From Farm to Fork: How Blockchain Will Revolutionize the Way We Eat

When we think of potentially hazardous foods, chicken, pork or perhaps eggs might come to mind- but not lettuce.  Yet just last month in America, this supposedly harmless vegetable left 5 people dead and just under 200 seriously ill. The culprit? Contamination with the deadly E-coli bacteria at some point in the lettuce’s supply chain that, two months on, authorities have still been unable to identify.

In today’s complex and increasingly globalised supply chains, cases like this are becoming unwelcome regulars in our newsfeeds; so too are instances of mislabelling or even malicious tampering.  Outdated systems, never-ending paper trails and lack of visibility all contribute to the chaos. Every year, 30% of food produced worldwide is lost to supply chain errors, costing businesses a staggering US $1 trillion. Over 420,000 people die annually from contaminated food, a quarter of these being children. Our supply chains are long overdue a renovation, and the food industry thinks it has an answer: blockchain.

Over the past six months, major retailers across the globe, including Walmart and Carrefour, have announced pilot projects to experiment with blockchain-based supply chains. Proponents say that these new systems will revolutionize our current supply chains, reducing waste and creating safer, more efficient and more transparent processes for consumers and businesses alike. But is this simply another example of the hype endemic to blockchain, or will it prove genuinely transformative?

What is blockchain?

At its heart, blockchain is simply a ledger. Like a normal ledger, it can be used to document digital records of transactions. However, unlike centralised ledgers, which are stored on one single device, a blockchain is stored across multiple devices, and can be updated by multiple participants simultaneously. This makes it extremely transparent, and a highly effective tool for transacting across complex networks with numerous, geographically dispersed participants. Blockchain also offers a high degree of security and is effectively tamper proof, thanks to specialist cryptographic infrastructure- meaning it is virtually impossible to alter or delete information once it has been committed to the network.

On the surface, these characteristics of distribution and immutability make blockchain a highly attractive proposition for businesses with complex supply chains. It cuts out the need for the disparate, independent databases and paper trails that plague today’s systems, giving businesses an automatic, reliable and digitalised bird’s eye view over the journey of any product.

This increased transparency and traceability could offer significant advantages to food retailers. First, it incentivizes suppliers and producers to label products accurately and honestly- if an item has been tampered with, it is easy to identify the culprit. Currently, retracing a product’s journey through a supply chain takes weeks or months- something that was exemplified by the powerlessness of American authorities in the face of the E-coli crisis. A blockchain-backed system, by comparison, could reduce the time it takes to trace products from months to a matter of seconds.  This increased control over their networks could allow retailers to mitigate or even prevent contamination or quality incidents.

Giving customers increased visibility over the provenance of their food could also give businesses a competitive edge. Currently, consumers around the globe have little insight into the origins and quality of the food they are eating. In Chinese markets, where counterfeiting and quality has long been an issue, we are beginning to see this change. Retailer Alibaba, who is running its own blockchain pilot, is currently experimenting with adding QR codes to the back of imported butter. These are designed to allow consumers an overview of the butter’s lifecycle, giving them in depth information about the origins and quality of the product and acting as a reassurance that what they are buying is not a counterfeit. Retailers operating in the UK should pay attention. As we leave the European Union and its stringent food laws behind, consumer complacency around sourcing will likely decrease. Just earlier this year, there was wide scale public uproar against a potential import deal with America which threatened to bring in low welfare, chemical laden meat into the UK. If consumer mentality changes, businesses that prioritise transparency will stay one step ahead.

An imperfect system

While these potential benefits are significant, blockchain is no one-size-fits-all solution for supply chain management. Despite its transparency, this system- like any other database- is only as good as the participants operating on it, and will still be subject to human error (intentional or otherwise). The transparency of blockchain platforms does incentivize honesty, but businesses will still need to take measures to counter mistakes or fraudulent behaviour if they want a truly reliable overview of their supply networks. Such measures might include data verification technology like satellites, drones or sensors, but these will inevitably add to the cost of implementing these platforms.

