Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Blockchains and the new mythology

For two years now, the drumbeat of Blockchain technology has gradually dominated one area of systems after another: in the public eye, Blockchains are somehow the universal solution to every problem.  This I find very odd: the core BlockChain concept is technically flawed (I don’t want to repeat prior blogs, so I’ll simply point out that four or five of my older postings were on technical problems with the model).  The model doesn’t even fit many of the imagined uses.  And in actual fact, we see few examples of real uses, other than to support cryptocurrencies that run some risk of evaporating from your wallet.  Yet this dream of using BlockChain technology for everything that really matters has somehow taken hold.

BlockChain has evolved into a mythology.

I remember a talk by Michael Brody, the CTO of Verizon around 1998 (back when it was still part of the GTE empire).  He focused on the psychological wish for magic silver bullets that can slay every technical barrier.  In companies struggling with technology challenges, it can be very appealing to wish for miracles (and all too easy to worry that the other guy will find it first and win market dominance by so doing).  At the time, the silver bullets were client server architectures, CORBA, Paxos.  But the underlying pattern was similar: an overwhelming desire to believe, coupled with eyes closed against the limitations.

We see this now for artificial intelligence, too: how many self-driving cars will have to run down bicyclists and swerve into ongoing traffic before people realize that putting a robot in charge of a car is simply an overreach? The technology isn’t ready yet.

And so too with BlockChain.  Yet when I attend talks on Digital Agriculture, or the future of medicine, or banking, somehow the very term seems to command authority (and to shut down any skepticism the audience might normally have expressed).  In the New York Times on April 3, an article talked about BlockChain in all of these and many other “uses”, quoting one gushing entrepreneur as saying that BlockChain is a revolutionary, disruptive and nearly universal technology for storage, communication, security and safety.  Oh, and he suggests we use it for online voting, to repel those Russian hackers.  Come again?  All this from an append-only log, running on anonymous servers, and prone to rollbacks?

It does seem true that a permissioned BlockChain (one running on specified servers, probably in the machine room of a bank, or sold as a turn-key product by a storage or cloud vendor) would be a great place to log transactions that you want to keep on record indefinitely.  Moreover, a permissioned  Blockchain won’t roll back unexpectedly.  But the expert quoted by the NY Times apparently wants all sorts of digital information logged into indelible records, and seemingly has the permissionless variety of BlockChains in mind (he would never trust any single bank or company to host the chain).

Beyond the privacy issues raised by having your life logged in a globally shared place, we get the oddity of using a type of log that by construction is capable of spontaneously erasing itself.  It could even be erased deliberately by the same Russian hackers out to tamper with the election you are trying to protect!

Setting the technical issues to the side, the psychology of this article speaks to Brody’s old story of using silver bullets to slay dragons.  Technology has become so complex that it certainly can feel like magic, and magical thinking is a natural fit.  Nobody wants their illusions punctured.  No technology is perfect, but even this plays into the story: if you point to a flaw, like the tendency of permissionless Blockchain to roll back, Blockchain fans just assert that version 2.0 will fix that.

The dialog reminds me of science fiction.  We start with a conceit: “dilithium crystals and antimatter  enable faster than light travel” (and every other technical miracle the script writers could dream up).  The physics wouldn’t bear up under close scrutiny, but we don’t look too closely.  And from this starting point, we boldly go where no one has gone before.

But one can easily understand the motivation of a science fiction script writer.   Where I’m left puzzled is with the motivations of all these self-proclaimed experts.  are they deliberately lying?

Quite a few must know better. Yet somehow, this chance to be the expert seems to drive rational computer scientists to make wild claims, while brushing obvious concerns to the side.  While the scam endures, these people are becoming millionaires.

I imagine that it must be fun to be able to sound off at fashionable cocktail parties, too.  “Am I concerned by the opioid crisis?  Well, of course.   But in my view, the entire problem could be solved by using Blockchain to log every transaction involving these habit forming drugs...”

Down the road reality will impose itself.  But I guess that by then, these experts will have long since cashed out, bought Napa vineyards, and moved on to speculate in some other illusory commodity.