Daily Archives: June 21, 2018

Enhanced cellular blockchain

I thought there was a need for a cellular blockchain variant, and a more sustainable alternative to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that depend on unsustainable proofs-of-work. So I designed one and gave it a temporary project name of Grapevine. I like biomimetics, which I used for both the blockchain itself and its derivative management/application/currency/SW distribution layer. The ANTs were my invention in 1993 when I was with BT, along with Chris Winter. BT never did anything with it, and I believe MIT later published some notes on the idea too. ANTs provide an ideal companion to blockchain and together, could be the basis of some very secure IT systems.

The following has not been thoroughly checked so may contain serious flaws, but hopefully contain some useful ideas to push the field a little in the right direction.

A cellular, distributed, secure ledger and value assurance system – a cheap, fast, sustainable blockchain variant

  • Global blockchain grows quickly to enormous size because all transactions are recorded in single chain – e.g. bitcoin blockchain is already >100GB
  • Grapevine (temp project name) cellular approach would keep local blocks small and self-contained but assured by blockchain-style verification during growth and protected from tampering after block is sealed and stripped by threading with a global thread
  • Somewhat analogous to a grape vine. Think of each local block as a grape that grow in bunches. Vine links bunches together but grapes are all self-contained and stay small in size. Genetics/nutrients/materials/processes all common to entire vine.
  • Grape starts as a flower, a small collection of unverified transactions. All stamens listen to transactions broadcast via any stamen. Flower is periodically (every minute) frozen (for 2 seconds) while pollen is emitted by each stamen, containing stamen signature, previous status verification and new transactions list. Stamens check the pollen they receive for origin signature and previous growth verification and then check all new transactions. If valid, they emit a signed pollination announcement. When each stamen has received signed pollination announcements from the majority of other stamens, that growth stage is closed, (all quite blockchain-like so far), stripped of unnecessary packaging such as previous hash, signatures etc) to leave a clean record of validated transactions, which is then secured from tampering by the grape signature and hash. The next stage of growth then begins, which needs another pollination process (deviating from biological analogy here). Each grape on the bunch grows like this throughout the day. When the grapes are all fully grown, and the final checks made by each grape, the grapes are stripped again and the whole bunch is signed onto the vine using a highly secure bunch signature and hash to prevent any later tampering. Grapes are therefore collections of verified local transactions that have grown in many fully verified stages during the day but are limited in size and stripped of unnecessary packaging. The bunch is a verified global record of all of the grapes grown that day that remains the same forever. The vine is a growing collection of bunches of grapes, but each new grape and bunch starts off fresh each day so signalling and the chain never grow significantly. Each transaction remains verified and recorded forever but signalling is kept minimal. As processing power increases, earlier bunches can be re-secured using a new bunch signature.

Key Advantages

  • Grape vine analogy is easier for non-IT managers to understand than normal blockchain.
  • Unlike conventional blockchains, blocks grow in stages so transactions don’t have to wait long to be verified and sealed.
  • Cellular structure means signalling is always light, with just a few nearby nodes checking a few transactions and keeping short records.
  • Ditto bunching, each day’s records start from zero and bunch is finished and locked at end of day.
  • Cellular structure allows sojourn time for signalling to be kept low with potentially low periods for verification and checking. Will scale well with improving processing speed, less limited by signal propagation time than non-cellular chains.
  • Global all-time record is still complete, duplicated, distributed, but signalling for new transactions always starts light and local every new day.
  • Cellular approach allows easy re-use of globally authenticated tokens within each cell. This limits cost of token production.
  • Cells may be either geographic or logical/virtual. Virtual cells can be geographically global (at penalty of slower comms), but since each is independent until the end of the day, virtual cell speed will not affect local cell speed.
  • Protocols can be different for different cells, allowing cells with higher value transactions to use tighter security.