Digital inclusion- or the lack of it- will also be a challenge for businesses who operate supply chains in developing nations. While the western world takes for granted digital technologies and our ability to operate these technologies, access to the same luxuries (or, in some cases, even the internet) cannot be assumed outside of this bubble. This has been a significant challenge for Moyee coffee, an Irish company trading on a blockhain powered supply chain, who have resorted to stationing employees in Ethiopia to operate the platform on behalf of producers. While this may work well on a small scale, linear supply chain, for larger organisations with more complex, disparate supply chains, it may not prove so easy.  It is also only a temporary solution; to make these platforms truly sustainable, businesses will need to take a longer-term approach to the underlying issues.

These challenges mean that blockchain, in spite of the noise currently being made in popular media, remains firmly in the proof-of-concept stage as a solution for supply chain management; it is not likely that it will be viable for widespread use for several years to come. However, despite these hurdles, blockchain’s impact on this industry should not be minimised. It has challenged the tired, outdated systems that are no longer fit for a globalised world; even if food retailers choose not to turn to blockchain for innovation, they should be striving towards the same goals it promotes- a more efficient, transparent supply chain for the benefit of businesses and consumers alike. Blockchain is no magic cure for the many woes that plague the food industry today- but it is certainly a good start.

 

Quantum Computers: A Beginner’s Guide

What they are, what they do, and what they mean for you

What if you could make a computer powerful enough to process all the information in the universe?

This might seem like something torn straight from fiction, and up until recently, it was. However with the arrival of quantum computing, we are about to make it reality. Recent breakthroughs by Intel and Google have catapulted the technology into the news. We now have lab prototypes, Silicon Valley start-ups and a multi-billion dollar research industry. Hype is on the rise, and we are seemingly on the cusp of a quantum revolution so powerful that it will completely transform our world.

On the back of this sensationalism trails confusion. What exactly are these machines and how do they work? And, most importantly, how will they change the world in which we live?

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At the most basic level, the difference between a standard computer and a quantum computer boils down to one thing: information storage. Information on standard computers is represented as bits– values of either 0 or 1, and these provide operational instructions for the computer.

This differs on quantum computers, as they store information on a physical level so microscopic that the normal laws of nature no longer apply. At this minuscule level, the laws of quantum mechanics take over and particles begin to behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways. As a result, these devices have an entirely different system of storing information: qubits, or rather, quantum bits.

Unlike the standard computer’s bit, which can have the value of either 0 or 1, a qubit can have the value of 0, 1 or both 0 and 1 at the same time. It can do this because of one of the fundamental (and most baffling) principles of quantum mechanics- quantum superposition, which is the idea that one particle can exist in multiple states at the same time. Put another way: imagine flipping a coin. In the world as we know it (and therefore the world of standard computing), you can only have one of two results: heads or tails. In the quantum world, the result can be heads and tails.

What does all of this this mean in practice? In short, the answer is speed. Because qubits can exist in multiple states at the same time, they are capable of running multiple calculations simultaneously. For example, a 1 qubit computer can conduct 2 calculations at the same time, a 2 qubit computer can conduct 4, and a 3 qubit computer can conduct 8- increasing exponentially. Operating under these rules, quantum computers bypass the “one-at-a-time” sequence of calculation that a classical computer is bound by. In the process, they become the ultimate multi-taskers.

To give you a taste of what that kind speed might look like in real terms, we can look back to 2015, when Google and Nasa partnered up to test an early prototype of a quantum computer called D-Wave 2X. Taking on a complex optimisation problem, D-Wave was able to work at a rate roughly 100 million times faster than a single core classical computer and produced a solution in seconds. Given the same problem, a standard laptop would have taken 10,000 years.

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Given their potential for speed, it is easy to imagine a staggering range of possibilities and use cases for these machines. The current reality is slightly less glamorous. It is inaccurate to think of quantum computers as simply being “better” versions of classical computers. They won’t simply speed up any task run through them (although they may do that in some instances). They are, in fact, only suited to solving highly specific problems in certain contexts- but there’s still a lot to be excited about.

One possibility that has attracted a lot of fanfare lies in the field of medicine. Last year, IBM made headlines when they used their quantum computer to successfully simulate the molecular structure of beryllium hydride, the most complex molecule ever simulated on a quantum machine. This is a field of research which classical computers usually have extreme difficulty with, and even supercomputers struggle to cope with the vast range of atomic (and sometimes quantum) complexities presented by complex molecular structures. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are able to read and predict the behaviour of such molecules with ease, even at a minuscule level. This ability is significant not just in an academic context; it is precisely this process of simulating molecules that is currently used to produce new drugs and treatments for disease. Harnessing the power of quantum computing for this kind of research could lead to a revolution in the development of new medicines.

