Blockchain, DLT, voting, elections, meritocracies, AI, population density, feudal England, means of exchange, and the Post Office.
No, dear reader, this isn’t SEO word soup, but merely the tip of the technological iceberg of topics covered in my recent 2 hour+ conversation.
Who would have the knowledge, lexicon, and patience to debate such a breadth of topics with me?
Nowadays, Phillip is an advocate for blockchain and DLT technology, and devotes his expert attention to working with mobile voting application specialists, Voatz.
Out of respect for your time I’ve abbreviated and edited some of my own ramblings. Out of respect for the sheer joy I found in this conversation, the rest has been transcribed exactly as it occurred (kudos if you get the Fargo reference!).
Grab a coffee and open up your wisdom-absorbing chakras, here’s part one:
- I’m sure your ears have been burning with the number of times Voatz has come up in my recent Blockchain and Voting articles. Just for a little background first though, could you give us an overview of who Voatz are, what you guys do, and your role?
Well let’s break that down. Voatz are a Boston based company that started in 2014, at a hackathon at South by SouthWest: a competition looking at, and I’ll use my own words here, ‘how to improve humanity’. So, Nimit and Simer, they saw blockchain, they saw distributed ledger, biometrics in mobile, and they understood cryptography from their own experience. So of course, they decided to submit a product/project as part of this classic hackathon concept we’re all familiar with, and this product was a mobile voting app. They walked away with 1 Bitcoin and $10k and an investor interview.
Now, this investor told them they were going into a place they will never break into. What did they do? They decided to break into it! Went off, raised money, two rounds and we’ve currently got a third in progress. And they began piloting the technology. Piloting, maturing etc etc.
As for my background, I come out of technology, and, for my sins I’m responsible for chip and pin! I was in Brussels in 1993, working with card payment systems in the United Kingdom in the early days of what that became. Then I went over to Canada and helped with migration there, then came back to the US and was involved with migration here. During that time I found myself more and more involved in cryptography, met people like David Chaum, because I’d also worked for people like Visa, Mastercard, American Express, IBM, AT+G, Philips Semiconductor and others.
- Wow that’s one hell of an impressive CV!
Well, it was during my at Oberthur Technologies when I met Nimit. He was part of a mobile payments acquisition we had done, and that was the subject matter: Payments. So I went into retirement, then came out of retirement, Nimit said ‘come and advise!’ and I joined the team as an advisor. They currently call me a senior advisor. I’m not sure it’s due to my grey hair, or my brilliant intelligence. I’ll leave that for you to decide though!
- Not sure I’m the right guy to judge anyone for intelligence or hair so maybe best left to the readers!
Well anyone wanting to know more details can stick a dot com after my last name and find out more.
- I was reading over some of your blog posts earlier as it goes, I particularly like your piece on DAOs which follows well on the recent piece I’ve done with Gerard about the GBA DAO.
I’ll check that piece out before I say anything more about it then!
- Brilliant. Rewinding a little then, something I’ve recently become aware of (thanks to my conversation with Amelia), is that in up to two-thirds of US states, distance voting is done via email accounts such as Gmail or Yahoo. This might seem a bit of a leading question, but what do you think are the main issues with this?
Okay, let’s back up with a little bit of history and fill in the blanks. The US has a law called UOCAVA (SEBES) that requires the country to address the problems of Americans abroad wishing to vote. Each of the states figures out how they want to do that. Some of them rely on paper mail. 31 of the states allow some form of electronic return. In context of electronic return: they consider fax and email as two options. 5 of the states allow web return.
- As in web portals, such as with Alaska?
Well, Alaska is trying to figure out how to do something. Web return is what we do here at Voatz, and it’s what Amelia did in 2018 and what also West Virginia did in 2018, and it is what we promote. I beg the question, what’s the difference between email and web, given that email goes over the web? I’ve got some understanding problems, and when I look at the grey hair of politicians, I think we probably have some education problems.
There is this anomaly that we can use a fax machine and send a fax of your paper marked ballot to your Local Election Official (LEO). The LEO obviously will know the telephone number from whence the fax came, so they know the identity. You’re going to have to sign the document to affirm your identity, and provide whatever Identity information that your jurisdiction requires to prove you have the right to vote and submit via fax.
Email is very much the same. Again, the address is known, and you’re either scanning or taking an electronically marked ballot, and attaching it to the email and sending it back. Again, your ID is known and in both the cases of fax and email, who knows what can happen in the middle?
So, in walks Nimit, why don’t we do this using a mobile application, on a secure mobile device. Rule number 1, the device must meet a certain security level, which requires that a device have an element inside called a secure element. A place where I can store secrets and perform cryptographic functions.
- And are these standard on most mobile devices or do they have to be much newer models?
Anything which has what Apple calls the secure enclave has a secure element. Samsung calls it the knox. And you’ll have to fact check me on this but I think it’s the iPhone6 and above, and Android 8 and above all have the technology.
- This isn’t something which is inaccessible to everyday folk then?
