Blockchain week? Let’s make it last!

30 November 2017

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening at a scale, speed and complexity that requires the Government to fully engage with the ideas, innovation and what may (or indeed may not) be possible with the technology developing around us.  The Industrial Strategy, published on Monday, rightly highlighted that we are living through a period of unprecedented technological change and focused on the five foundations of: ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and places. I welcome the fact the industrial strategy acknowledges this through a policy commitment to raise total research and development (R&D) investment, increase the rate of R&D tax credit and invest £725m in new Industrial Strategy Fund programmes to “capture the value of innovation.” Making AI one of the sector deal partnerships is another excellent step in the right direction.

The industrial strategy kicked off a week of thinking about technology; the implications, the need for action and the specific technologies themselves, in particular distributed ledger technologies (DLT), the most famous example of which is blockchain the technology that underpins Bitcoin. Blockchain works by linking ‘blocks’ of cryptographically sealed data records, as in a database or spreadsheet.  The sequence of linked blocks (the blockchain) cannot be altered without breaking the chain.  Consequently, an unbroken blockchain promotes trust and provides extremely strong evidence that the data has not been altered or tampered with.  Blockchain is just one example of DLT but more broadly DLT has the potential to ensure data integrity and avoid data fragmentation, allowing far greater integration of new and existing systems and improved organisational effectiveness.

Also published on Monday was a Reform report, The future of public service identity: blockchain. It proposes the use of blockchain to allow citizens to manage and share identity data through a smartphone application. I was delighted to speak at the launch event and roundtable discussion where a key theme was the importance of thinking about technology as infrastructure. Rather than approaching technology, such as blockchain, as a panacea and expecting a silver bullet to fix all our problems we must think of it as infrastructure; explore applications, ask questions and genuinely engage with the opportunities and challenges it presents. That is why looking at use cases as Reform have done in this report is so important.

On Tuesday I was delighted to reiterate this point by publishing a report calling for the Government to demonstrate leadership by facilitating public-private sector collaboration, applying academic rigour and exploring the various ways DLT could bring opportunities to transform public service delivery.  The report, Distributed Ledger Technologies for public good: leadership, collaboration and innovation, sets out key areas across the public sector where DLT could enable increased safety and security, transparency, traceability and trust, reduce cost and increase service quality for the citizen. The report considers major areas of opportunity such as: border control, national security, taxation and benefits payment, health assurance, food standards and safety, cybersecurity and public procurement. I was delighted that the report was welcomed by Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the civil service, and look forward to following the progress of various proof of concept use cases across government.

The UK Government has a real opportunity to use its convening power and its ability to influence and encourage commercial developments so that DLT progresses on the widest possible front and in the interests of all UK citizens and businesses. I believe that, properly developed, DLT could play a valuable and transformational part in the delivery of government services to the citizens of the UK, in securing the UK’s competitive position as a global leader in technology-based innovation.

On Wednesday, as part of a panel about preparing for the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI), I was pleased to note the general mood of optimism about the future and the potential for technology to improve society. This is not about making predictions – we can leave that the Hollywood and their, generally, dystopian fantasies – but about making choices and the government’s role must absolutely be one of leadership. At the same summit Chi Onwarah MP made a brilliant case for the role of government being one in which we shouldn’t regulate every byte but we should establish what society we want and what principles regulation needs to protect. It is an incredible important conversation and I’m looking forward to continuing it beyond this week of blockchain!

Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, Member of the Lords Artificial Intelligence Select Committee

@LordCHolmes

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