But while quantum computers might set in motion a new wave of scientific innovation, they may also give rise to significant challenges. One such potentially hazardous use case is the quantum computer’s ability to factorise extremely large numbers. While this might seem relatively harmless at first sight, it is already stirring up anxieties in banks and governments around the world. Modern day cryptography, which ensures the security of the majority of data worldwide, relies on complex mathematical problems- tied to factorisation- that classical computers have insufficient power to solve. Such problems, however, are no match for quantum computers, and the arrival of these machines could render modern methods of cryptography meaningless, leaving everything from our passwords and bank details to even state secrets extremely vulnerable, able to be hacked, stolen or misused in the blink of an eye.

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Despite the rapid progress that has been made over the last few years, an extensive list of obstacles still remain, with hardware right at the top. Quantum computers are extremely delicate machines, and a highly specialised environment is required to produce the quantum state that gives qubits their special properties. For example, they must be cooled to near absolute zero (roughly the temperature of outer space) and are extremely sensitive to any kind of interference from electricity or temperature. As a result, today’s machines are highly unstable, and often only maintain their quantum states for just a few milliseconds before collapsing back into normality- hardly practical for regular use.

Alongside these hardware challenges marches an additional problem: a software deficit. Like a classical computer, quantum computers need software to function. However, this software has proved extremely challenging to create. We currently have very few effective algorithms for quantum computers, and without the right algorithms, they are essentially useless- like having a Mac without a power button or keyboard. There are some strides being made in this area (QuSoft, for example) but we would need to see vast advances in this field before widespread adoption becomes plausible. In other words, don’t expect to start “quoogling” any time soon.

So despite all the hype that has recently surrounded quantum computers, the reality is that now (and for the foreseeable future) they are nothing more than expensive corporate toys: glossy, futuristic and fascinating, but with limited practical applications and a hefty price tag attached. Is the quantum revolution just around the corner? Probably not. Does that mean you should forget about them? Absolutely not.

Blockchain in a post GDPR World

Blockchain’s explosive growth has had businesses all over the globe scrambling to invest. But with GDPR fast approaching, how will an unchangeable database cope with the right to be forgotten?

How do you inflate your share price by 400% in a day? The answer is simple: add the word blockchain to your company’s name. As absurd as these figures seem, this is actually what happened last October to venture capitalist firm On-line Plc, following their decision to alter their name to On-line Blockchain Plc.

Olivia Green - Article

This shocking report is an accurate reflection of the current level of hype surrounding this new technology, with companies left, right and centre moving to adopt blockchain. A reported 57% of large UK corporations now have immediate plans to implement blockchain into their infrastructure by the end of 2018, while demand for blockchain specialists has nearly tripled in the last year alone. But while organisations have been avidly investing in this new phenomenon, they have also (rather more reluctantly) been preparing for an equally important, but slightly less exciting, development in the tech world: GDPR.

Much of the hype surrounding blockchain has been garnered because it is an immutable method of storing information- meaning that once information is loaded onto the blockchain, it cannot be edited or deleted. However, come May 2018, this unique feature may bring more pain than joy to businesses, as one of the most significant clauses in GDPR comes into effect: the right to be forgotten. This stipulates that individuals have the right to insist that organisations erase any personal information they hold on them. Apply this clause to blockchain, and the result is a non-compliant system and a £17 million fine. So what options do businesses have?

Edit the uneditable

One answer is to change blockchain itself. Accenture, for example, have recently patented an “editable” version of blockchain, which can be altered under certain circumstances by pre-ordained parties- a modification that could be easily moulded into being GDPR compliant and, at first sight, an appealingly easy solution.

However, there are some problems with this approach. As critics have pointed out, one of blockchain’s key (and unique) values is its immutability. It is this feature, making it immune to certain kinds of malicious interference such as misappropriation of assets or fraudulent financial reporting, that gives it so much appeal. By allowing even the possibility of interference, its trustworthiness as an absolute source of information is diminished. For organisations such as banks and other financial institutions, who are anxious to utilise the power of blockchain to build trust and protect against this kind of interference, an “editable blockchain” is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution.

Legal loopholes

For those who are either unwilling or unable to adopt an editable model, legal solutions may be sufficient. GDPR itself offers no explanation as to what “erasure” actually constitutes, and, while this might seem obvious at first sight, it could be an opportunity.  In the past, for example, some authorities have ruled that encryption can legally be equal to deletion- that is, if data is irreversibly encrypted, it is considered to be erased.  It is possible to apply mechanisms like this to data stored on blockchain, via encrypting pieces of data and then “losing” the decryption key- effectively meaning that the information can never be read.

However, this is a risky solution for organisations. As the data is not actually deleted in this process, but simply rendered inaccessible, it may be vulnerable to future technological developments able to break into its encryption (quantum computing, for example). With this in mind, it is likely that European authorities will insist on a strictly all-or-nothing interpretation of data deletion- meaning that relying on mechanisms such as encryption to achieve compliance would be dangerous.

Going off-grid

If neither of these options suffices, businesses can take a more extreme route: remove personal data from the blockchain completely. This does not necessarily mean disposing of blockchain too- one possible workaround, described in more depth here, reduces blockchain to a simple “access control medium”; instead of storing personal information on the chain, links to external databases containing said information can be placed in blocks. As the rules of blockchain no longer apply in these external databases, any information stored like this could be freely deleted or changed at will. The benefits of this approach are clear- it allows for full, uncontested erasure of data, while still retaining some of the functionality of blockchain.

However, as with other options, this is still not a wholly satisfying solution. It creates an inefficient, complex process, and reduces transparency over who is accessing personal data and how- paradoxically creating even more hurdles to GDPR compliance, which also requires that organisations must have accessible and transparent processes for data management. Additionally, removing data from the immutable environment of blockchain gives rise to the same problems faced by Accenture’s “editable blockchain”; external databases can be altered or subjected to fraudulent interference, and so the trustworthiness of the system is undermined.

An uncertain future

So where does this leave organisations who use blockchain? The answer, at this stage, is frustratingly unclear. Every solution detailed above involves either sacrificing the functionality (and benefits) of blockchain or risking the security of personal data. The latter is hardly an attractive option, and if organisations must transform the blockchain beyond recognition to become compliant with GDPR, it begs the question- what is the point in using the blockchain at all? Yet it is hardly practical for authorities to demand that organisations simply stop using blockchain, given its soaring popularity, proven benefits and widespread adoption.

In ethical terms, Blockchain’s immutability is a paradox: on the one hand, it helps to prevent corruption, fraud and theft; on the other, it removes the individual’s rights over his or her personal information. This paradox makes it a complicated system to legislate effectively for, and the current tensions are symptomatic of lawmakers’ struggles to keep up with new developments in the fast-paced and ever-changing world of technology. In this case, it may not just be businesses that need to adapt; legislators too may need to take an iterative and flexible approach to GDPR.

Come May 2018, reconciling GDPR and blockchain will likely be just one challenge among many for both corporations and legislators. Yet as blockchain becomes ever more tightly wound into the infrastructure of major organisations around the globe, it is not a challenge that either can afford to ignore.

Data, consumers and trust: the quiet crisis

Building trust-based relationships with clients has always been important for successful business practice.  As the global data pool grows and consumer fears over personal privacy increase, it may become make-or-break.  Digilab’s Olivia Green investigates.

In the last two years, we have created 90% of the total data in the world today. In a day, we spit out an average of 2.5 quintillion bytes – and counting. From smart watches that monitor our heartrates to chat-bot therapists who manage our anxiety, nearly every aspect of our lives can be digitized. This undoubtedly provides us with immense benefits – increased speed, convenience and personalisation to name a few. Yet it also gives rise to a challenge: how do we protect our right to privacy?

Anxieties over internet privacy are nothing new. As the data pool continues to expand however, they have been picking up steam. Hacks and other tech-related scare stories are now a daily occurrence on our newsfeeds – and they are increasingly hitting closer to home. Back in May, the credit card details and passwords of nearly 700,000 UK citizens were compromised when Equifax fell victim to a hack. Even our private conversations don’t feel safe, as it emerged last month that Google’s new Home Mini had been accidentally recording its users without their knowledge.