Obviously, it presents problems for people who have phones in the 8+ year old category. Feature phones and flip phones and the sort. Which, if you go to Africa, and look at older demographics, or even the type of people who wish to remain ‘off the grid’ types, they’re not going for the fancier phones so there is an issue.
- Well, yeah, of course, the off the grid types are going to be an issue.
If you’re restricting your own means of communications quite intentionally, you must physically appear, and mark your ballot in person, because any other mechanism you can imagine would be on the grid, then you’ve made the decision how you shall vote.
- Exactly, it’s a case of making a conscious decision with forethought.
Well that leads into my next point. We are an option, not a replacement. We are not advocating to replace all other forms of ballot return. We just present an option which adds convenience. It assures up to 85% of the population the ability to participate in elections, from home on their phone. And, in terms of remote voting, it does integrate security capabilities which are probably superior to email or fax, or for that matter, the post office.
- We’ll be careful how we word this, we don’t want to start a war with the post office!
Absolutely, let’s give them credit. They work with the government (a task in itself!) to make sure ballots are properly returned and delivered. But there’s always a possibility of a mail truck catching on fire, because of some natural or other disaster. It’s a risk. Or how about if a drop box filled with water and every ballot inside gets destroyed.
- There was an incident in the 2020 election with a burst water pipe supposedly drowning boxes of ballots if I’m not mistaken?
There is no such thing as risk free, is there? It’s not the post office’s fault, it’s mother nature. And it does a lot of damage, not just to ballots but our mail, the love letters from your girlfriend, the thank you note from your grandmother.
- It’s a lot of responsibility on their satchel burdened shoulders! But as you say, risk is a sliding scale, isn’t it?
That’s the point I’m making here. We need to compare the risk of various alternatives and look at the risk profile in context of convenience, security, privacy, verifiability and audit. If the risk is less than one of the existing options, then why exclude it?
- Sounds like we’re singing from the same hymn sheet on this issue. Next big key question then, and it’s fine if you can only give a high-level overview, but how exactly is blockchain used in the application which was used in previous elections?
Blockchain is an interesting phenomena, and I think it’s important to put the question ‘why use blockchain?’ into the conversation. And, in the same breath, I’d also like to take blockchain out of the conversation! Instead, let’s introduce the term distributed ledger.
Let’s differentiate between the two. A distributed ledger is a business concept. Create multiple copies of the ledger, so you have multiple copies of the list of transactions and events that occurred.
Blockchain is a technology that exploits the power of cryptography to ensure the immutability of distributed ledger.
So let’s remove blockchain, because that’s cryptography and requires mathematical skills and probably PHDs to understand!
Now we have only the distributed ledger. Why do I want 1000 copies of this? I want 1000 because if there is only 1 manager of the copy, then we have to trust the 1 manager of the copy.
In an election, I trust the party, the commission, the civil servants, responsible for running the election. Why do I need a distributed ledger? In reality, do we trust the government? That is an open question.
- It’s an interesting one, most systems tend to have unaffiliated parties who verify counts and such. Perhaps it comes less to the question of trusting the existing political party, as the systems and whether these commissions are truly independent?
But the party is not the government. Your usage of the term is the British variant. There you define the ruling party, the coalition which has the majority, as the government. But if I remember ‘Yes Minister’, you have the government and the civil servants.
- You’re exposing the blanks in my knowledge here!
Well we won’t go too deeply into the working of the legislature of the House of Lords versus parliament, let’s focus on there is parliament and a house of lords over in Westminster. Then there is the civil service that is in all those government buildings surrounding Buckingham Palace and Westminster which form the workers, and they run the government.
Comparatively in the US, if I have a republican and a democrat and an independent who collectively monitor the election, then that’s the use of the word government I want to define and use here.
Using this, do I trust the government — that includes the president, the legislature, the judicial branch, the civil servants, the observers — then why do I need a distributed ledger? If I (like we are right now!) question what do we mean when we say government, do we even mean the same thing? Is your belief the same as my belief? We would sit there and argue, no, and therefore your level of trust and my level of trust are not the same. And because of this, there is a tiny bit of distrust, distributed ledger makes sense.
- In the philosophical sense, as you say, it really does mean many things to many people, even inside one country or region. We all have assumed knowledge which we never think to question.
Yes, and it comes back to why I want a distributed ledger in an election? Well, somebody always distrusts somebody else. Therefore if I create an immutable ledger, it records each and every event of every voter.
If we’re going to progress in this field, the press needs to distinguish between the blockchain and distributed ledger. We’ve given blockchain a fuzzy meaning. Like the word ‘internet’, what is the internet? Is it the applications that run in the cloud? Or simply the communications vehicle that allows the client to interact with a server someplace out there running software.
- Well this jumps me ahead a couple of questions, but we’ll throw away the script and run with it. Free TON has been doing a lot of work which I know you’ve been following quite closely, but something I’ve wrote about a few times is the Decentralised browser contest.
Okay, let’s talk Free TON for a second, and I’ve not deep-dived into things too much, so my perspective is clouded by what the few people in the community have shared with me. When we talk about governance, one of the problems I have with blockchain addicts is they talk about the value of introducing something that is outside of the government.
