“How much time does each of us spend thinking deeply about the difference rapid technological change will make to lives on the ground?”, asked KK Han, one of the founders of EcoHub, at our inaugural Asia-Pacific Futures Salon at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. You know a question is both complex and urgent when people press pause on the discussion to call for a good think.
Our question was the impact of blockchain for sustainability. It’s a technology often lauded for opening up new possibilities for equality. How? Singapore is a place where the ink stamp is crucial to official documentation. Blockchain replaces the single seal (a technology Napolean used, as Jan-Arie Bijloos of the blockchain-based corporate governance service Otonomos reminded us) with a collective, digital, time-specific record. It makes it possible to log knowledge as a network, without the need for a central authority’s stamp, and in doing so can change both the foundation and the process for decision-making. This could be a huge win for equality.
On the other hand, robotics entrepreneur Pulkit Jaiswal demonstrated to us (throwing pencils on the floor to represent a swarm of connected drones), it could also be a huge win for artificial intelligence systems. If AI systems, such as surveillance drones, can collectively verify and log knowledge, and make decisions based on their observations - this could change the role of people in human society altogether. Forum’s Futures Salons are an opportunity for professionals and pioneers to explore the most pressing questions affecting our outlook for sustainability. Recently we’ve explored the future of fashion with a prototyping workshop in New York, and brought pioneers together to discuss topics from the microbiome to the circular economy in our digital sessions. On 26 April, we launched a new series in Asia-Pacific - responding to widespread interest in how blockchain can change things for the better, and what it will mean for the region. We convened an intimate group of around 30 professionals, spanning finance, food, urban design and the arts, together with three pioneers.
For KK Han, the immediate attraction of blockchain is the difference in could make to Southeast Asian fisheries and fish stocks. The platform Han represents, Ecohub, aims to scale traceability in seafood supply chains, connecting fisheries more directly with consumers. Han recognises the potential of blockchain to log transactions and enable a trusted record of transactions along the supply chain - in theory - but sees a gap between the potential and engagement with it on the ground. On the other hand, Veerappan Swaminathan, a key figure in Singapore’s maker community, is already seeing an impact for Indonesian farmers, who are able to log their produce at the farm gate and follow it to the point of sale, reducing intermediation and so giving them a better return.
It’s the potential to create immutable records of identity that’s really transformative, says Zach Piester of Intrepid Ventures, an accelerator for blockchain start-ups. Our logs, from media to governance to finance, have always been both flawed and disputed. Rather than make a single claim on the truth, blockchain enables multiple players to verify a statement at a particular moment in time. As we grapple with post-truth media, can blockchain be a source of clarity and verification?
Blockchain is often lauded for being incorruptible. ‘Is it really?’, one guest challenged. As Piester explained, there are two questions here: one is the log itself (the time, date, contents recorded), and the other is the process for establishing the log’s contents. The log itself is seen as incorruptible because of the computing power that would be required to overcome the challenge of hacking a distributed network with a complex secure key. Currently that sort of power doesn’t exist - but organic supercomputers are becoming a possibility. Could they see death of blockchain as a secure mechanism?
The truthfulness of the log’s contents depends on the hurdles required by the network to make a log. This depends how the blockchain system is set up. In one system, the network might be triggered to make a log when the right set of documents is presented. In a system based on a swarm of drones, they might log a conclusion (such as a forest fire) when all the drones’ cameras detect smoke in a particular location. Such a system could potentially trigger a response to prevent a fire, or a crime, based on collectively verified data. Are we moving towards automated pre-crime policing?
This was the point where discussions about the ethical implications of blockchain started to heat up. No technology is an unmitigated win for sustainability. Another concern raised for blockchain is the energy required to cool the servers supporting the tremendous amount of computing power required.
Towards the end of the session, we invited our guests to share their own visions of how blockchain could transform the future. From now until 12 May, we have the chance to take those stories from our intimate roundtable discussions and connect them to a global scan of possible blockchain applications in the future. Whether or not you took part in the salon, you're invited to share your ideas for blockchain futures (the more the better!) and analyse them with a special tool, here: http://bit.ly/1IbXSJh. Results will be shared at the end of the month.
For inspiration, why not look at some of the examples of what people are already seeing on the Futures Centre? Add your own on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag ‘signalofchange’, or upload them directly at www.thefuturescentre.org
Anna Simpson is curator of the Futures Centre.