Corporations themselves are also a target of consumer fear, and they are beginning to pay the price. According to recent research, US organisations alone lost $756 billion last year to lack of trust and poor personalisation, as consumers sought out alternatives. UK consumers share similar anxieties; nearly 80% of cite lack of confidence in the way that companies to handle their information as an extreme source of concern, while just under half now view data sharing as a “necessary evil”- something they will do reluctantly if they deem the reward high enough.

These findings aren’t an anomaly. Statistics gathered last year by the ICO show that only 22% of UK consumers trust internet brands with their personal data; more shockingly, they highlight that while over 50% of consumers trust High Street banks, only 36% have confidence in Governmental bodies to manage their data properly.

The price of complacency

So far, companies have largely managed to side-step the more serious consequences for consumer mistrust and data mismanagement. Not all have been lucky though. The notorious Ashley Madison hack in 2015 is a prime example of just how damaging loss of trust can be. The website, which provided an online platform enabling married people to conduct affairs, fell victim to hackers who published a digital “name and shame” list of its clients. For a business whose model was so dependent on trust and confidentiality, this proved disastrous. Despite the organisation’s insistent claims otherwise, analysis by SimilarWeb revealed that monthly site traffic had plunged since the attack, dropping by nearly 140 million a mere four months after the attack.

For some, the fallout is less dramatic – but still worrying. Take Uber’s recent breach for example, which dragged its already battered corporate reputation through the mud once again after it was revealed that the ride-sharing company had tried to cover up a 2016 data hack affecting 57 million customers. The immediate furore that followed this has raised some immediate problems for the firm, including the threat of prosecution and impending investigations by multiple countries worldwide. Even more problematic for Uber are the wider-ranging consequences of this cover up. In combination with their potential loss of the London market and recent workplace scandals, this disastrous year has materialised into real financial impact; at the close of this quarter, Uber logged record losses of $1.5 billion, a $400 million increase on previous quarter and a far cry from their triumphant predictions of growth at the beginning of 2017. In a particularly telling sign, Uber’s investors also appear to be hedging their bets. Fidelity, who already have a significant stake in Uber, announced last week that they had participated in a funding round for Uber’s closest competitor, Lyft, pushing the latter’s valuation up to $11.5 billion.

Unlike Ashley Madison, Uber’s problems arose not so much from the hack itself, but from their attempt to cover it up. But despite the evident lesson here, this is a scenario we could see again. Over 2/3 of UK boards currently have no training to deal with a cyber-incident and estimates suggest that only 20% of companies have appropriate response plans in place. For Uber, the ultimate consequences of its misconduct remain to be seen; for the moment, they are protected by their largely unique offering, which gives consumers limited alternatives. Should it happen to a business without Uber’s dominance, it could prove fatal.

Monetising trust

How can organisations move forward from here? In the current climate, it is unlikely that consumers will ever wholly withhold their data, as they place value on the services that giving away that data provide- as much has been shown by the fact that risky “data trade-offs” like Uber manage to survive.  However, as awareness of the risks and the stakes of losing data to a hacker increase, they are looking increasingly selective about who they choose to share their information with. As more and more information shifts from physical to digital, businesses must be prepared for change. We may be heading towards a future where access to data is no longer a handout but a privilege, hard won by effective risk management and transparent, secure systems that hand back sovereignty to the customer.

Yet it is this data that may ultimately decide who wins and who loses in our future digital economy. Consumer data is the life blood of capabilities like AI and predictive analytics, and is essential for providing the personalised services such as smart home devices that are becoming increasingly popular. Businesses that are cut off from this valuable information source will inevitably find themselves undercut by better-placed competitors.

To protect themselves against this eventuality, businesses in crowded markets should make effective data strategies an utmost priority. Companies like Uber may be shielded for the time being; nevertheless, even they can’t afford to breathe easy. As the surging interest in Lyft is demonstrating, rivals are never far behind.

Look out for my next blog about how GDPR can help your business build a future-proof data strategy.

What do you think? Leave a response below or contact me by email.