Dr. Joshua Ellul on Blockchain: ‘Technology is Actually Regulation’
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6 November
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Dr Joshua Ellul, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and director of the Centre for Distributed Ledger Technologies at the University of Malta, was one of the experts invited to last week’s Malta Blockchain Summit,, where he spoke about Blockchain and IoT integration. Recently appointed as non-executive chair of the Malta Digital Innovation Authority, Dr Ellul told ihodl.com about Blockchain of Things, regulation of new technologies, useful decentralization, his work as an educator and with Blockchain Research Group.

What is the mission of Malta Digital Innovation Authority?

The MDIA sets up a regime that provides assurances on innovative technology arrangements. The framework currently is focussed on DLTs and Smart Contracts, however will look into other emerging technologies which will similarly require assurances.

There are a number of different facets to increasing assurances. One includes approving of system auditors. MDIA will implement necessary checks to provide assurances regarding system auditors and any related subject matter experts. Thereafter, applicants can use a system auditor to undertake the required audit on their technology arrangement. It is a voluntary process. However, other authorities may deem such an audit necessary.

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What is your role in this organization?

I am currently acting non-executive chair. If the screening committee approves the appointment, then I’ll be the non-executive chair.

Will MDIA’s check process go down to reach the code-level?

That’s right. The system’s auditor needs to undertake the necessary checks and based upon results, tests and processes provide his opinion that the code meets the specified functionality described. And, in order for him to arrive at that conclusion, he needs to build a team of subject matter experts who can undertake the necessary checks.

MDIA has already put some guidelines out. Do you think those guidelines will expand?

This is an emerging area. The current set of guidelines is what we has been put together based upon discussions and public consultation. Now, as we receive applications, we may deem it necessary to update the guidelines to meet such a fast paced environment. So we do envisage that the guidelines will emerge over time and we need to be dynamic as an authority while facilitating businesses within the area.

Could you explain the concept of Blockchain of Things?

The Internet of Things is all about integrating computational devices into the real-world. And not necessarily computational devices that we actively use - they might be somewhere in the background. For example in smart homes, in cars, in supply chain management. They might be devices that we do not even notice.

Now, the blockchain and smart contracts bring about verifiable automated processes by having the blockchain and smart contracts providing the required guarantees.

The idea behind the Blockchain(s) of Things is to integrate the Internet of Things with blockchain systems for the purpose of enabling real-world processes that are verifiable, automated, and that can provide those guarantees. There is a number of challenges to get there, but that is the idea.

You and your Blockchain Research Group are behind a lot of events where the general public is introduced to the blockchain. What kind of feedback and questions do you typically receive from the audience?

First of all, during the lectures when we typically introduce blockchain, we do not actually go into details in regards to how the technology works. We rather explain what blockchain and DLTs mean to the individual: it’s about decentralization, removing central authorities where required, and decentralizing the system. Another potential avenue for DLTs is to instill trust in areas where there is no central authority.

Most [often] the questions we receive are those on disambiguation. People are not sure about the terminology. “Is blockchain bitcoin?” and questions like that. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

I think it is key for people to start spreading the basic concepts, rather than trying to impress others with how the technology works. Leave the technology for the technologists. When we talk about, let’s say an email, how many people actually understand that there is the TCP/IP protocol? Or the SMTP on top of that? Most people don’t care about that and they don’t need to care. So we need to focus on educating users with the details about what that actually means to them.

The blockchain is heavily criticized. Some say it is too slow, while others regard it as nothing more than a glorified database. What is your view on this?

I would start by saying that before we propose blockchain for a particular use case, we need to make sure that the use case would actually utilize the blockchain in the right manner. And so, if there is a case for decentralizing a central authority out of the equation or instilling trust in an area where we can’t have a central authority, we should consider using blockchain.

If we do not fall into that case, we should definitely not be using blockchain.

I think that is the main message that other people, who are perhaps more vocal and say “we should use blockchain for everything”, should start considering.

“What excites me most is the ability to connect a lot of decentralized projects into a decentralized network made up of decentralized networks — an ecosystem of ecosystems”: humanoid robot Sophia at Malta Blockchain Summit. That would be a great accomplishment, but, those are machines, which theoretically nobody controls. Should we just accept this?

No, whilst we should investigate such areas, we should definitely have a sober approach and be concerned that issues do exist. And yesterday, Malta announced that it is going to start looking into such issues. Currently, what we are doing, is regulating technology.

We are also using technology to help regulation. Thinking about the future, should we also be considering that technology some day could also be part of regulation? And if the technology does actually become regulation, can that help us control perhaps the future AI and robots by having to abide by such technology based regulation? So yes, this is an area of concern and we should definitely look into it carefully.

You also launched a blockchain course with the University of Malta, right? How is the preparation going?

The course is going to be a multidisciplinary course, which allows individuals to come from their particular profession be it legal, technical or a more business background, get advanced blockchain and DLT knowledge in their particular area and also get an introduction in the supporting areas. The way that this program is differing itself from many others around the world is its multidisciplinary nature: while a lot of programs focus solely either on the digital currency aspect or the technology implementation, we really believe that this ecosystem requires different disciplines to be able to communicate in a more efficient manner.

In terms of the preparation, we proposed the program to the university and the university will process that over the next few months. From early 2019 to mid-2019, we will open the registration for the program and start the program in October. The preparation is coming along nicely and, although I cannot reveal much about the actual contents before it gets 100% approval from the university, we are receiving an overwhelming response, both from local and foreign students.

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