ACM-W Webinar Demystifies Blockchain Technology: What’s the big deal?

Blockchain technology is a mysterious topic for many. Is it a network? A database? A cryptography algorithm? Is it the same as cryptocurrency? In episode 10 of “ACM-W Celebrating Technology Leaders,” we aimed to demystify blockchain technology with the help of leading women technologists in the field. 

The panellists for this session were: 

♦ Lisa Calkins, CEO @ HalfBlast Studios

♦ Tatiana Zander, Director of Disruptive Technologies @ Ericsson

♦ Zeenat Anjum, Founder & CEO @ Digiwrite

Our panel, with host Bushra Anjum (ACM-W Standing Committees Chair and ACM Ubiquity Senior Editor), talked about the core concepts to give the audience an intuitive understanding of blockchain. The panellists also explored what problems are good candidates to be solved with this emerging technology and the current industry careers and opportunities available. 

Below, we highlight some key discussions; you can watch the full video here.

What was your first brush with blockchain technology, and how has your journey been?

Lisa: My company had an innovative team that would keep track of new technologies. So they introduced me to blockchain technology – it must be already eight years ago at least – so it was definitely somewhat at the beginning of blockchain technology. We had a couple of sales leads that came through that talked about wanting to do some blockchain work. I thought I understood the complexity, but little did I know how challenging and complicated it probably was. So, when we started my next company, I said we have to understand and jump into blockchain technology. I can’t talk to clients about blockchain without knowing it, so we took a full-blown architecture course on blockchain technology and then built some prototype projects. Then, over the 3-4 years, we worked with many startups and some financial institutions. A lot of our technology work is in the mobile space. 

Blockchain technology is so misunderstood. It’s so intriguing and exciting. But, as you said, there is hype and reality. But there aren’t always many of those types of things going on, and this one is pretty disruptive, and it is quite different, so that’s a space I always like to live in. 

Tatiana: At work, I was part of an employee-driven innovation community. So all of a sudden, a bunch of these different activities, proof of concepts, started popping up that people would do on the side of their work. One of these projects, for example, was roaming agreements. This was basically using smart contracts to get rid of the clearinghouse concept you have in roaming today, which is very telco specific. Later I learned this became an IEEE recommendation; we were on to something! More recently, I rediscovered blockchain in my current role, because of my mandate to look into different technologies that could change the business for us – one of those was blockchain. It was at first going back to the drawing board, learning what it is about and what it does, and then understanding that Ericsson now had a full organization dedicated to blockchain. This journey led me to realize that everything I learned before was not something so applicable to an enterprise setting, as blockchain aspects differ a lot for enterprises compared to public blockchains. So now, I’m driving various activities where we explore enterprise blockchain applications for us further and bring things to life.

Zeenat: While doing my bachelor’s degree, I started being curious about different technologies – that was the time when blockchain and Web 3.0 were emerging. Being an engineer and exploring more about blockchain, I began to write about it. The more I researched it, the more I got curious. I started with cryptocurrencies. Then, I studied for my Master’s in HR and marketing. Most of my marketing projects are in the blockchain domain.  Web 3.0 was something I researched particularly. I have worked both on the engineering and non-tech sides.  I fell in love with blockchain technology when I dug deeper into the implementation of blockchain applications that can benefit people. Blockchain technology is something that holds great potential, and people should be getting ready for this emerging technology.

Bushra: How would you explain blockchain intuitively?

Lisa: It is the technology supporting cryptocurrencies, bitcoin and all the rest. A technology that solves “money” innovatively can be used to solve other issues. Blockchain is fundamentally a back-end architecture and a way to organize data. The transactions on this data get grouped in blocks, and these blocks are connected to form a strong chain using this innovative model, e.g. you can’t take the blocks out of order. If you were just using it in one company, and it was just the architecture behind your one software package, it wouldn’t have nearly the same value as it does in the scenario where today, we all are sharing information. The amount of sharing we’re doing is endless, and we don’t have great sharing models.

For example, let’s look at a concert and the tickets and the ticket process – it’s a crazy nested set of relationships starting with the artist who wants to sell the ticket for a particular concert. Then somebody else resells them, and somebody else wants to buy them. Here’s the thing: I want to ensure that when I buy a ticket, the person I am buying the ticket from gives a valid ticket so I can go to the concert. I also got to make sure I give them money and that they get my money. Then if I can’t go to the concert, I want to resell the ticket again, or maybe this is how I’m going to make a living:  reselling tickets. All of that is really risky in the current models. So, blockchain technology could take that to a whole new level by making sure that when I’m the last one to buy the ticket, and I go to the door, that ticket will be valid. The chain has been validated from the original person who sold that ticket to me. In sum, we want all of us to have a valid way to transact with each other, which is the real value of blockchain. 