Associated mechanisms

  • Inter-cell transactions can be implemented easily by using logical/virtual cell that includes both parties. Users may need to be registered for access to multiple cells. If value is being transferred, it is easy to arrange clearing of local cell first (1 minute overhead) and then check currency hasn’t already been spent before allowing transaction on another cell.
  • Grapes are self-contained and data is held locally, duplicated among several stamens. Once sealed for the day, the grape data remains in place, signed off with the appropriate grape signature and the bunch signature verifies it with an extra lock that prevents even a future local majority from being able to tamper with it later. To preserve data in the very long-term against O/S changes, company failure etc, subsequent certified copies may be distributed and kept updated.
  • Signalling during the day can be based on ANT (autonomous network telepher) protocols. These use a strictly limited variety of ANT species that are authenticated and shared at the start of a period (a day or a week perhaps), using period lifetime encryption keys. Level of encryption is determined by ensuring that period is much smaller than the estimated time to crack on current hardware at reasonable cost. All messages use this encryption and ANT mechanisms therefore chances of infiltration or fraudulent transaction is very low so associated signalling and time overhead costs are kept low.
  • ANTs may include transaction descriptor packets, signature distribution packets, new key distribution packets, active (executable code) packets, new member verification packets, software distribution, other admin data, performance maintenance packets such as load distribution, RPCs and many others. Overall, perhaps 64 possible ANT species may be allowed at any one time. This facility makes the system ideal for secure OS and software distribution/maintenance.

Financial use

  • ANTs can contain currency to make valuable packets, or an ANT variant could actually be currency.
  • Optional coins could be made for privacy, otherwise transactions would use real world accounts. A coin-based system can be implemented simply by using the grape signature and coin number. Coins could be faked by decrypting the signature but that signature only lasts one period so by then they will be invalid. Remember, encryption level is set according to cost to decrypt during a period. Coins are globally unique due to different cells having different signatures. Once grapes are sealed no tampering is possible.
  • One mechanism is that coins are used as temporary currency that only lasts one period. Coins are bought using any currency immediately before transactions. At end of day, coins are converted back to desired currency. Any profits/losses due to conversion differences during day accrue to user at point of conversion.
  • A lingering cybercurrency can be made that renews its value to live longer than one period. It simply needs conversion to a new coin at the start of the new day, relying on signature security and short longevity to protect.
  • ANTs can alternatively carry real currency value by direct connection to any account. At end of each growth stage or end of day, transaction clearing debits and deposits in each respective account accordingly.
  • Transaction fees can be implemented easily and simply debited at either or both ends.
  • No expensive PoW is needed. Wasteful mining and PoW activity is unnecessary. Entire system relies only on using encryption signatures that are valid for shorter times than their cost-effective decryption times. Tamper-resistance avoids decryption of earlier signatures being useful.

With thanks to my good friend Prof Nick Colosimo for letting me bounce the ideas off him.

Monopoly and diversity laws should surely apply to political views too

With all the calls for staff diversity and equal representation, one important area of difference has so far been left unaddressed: political leaning. In many organisations, the political views of staff don’t matter. Nobody cares about the political views of staff in a double glazing manufacturer because they are unlikely to affect the qualities of a window. However, in an organisation that has a high market share in TV, social media or internet search, or that is a government department or a public service, political bias can have far-reaching effects. If too many of its staff and their decisions favor a particular political view, it is danger of becoming what is sometimes called ‘the deep state’. That is, their everyday decisions and behaviors might privilege one group over another. If most of their colleagues share similar views, they might not even be aware of their bias, because they are the norm in their everyday world. They might think they are doing their job without fear of favor but still strongly preference one group of users over another.

Staff bias doesn’t only an organisation’s policies, values and decisions. It also affects recruitment and promotion, and can result in increasing concentration of a particular world view until it becomes an issue. When a vacancy appears at board level, remaining board members will tend to promote someone who thinks like themselves. Once any leaning takes hold, near monopoly can quickly result.

A government department should obviously be free of bias so that it can carry out instructions from a democratically elected government with equal professionalism regardless of its political flavor. Employees may be in positions where they can allocate resources or manpower more to one area than another, or provide analysis to ministers, or expedite or delay a communication, or emphasize or dilute a recommendation in a survey, or may otherwise have some flexibility in interpreting instructions and even laws. It is important they do so without political bias so transparency of decision-making for external observers is needed along with systems and checks and balances to prevent and test for bias or rectify it when found. But even if staff don’t deliberately abuse their positions to deliberately obstruct or favor, if a department has too many staff from one part of the political spectrum, normalization of views can again cause institutional bias and behavior. It is therefore important for government departments and public services to have work-forces that reflect the political spectrum fairly, at all levels. A department that implements a policy from a government of one flavor but impedes a different one from a new government of opposite flavor is in strong need of reform and re-balancing. It has become a deep state problem. Bias could be in any direction of course, but any public sector department must be scrupulously fair in its implementation of the services it is intended to provide.

