Victoria Lemieux is a Senior Public Sector Specialist (Information Management) and an Associate Professor of Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia. She has held positions as a professional archivist, records manager and risk manager within the public and private sectors. She has also consulted for the United Nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the World Bank. She works now on several projects related to the conservation and availability of data in blockchain.
We have titled our research as “Blockchain: building trust”. How would you define Blockchain in a nutshell?
I like that definition. Being an academic, I’m closer to studying how others define blockchain than defining it myself. As such, I’m leading an international effort to develop a Blockchain Terminology Database. We have a team from Canada, Croatia and Japan working on gathering definitions from various sources, such as white papers, government reports and the industry press, which we hope will represent various viewpoints on key terms and concepts as the basis for eventually discussing and agreeing how these terms should be defined by the international community.
What are the main limitations of that technology? Maybe, as a recordkeeping technology, the long-term availability, and authentication of records?
I think that long-term preservation issues continue to be of concern. Having the ledger on distributed nodes does give some level of protection, because lots of copies means that if one is lost, there are still more. However, the whole network is still vulnerable to a systemic shock, and the issue of what to consider as the “preservation copy” in the event of a hard fork remains. Establishing authenticity also remains a challenge because most blockchain solutions only look at authenticating the bit structure, or content of what is being anchored on chain. However, in the archival and legal worlds, aspects of form and contexts also establish the unique identity of a record and help determine whether it is authentic or a forgery. At blockchain@UBC we are researching these issues and identifying possible solutions. Aside from these issues, I think there are also governance challenges that need to be addressed to ensure the system integrity needed to establish authenticity and support long-term preservation.
Can we deduce from your research that once the recordkeeping issues are solved -thanks to effective standards, there will be no more big concerns for blockchain as a record technology?
Absolutely not. I am looking at the technology through one tiny lens – that of archival science. I am working towards addressing those issues that I see and can provide expertise towards resolving. But, there are many other challenges – like identifying viable use cases and working on the legal, social or political challenges of implementation. These are outside of my area of expertise, but very important aspects of successful adoption of this technology. Blockchain’ success will depend on multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration and support.
Is it true that when talking about blockchain we only hear the speech of enthusiasts, but not the awareness of those who think of risks and limitations?
It’s true that blockchain is near or at the top of the Gartner “hype cycle.” From this standpoint, we hear a lot more from enthusiasts than doubters. That said, I have found a willingness among many blockchain developers to work on open issues and areas of blockchain technology needing development. The technology has great potential, and as long as the community is willing to work on issues, I believe that we will achieve a point where the technology really delivers on its promise. What time frame this will happen is anyone’s guess, though!
As an emerging technology, do you think blockchain will go through the next stages (Disillusionment, Enlightenment, Productivity)? And how this evolution in the maturity will shape?
Probably. I’m seeing a lot of similarity between the evolution of blockchain technology and the evolution of cloud technology. To me, it feels like it did in 2007 when cloud was just emerging. Accept, the evolution of blockchain feels a lot faster, so maybe we’ll move through the cycle faster.
Some big corporations (Microsoft, IBM, Deloitte…) are investing heavily on different projects related to blockchain. Is that a guarantee of future consolidation, are they just experimenting, occupying the “pole position” to lead the market…?
Yes, there is a lot of investment going on. I think they are motivated by a bit of both – seeing what’s going to happen, experimenting, and in some cases more than others, laying a foundation for what is likely to be a fairly successful business model.
The internet took 20 years to develop as a commercial platform. Will the blockchain technology develop faster as an infrastructure for business and economic exchanges? What does this development depend on?
As mentioned, to me it feels like it is moving faster. But, it’s hard to say if this impression is real or not in the absence of hard facts to support it. Successful development will depend on solving some of the technical and governance issues I mentioned above, plus a host of technical issues -scaling issues, for example. But beyond that, it will depend on addressing some of the social, legal and political issues that may present barriers to adoption or areas of resistance. For certain use cases, things move faster because the risks are lower relative to the advantages; in other areas it will be the opposite. It will take more time in some cases than in others.
For more about blockchain, read the study “Blockchain: building trust” from Rebel Thinking.