Bushra: From a hypothetical example to a real example. Could you walk us through a blockchain use case or project you have worked on in your company?

Lisa: One of our clients described this scenario, and you will see all these different pieces that go into it. In our housing market here in the United States, the way that it’s always worked is that there is usually an owner of a house. But houses have become so ridiculously expensive that no one can afford a house anymore. The client came to us and said what they want to do is like the old model that’s been around, and many people have heard – vacation places called timeshares. This scheme was very popular in the 80s. In a timeshare, I owned a week at a mountain resort or on a beach, and somebody else owned the next week, and somebody else owned the next week and so on. It doesn’t exactly work when you want to live in a house. The idea was to take that timeshare model, except instead of having multiple people living in the house, it would be multiple people who could own a percentage of the house. Here, you’re talking about money; you’re talking about assets, and you’re talking about multiple people; some of the people might even be companies. Maybe I want to sell my shares, and somebody else wants to buy them, and then as you see, a whole chain of buying and selling different pieces.

Blockchain is a fantastic solution for that kind of model. Now, was it only blockchain? No. You still have to create an application layer; you still have to create user interfaces so that people interact with your application. In fact, ours was a mobile app. There are also reporting structures and admin tools, and so on. So, blockchain is only part of the solution at the backend.

Zeenat: I recently got a chance to work with an RPG (Role Playing Game) -metaverse startup. I have investigated its marketing, what could relate to a crypto enthusiast, and how the game can resonate with the market. I have also worked with a DeFi platform and on other blockchain applications. From community partnerships to understanding the protocol, I believe that the possibilities are endless, especially in the marketing and outreach of these projects. The market is still evolving, and that’s the beauty of these individual cases.

Tatiana: Let me share first the epiphany I had regarding when blockchain makes sense and is helpful to drive a use case and actually optimizes a process. The number one reason to use blockchain is when there is a trust issue between companies, entities or any involved party. Everything else is just a question of, does it make sense to automate and can be solved with regular automation.

At Ericsson, we work in telecommunications. For example, you know, base stations, radios and cell towers. To help you visualize – it’s funny that in California, we even dress them up a little, making them look like palm trees. In other places of the world, we make them look like other types of trees. 

So when something like 5G comes out, we need to go and deploy new radios and base stations on this existing tower. Sometimes we even find coverage gaps that we need to address, so we need to pull up entirely new towers. That is a massive and expensive process. Our heroes are tower climbers, the engineers who do the installation and maintenance.

So what happens with the new installation? We do this for a customer – for example, in the US, it could be Verizon, ATT, or T-mobile. Many different entities are involved in the installation and maintenance process, and so on. There could be vendors from our side that we outsource. Vendors from the customer side could be involved, and the customer, of course. All these people need to check the installation: so let’s say Ericsson starts the job, the tower climbers install the radio somewhere on the top of this 30-meter big tower. A bunch of other people need to go up there and check everything works right, and it’s signed off. This is such a good case for blockchain. We built an application using Corda where you can now check remotely if the installation worked. You get a lot of information about the installation, such as status, evidence and test results. Now the customer and the other vendors involved in the process can validate and make sure things are 100% right – it does the right thing, the audit passed, and it’s verified. It’s called Ericsson Customer Acceptance. We released that at the Mobile World Congress – it’s a live offering that we have now that we use to fulfill our contracts and commitments, but also we are offering it as a service.

So coming to criticisms of blockchain. An article in Verge in 2019 said that bitcoin consumes more energy than Switzerland.  Then later, there was an article in the New York Times that said that Bitcoin is not environmentally friendly;  it has a huge carbon footprint. Would you say that blockchain technology, in general, is environmentally unfriendly or is it more the way cryptocurrencies work?

Lisa: I think all of us are concerned about any technologies or innovations we’re using and how they will impact the world. Going back to how I described the chain. One of the reasons that the chain can become secure is that you’re duplicating that chain on computers worldwide. Then those computers validate that nothing’s been broken, use power to do some processing to have the whole system work economically – because no one wants to do things for free –  and support security. These computers are running all over the world to ensure that the whole thing works, and they’re not owned by any company per se. These are public blockchains. There are many cases where it’s a private blockchain. In fact, when it’s a company to a company, those are most often not public blockchains. They are private blockchains that function very similarly but use much different processing. So with cryptocurrencies specifically, they have looked at other models that can reduce power consumption and still make people not cheat. It all comes down to money, power, transaction speed, etc. So yes, the way we currently do things is not environmentally friendly. Still, I have no doubt those issues will solve themselves. There are already proven ways, and some new technologies will take those on. So, to me, that side of the ethical concern is only one piece.