This makes me say, ‘Wait a second, how are you going to define and agree how this technology is going to work?’ And they say we’re going to create a governance structure. What’s the difference between government and governance? Governments support governance. Satoshi was saying we’re going to eliminate the government from the control of something. If you eradicate government from the control of something, well, okay, but who are you going to replace them with? ‘Oh you have this distributed autonomous organisation!’. Well, what is a DAO? Just a collection of people coming together. What’s a representative government? A collection of people coming together. Whether you’re coming together in person, or on zoom, or with anonymous identifiers, it’s the same.
- This ties in with a lot of what Gerard Dache called the “$18 trillion problem of blockchain adoption by governments”. For all these utopian anarchist visions we find in the fringe ends of crypto circles, a society free of Government in overnight fashion is a society without public services and order, which, surely, is more of a dystopia?
Yes, let’s go back in time 4k, 5k, 6k years, for example. Society has always created a mechanism to ensure harmony. And this mechanism is some form of governance. Then, as the society matures and gets larger, we move from a democratic system of weekly meetings in the village square to decide on issues, to a representative system — electing people who represent our interests. These elected representatives can then do it full time, so we can go do something else full time.
Going back to Free TON, you have this word, “Meritocracy”.
- Pretty much a flagship word for us here!
Okay, well let me challenge this. Meritocracy basically says those who are willing and able, become the governance team for whatever it is that needs to be determined.
Wind back to feudal times. Who was able? The man with the most guns was able to govern a community. The man with the most brains is possibly able to overpower guns through an assembling of guns.
- Or coercion of others with more guns?
Yes, when you look at it this way, a meritocracy sounds sort of like a single party system. It disturbs me as a word. When I put a representative government, a democratic government, or a meritocracy, as a method of governance, I would prefer a democratic method which requires everybody to participate.
- I understand where you’re coming from, but taking Tezos (as an example and without picking on any project in particular), there is a weighted voting mechanism, more tokens equals more votes. This ends up in a representative model though, as you say, where thought leaders are campaigning for their interests, and those without the technical knowledge vote according to a sense of gut instincts according to who they favour in the ecosystem. How do you move democracy past the scale of a village without ending up in this paradox?
Exactly, but it all comes down to how you select the representatives. In a meritocracy, as I understand it, it’s a self-selection process. This, in turn, takes me back to the feudal lord. He selected himself to be in control.
So now we’re in a technical plateau. Those who understand the technology and are able to code, define and build, they become the self-selecting powers. If we remember Skynet, from the Terminator, it self-selected. Now you add AI, and think about AI and think about what’s happening in the EU now, where we’re defining a framework for the adoption and introduction of AI, because of the potential…
And I’ll leave the dot dot dot to your imagination!
- Bearing in mind my position as jack of all trades, master of none, I’ll tentatively weigh in here and bring up the ‘Google AlphaGo project’. Are you aware of it?
I think you’re exposing the blanks in my knowledge now!
- Touché! Well the game of Go has more possible outcomes than there are atoms in the observable universe, making it nearly impossible to program an AI to play this game in the traditional 0 or 1 yes no decision tree model. When the AlphaGo AI did eventually beat a world champion, it did this with a move which perplexed us mere humans. Now, this was novel, but thinking of intelligence in terms of the Chinese thought box experiment, can a machine ever be intelligent, in the way we understand intelligence, without living the human experience? Dolphins, on paper, are smarter than people after all, but they jump through hoops for fish, so they’re not that smart, right? Is an AI threat any more tangible than a dolphin threat in this way?
I won’t start any fights with dolphin lovers, but I’ll take your absurdist intangibility and come back with the Philips Experience. In 1976 I was given a pager, because I needed to be contactable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
- I can empathise with that feeling of late!
Then I graduated to a luggable computer. This evolved into a laptop, and now, I use a mobile phone that makes all those other devices look trivial. Now take the AI journey and add to it machine learning big data, heuristic thinking, and I’ve heard other words when we think about how to create an algorithm to deal with random choice in an educated manner.
Thinking about what I heard about AI, which was in 2035, we could create a self thinking machine. Winding back to Asimov, he said we need to impose three laws on robots. Robotics and AI, what’s the difference? One is a physical thinking thing, the other is a box which knows how to think. One can manipulate the physical, the other manipulates the digital.
- Bringing it back to dolphins though, biologically speaking, they are a pinnacle of evolution. But their form of intelligence is abstract to our human experience in the same way an intelligent box would also be.
Well, let’s go down another path here. I put to you this question: this planet can only support 3.5 billion people, which is a number I’ve read more than once, but it supports upwards of 8 billion now. How is this?
I don’t disagree that the intelligence of man will self-moderate, eventually, but I remind you of what we’ve done to the environment, of what occurs in our so-called civil societies, and so forth. The golden rule, ‘Love thy Neighbour’, a rule which is present in all religions, has yet to be adopted on a tribal level. Now we add a DAO into all of this. If we can’t embrace the golden rule, then how can a DAO, or an AI like Skynet, be expected to respect this?
To be continued…