Entire professions can be affected. Bias can obviously occur in any direction but over many decades of slow change, academia has become dominated by left-wing employees, and primary teaching by almost exclusively female ones. If someone spends most of their time with others who share the same views, those views can become normalized to the point that a dedicated teacher might think they are delivering a politically balanced lesson that is actually far from it. It is impossible to spend all day teaching kids without some personal views and values rub off on them. The young have always been slightly idealistic and left leaning – it takes years of adult experience of non-academia to learn the pragmatic reality of implementing that idealism, during which people generally migrate rightwards -but with a stronger left bias ingrained during education, it takes longer for people to unlearn naiveté and replace it with reality. Surely education should be educating kids about all political viewpoints and teaching them how to think so they can choose for themselves where to put their allegiance, not a long process of political indoctrination?

The media has certainly become more politically crystallized and aligned in the last decade, with far fewer media companies catering for people across the spectrum. There are strongly left-wing and right-wing papers, magazines, TV and radio channels or shows. People have a free choice of which papers to read, and normal monopoly laws work reasonably well here, with proper checks when there is a proposed takeover that might result in someone getting too much market share. However, there are still clear examples of near monopoly in other places where fair representation is particularly important. In spite of frequent denials of any bias, the BBC for example was found to have a strong pro-EU/Remain bias for its panel on its flagship show Question Time:

https://iea.org.uk/media/iea-analysis-shows-systemic-bias-against-leave-supporters-on-flagship-bbc-political-programmes/

The BBC does not have a TV or radio monopoly but it does have a very strong share of influence. Shows such as Question Time can strongly influence public opinion so if biased towards one viewpoint could be considered as campaigning for that cause, though their contributions would lie outside electoral commission scrutiny of campaign funding. Many examples of BBC bias on a variety of social and political issues exist. It often faces accusations of bias from every direction, sometimes unfairly, so again proper transparency must exist so that independent external groups can appeal for change and be heard fairly, and change enforced when necessary. The BBC is in a highly privileged position, paid for by a compulsory license fee on pain of imprisonment, and also in a socially and politically influential position. It is doubly important that it proportionally represents the views of the people rather than acting as an activist group using license-payer funds to push the political views of the staff, engaging in their own social engineering campaigns, or otherwise being propaganda machines.

As for private industry, most isn’t in a position of political influence, but some areas certainly are. Social media have enormous power to influence the views its users are exposed to, choosing to filter or demote material they don’t approve of, as well as providing a superb activist platform. Search companies can choose to deliver results according to their own agendas, with those they support featuring earlier or more prominently than those they don’t. If social media or search companies provide different service or support or access according to political leaning of the customer then they can become part of the deep state. And again, with normalization creating the risk of institutional bias, the clear remedy is to ensure that these companies have a mixture of staff representative of social mix. They seem extremely enthusiastic about doing that for other forms of diversity. They need to apply similar enthusiasm to political diversity too.

Achieving it won’t be easy. IT companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter currently have a strong left leaning, though the problem would be just as bad if it were to swing the other direction. Given the natural monopoly tendency in each sector, social media companies should be politically neutral, not deep state companies.

AI being developed to filter posts or decide how much attention they get must also be unbiased. AI algorithmic bias could become a big problem, but it is just as important that bias is judged by neutral bodies, not by people who are biased themselves, who may try to ensure that AI shares their own leaning. I wrote about this issue here: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

But what about government? Today’s big issue in the UK is Brexit. In spite of all its members being elected or reelected during the Brexit process, the UK Parliament itself nevertheless has 75% of MPs to defend the interests of the 48% voting Remain  and only 25% to represent the other 52%. Remainers get 3 times more Parliamentary representation than Brexiters. People can choose who they vote for, but with only candidate available from each party, voters cannot choose by more than one factor and most people will vote by party line, preserving whatever bias exists when parties select which candidates to offer. It would be impossible to ensure that every interest is reflected proportionately but there is another solution. I suggested that scaled votes could be used for some issues, scaling an MP’s vote weighting by the proportion of the population supporting their view on that issue:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/achieving-fair-representation-in-the-new-uk-parliament/

Like company boards, once a significant bias in one direction exists, political leaning tends to self-reinforce to the point of near monopoly. Deliberate procedures need to be put in place to ensure equality or representation, even when people are elected. Obviously people who benefit from current bias will resist change, but everyone loses if democracy cannot work properly.

The lack of political diversity in so many organisations is becoming a problem. Effective government may be deliberately weakened or amplified by departments with their own alternative agendas, while social media and media companies may easily abuse their enormous power to push their own sociopolitical agendas. Proper functioning of democracy requires that this problem is fixed, even if a lot of people like it the way it is.