We see ethics in three pieces: the environment, data being forever (stored), and then crime. I hear about the crime one, probably more than the other two. The data is often obfuscated by a long string of codes, so tracking down who that really is would not be something most lay people would ever be able to do. It would be challenging. The crime, on the other hand, is real. We just described money exchange between untrusted parties. So I believe that there are opportunities to utilize that technology in ways that are a crime. Every new technology will have those issues, and you have to manage them. So I’m not saying they’re unimportant, and we don’t want discussions around them. We want to have these discussions, but the beauty of blockchain is actually to reduce theft and crime that is not by the typical criminal. No one looks at what happens in fraud and the business world – how much loss, cheating, and crime is happening in transactions. They only look at the ones that are drug-related or something we perceive as a crime. If we can reduce the amount of fraud that happens worldwide in transactions, it significantly changes the world’s economy in a positive way.

Tatiana: Going into the private blockchains because this is what we work with at Ericsson. We don’t really deal at all with a public blockchain. Again, the main driver is trust and to reduce how much fraud and mistakes can happen because no one is, even big corporations, protected unless we have those mechanisms in place.  The private blockchain also helps with energy consumption due to much fewer transactions or high computation consumption: You have a peer-to-peer kind of network, and validation is on a need-to-know basis. So, this is also a nice part about the ethical concerns you would normally have in the public blockchains, where you’re worried about your privacy, and everyone gets the same data. This is not actually the case in a private blockchain. For example, in this finance application, let’s say many banks are already boarded on this blockchain marketplace and platform. Only the parties that each participant defines that have any kind of stake and are involved get to see the data. It just makes life easier to use a platform with others. I think it is also a big Web 3 consideration to have standardization. Suppose everyone has a different blockchain mechanism, a different blockchain platform. In that case, it is hard to guarantee standards, address privacy and security concerns, and ensure the validity of all the algorithms. So standardization helps mitigate some of that. 

Another simple example: we don’t tie the blockchain to people or employees. Instead, transactions or proofs need to be generated for the legal entities or organizations.  Another thing is liability and responsibility. If something goes wrong, who takes care of what? We have customer contracts that deal with contractual commitments and where we clearly define liabilities. For example, we work with  Corda, well-known in the enterprise blockchain domain. They have their own legal agreements as well; it’s very important to know where exactly the responsibility lies. 

Zeenat: From the marketing perspective, one issue that we usually face is transparency.

How transparent the project is. Because there are many scams.  So, you need to research the project. You need to understand the technicalities of the project.  Obviously, money is involved when you register yourself, attach a wallet, and you are linking the digital wallet in real-time; as Lisa mentioned, there could be theft. But blockchain still holds much potential, as hacking is also possible in conventional finance. We should introduce systems so that malware can be detected early and data theft or financial loss can be prevented.

Since blockchain skills are becoming increasingly sought-after, could you recommend some beginner-friendly courses, resources, and communities to learn more?

Zeenat: If you have basic SQL knowledge and are interested in analytics, then you can explore the educational content at Dune Analytics and Flipside crypto. There are two excellent platforms. Courses are also available for Blockchain languages and understanding the development stages. The third phase would be when you have a basic understanding of blockchain. Then you want to interact with people who are crypto enthusiasts and participate in the communities. So for that, you can visit the Layer 3 Platform. There are many communities on Telegram as well. You can explore according to your interest as many projects come around there. To understand which projects are better from the crypto point of view and which project has the most financial worth in the market, you can read Yahoo Finance and CryptoCompare. I usually recommend these to students and people who want to start a career in the blockchain domain. 

Resources shared by the panellists:

1. To explore the analytics side of Blockchain Technology: Dune Analytics https://dune.com/, Flipside Crypto https://flipsidecrypto.xyz/

2. For learning and community, check out https://beta.layer3.xyz/  (Layer 3 Platform), https://blockchain.ieee.org/communities,  https://www.corda.net/

3. To learn about emerging projects coming into the space of Blockchain applications https://cointelegraph.com/, https://www.cryptocompare.com/, https://finance.yahoo.com/

4. Ericsson use-case discussed in the session https://www.ericsson.com/en/cases/202…