In the short decade since the Nakamoto paper  cryptocurrency enthusiasts have put forward a variety of use cases for blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is notable that most of the exciting use cases aren’t actually in the canonical paper itself, and most of them have yet to prove out in the real world. (And the most successful use cases are the ones not put forward as good examples–extortion, dark commerce, money laundering, etc.)
One of the perennial favorite use cases is Provenance: tracing goods from source to consumer. For companies, this is “logistics” or “supply chain”, for ordinary consumer this is about quality control. This the same problem that scientists (and anyone) faces with data quality—where did this data come from, and what has been done to it? In the latter form, this is called “provenance” and we were struggling with solutions a long time ago (before Nakamoto, Ante Bitcoin) .
This month yet another company touted this use case at the Ethereal Summit in NYC  . The presentation by Viant traced a Tuna from Fiji all the way to the conference sushi plates. Tagged with RFID, records of the sales and transportation of the fish are on the Ethereum blockchain, so everyone can check that the fish they are eating is “moral”. (How it can be “moral” to harvest increasingly rare wild animals and fly them half way around the world beats me.)
This is the yuppie version of Provenance (making sure that my luxury goods are authentic and “moral”), but the technology is the same as any supply chain.
Looking at Viant’s web site, they seem to have a reasonable grasp on the problem. They have a logical model of provenance that includes “four pivotal aspects of an asset: Who, What, When, and Where”. The model includes “Actors” and actions, and “Roles” that define permissions. IMO, this is the right stuff (See ) .
They also have RFIDs to tag and geo track, and apps to implement operations (e.g., sales to distributors). These are certainly the right technology, and they are lucky to have ubiquitous mobile devices and “the cloud” to implement these concepts we pioneered in the late twentieth .
So what does blockchain technology bring to the table?
First of all, it is used as a shared database, essentially a bulletin board. The cryptocraphically signed and immutable records provide an unfudgeable trace of the object’s life. And the blockchain is available to anyone, so ordinary consumers can get the authenticated traces of the object. (More likely, any third party can create apps that deliver the information to consumers – no normal person monkeys around with the blockchain itself.)
The second feature is the use of Ethereum “smart contracts” to process the transactions. This technology lets the company post standard scripts for, say, transfer of an asset. The script is available anywhere, and executes the same way for everyone.
These features are, of course, available from conventional databases and file systems as well. But the Ethereum blockchain is available to everyone, and is maintained by the Ethereum network rather than dedicated servers. This is the third advantage of the blockchain—deployment (no need for server farms), availability (no server access required) and maybe cost (TBD).
It is interesting to point out one feature of Nakamotoan blockchains that is not really used here: trustlessness. While the system boasts that it is decentralized and therefore “trustless”, this is misleading.
Provenance is literally all about trust. The point of tracing the object is to assure that it is what it is supposed to be, and that requires knowing who did what, etc. Furthermore, it needs to establish a trusted trace, with each actor and action attested by a trusted source.
Using a blockchain, or, indeed, any digital system, is not sufficient to achieve this. The company will tell you this. The RFID can be removed or destroyed. Actors can make mistakes or be suborned. On the blockchain, false records look the same as correct records (and can never be removed). Trust involve real world protocols, including authentication of identities.
In this area, the blockchain may actually be a liability. The “trustless” data cannot be trusted. Part of what the company is doing with the “smart contracts” is overlaying a network of trusted records on the trustless blockchain.
There are other potential draw backs of using a blockchain in this use case.
Let’s talk about privacy. Think about it. It’s not clear just how “moral” it is for anyone in the world to know where every bit of sushi came from and ended up. Individual fishing captains don’t necessarily want any kid on the Internet snooping on their business, not to mention rival captains and possible criminal gangs. And the caterer doesn’t necessarily want random people, competitors, or criminals tracking their business. And so on.
Second, there is no way to correct mistakes. Even if the software is always correct (which is unlikely), people make mistakes and are dishonest. If bad information gets onto the blockchain, it can’t be removed or corrected.
So, imagine that a bad actor somehow gets a bunch of bad fish entered as OK fish. The blockchain shows that this is “moral tuna”, even though it isn’t. Even if we find out about the fraud, the blockchain could still have the evil records forever.
One last point. Viant is one of I don’t know how many companies trying to implement this kind of Provenance. With all these variations out there, it will be extremely important to have interoperability standards, so you can combine tracking from a number of sources. (See the W3C PROV working group.)
Using standards would seem to be both obvious and compatible with the philosophy of decentralization. After all, if the only way to do tracking is to use Viant’s proprietary data model and software, then a key advantage of the decentralized blockchain is out the window.
Overall, Viant and others are doing the right thing. It remains to be see whether using a blockchain will be a net win or not. And all of them should implement the standards we started developing back at the turn of the century.
- Alyssa Hertig (2018) Moral Food: A Fish’s Trek From ‘Bait to Plate’ on the Ethereum Blockchain. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/moral-food-a-fishs-trek-from-bait-to-plate-on-the-ethereum-blockchain/
- Robert E. McGrath, Semantic Infrastructure for a Ubiquitous Computing Environment, in Computer Science. 2005, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Urbana. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/11057
- Robert E. McGrath and Joe Futrelle, Reasoning about Provenance with OWL and SWRL, in AAAI 2008 Spring Symposium “AI Meets Business Rules and Process Management”. 2008: Palo Alto.
- Robert E. McGrath, Anand Ranganathan, Roy H. Campbell, and M. Dennis Mickunas. Incorporating “Semantic Discovery” into Ubiquitous Computing Environments. In Ubisys 2003, 2003.
- Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf