s noticeable that there have been far fewer Bitcoin Conferences taking place this year. Speaking from experience, I can understand why. Conference organising brings its own challenges, particularly when you add into the mix the topic of an emerging technology that most people don’t yet understand whose application could disrupt a variety of industries. What area(s) should you focus on when programming a coherent and informative event?

There were no such worries for the London Blockchain Conference¬†on 24th June. It turns out that hosting this in the Barclays Accelerator¬†and simply¬†dropping¬†the ‚ÄėB‚Äô word¬†from¬†the title (that’s ‘Bitcoin’, not ‘blockchain’) was a smart move, evidenced by the huge turn out of representatives from a broad range of financial organisations.

How things have changed over the past few months.

But whilst the terminology might have changed slightly (and to be serious for a minute, it’s only partially up for debate whether this represents an evolution in PR treatment or the concepts themselves), there’s no doubt that traction is definitely building.

A new architecture for financial services

Hardly surprising.¬†Because, as Simon Taylor¬†pointed out in his brief opening, the potential for cryptographic proof equates to ‚Äúan accountant‚Äôs wet dream‚ÄĚ. Now, lofty¬†claims¬†about the power of a¬†blockchain¬†to instantly solve the world’s collective ills (or to “benchpress the earth”, as Simon put it) might not be helpful. But¬†the¬†simple, undeniable truth is that the existing financial system needs a reboot. So what‚Äôs the appropriate architecture to let this building¬†commence¬†in a digital world? Because it‚Äôs pretty clear that the¬†system of the near future is not one that relies on masses of independently-verified, slow and expensive paper-based processes.

Undoubtedly, many in the room that day¬†have been¬†attracted by this¬†shift in focus. The conversation was not, like so many¬†in the past, one about consumer applications. Instead, this discussion sidestepped the question almost in its entirety and looked instead at the application of blockchain solutions at an¬†enterprise level – seeking efficiencies where the industry currently shoulders¬†significant costs and collectively dreams of reducing the settlement time for trades that travel at a¬†snail’s pace today.

Less of a currency focus – but still unmissable

That’s not to say that there was no discussion of Bitcoin as a digital currency however. It was good to hear both Adam (Diacle)¬†and¬†Dan¬†(Innovate Finance)¬†remind everyone that the UK¬†continues to¬†lead¬†the way globally when it comes to building a supportive environment on the basis of a non-interventionist policy, with money being allocated to research into digital currency.¬†Far from being a regulator’s worst nightmare, the blockchain promises a completely¬†different and seemingly vastly improved model for compliance (where the¬†necessary data is verifiably correct and ‘pushed up’ as required as opposed to being extracted painfully by the regulator in a top-down model).

I don’t write about regulation on this blog often (partly to avoid people assuming I’m giving legal advice given my previous career – but mainly because, to be frank, it doesn’t really excite me). But one thing I haven’t really flagged up previously (because it’s obvious to anyone other than perhaps a newcomer to the scene)¬†is a very valid concern that emerging¬†regulation of Bitcoin¬†risks¬†somehow ensnaring those building businesses that rely on blockchain technology to certify the provenance of data (as part of a non-financial transaction – such as Provenance for example which uses Ethereum). We’re fortunate that this hasn’t turned into¬†a major issue (in the UK) at present – but it remains an area to watch closely.

Of course, when it comes to legitimisation, you can’t go much further than demonstrating a government that is actively encouraging bitcoin businesses to relocate with a beneficial tax regime and working with Credits to create a blockchain-based company registry.

Blockchain startup tips Рfrom your target customers

But what about the startup scene? Are the institutions starting to see an evolution and growth in maturity from those who are seeking to sell blockchain-influenced solutions into the financial services market?

Lee Braine of Barclays made a number of good points during the day.¬†It’s¬†time to move on from the early rhetoric of the Bitcoin startup scene. Financial institutions continue to look for solutions to a screed of vast array of problems,¬†relating to everything from SLA‚Äôs to¬†regulatory requirements. It’s clear that blockchain technology provides a new approach. But it‚Äôs been hard for them to engage with many¬†entrepreneurs to date who have approached such problems from the¬†opposite¬†perspective¬†– more along the lines of “we have the solution, we just need to implement it‚ÄĚ.

I liked Lee’s comment that the blockchain is nothing more than a massive WORM (Write-Once Read Many) drive. He also had a couple of valuable pieces of advice for the Bitcoin community:

  1. To sell into financial services enterprises, you have to¬†‘bake in’ the bank‚Äôs non-functional requirements from the¬†start (e.g.¬†strive for security, reliability and low-latency at all stages).
  2. Solving¬†part of a known issue¬†isn’t good enough¬†from a¬†bank‚Äôs perspective. In other enterprise business sectors, a solution¬†often requires a collaboration between third¬†party vendors who collectively solve the problem in its entirety. Perhaps¬†it’s time for startups to think in terms of forging similar alliances in order to¬†bring¬†blockchain-based solutions to the banks.

The message that seems to be coming across loud and clear in these discussions is that banks are (finally) starting to understand the¬†power of blockchain technology. However, their challenge comes in trusting that the legal entity (or group) that¬†possesses¬†the ‘right to write‚Äô to the (private) blockchain is sufficiently robust to provide them with trust that all of the information recorded is legally enforceable and correct (as I outlined¬†previously). But, in general terms, they all seem to be looking for a system that provides¬†a private ledger with designated miners, collective administration and one that focuses on the assets being exchanged, with the details of the technology itself being hidden.

Onwards and upwards

So there¬†was¬†definitely¬†a much-improved level of understanding in general around the technology in comparison to a few events that I‚Äôve been at recently, although we‚Äôre clearly still at the start of the curve. It was impressive to see the newly-launched Everledger¬†burst¬†out of the accelerator and set out their vision for (initially) the use of the blockchain to track diamonds ‚Äúfrom the mine to the mistress‚ÄĚ to prove provenance and slash insurance costs¬†for physical items within the legacy system. And that’s without even mentioning what appeares to be an extremely¬†promising¬†new entrant into the world of private blockchains as a new whitepaper¬†was¬†released by MultiChain, developed by the hugely talented team behind Coin Sciences.

I‚Äôll leave you with a thought from Nathaniel Popper. The New York Times reporter and author of the fascinating history ‚ÄėDigital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying To Reinvent Money‚Äô, pointed out that the Bitcoin ‚Äėmovement‚Äô grew out of a desire to avoid governments and banks. Yet some of the biggest movements in the scene are by both.

I wouldn’t be in any doubt that full integration of blockchain solutions is¬†still going to take a long time to mature. But it’s clear to me that the banks and others have started their engines.

Game on.