Talking to… Hélder Sousa about Blockchain’s current state and its future

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Hélder Sousa joined LOQR in early 2016 and works as a Backend Software Engineer. His interest in cryptography led him to focus on blockchain technology during his master’s degree. The blockchain persisted consent and reputation system he developed – guided by Professor and Researcher António Pinto – and was awarded the “Best Blockchain Application” prize at the “International Congress on Blockchain and Applications 2019” that took place in Avila, Spain.

During the last four to five years we have been told that blockchain is the technology that will fuel Internet’s future. Some even go as far as pointing out blockchain as the protocol which will ultimately supports “Web 3.0”. What is your take on this?

That’s a very optimistic vision about blockchain’s contribute to the world. The “Web 3.0” itself is a highly abstract and theoretical concept that is nothing more than an umbrella for a wider set of upcoming technologies that will eventually guide us into the future. I think that’s the main reason why blockchain is constantly linked to the broader “Web 3.0” concept.

I believe blockchain technology will be ultimately applied to specific use cases with requirements closely tied to concepts such as integrity and authenticity. However, I’m reluctant that a blockchain protocol will support the “Web 3.0”, whatever its materialization will come to be.

Is blockchain technology overrated to a certain extent?

The technology itself isn’t overrated at all, mainly because it solved the Byzantine Generals’ Problem in distributed and decentralized systems. Bitcoin’s network as we know it wouldn’t be possible prior to this achievement, since it prevents double spending situations by establishing a consensus among the network’s peers.

I’d say the industry developed unrealistic expectations regarding the technology’s applicability. I recall visiting some technology exhibits a few years ago, when blockchain was still a novelty, and it was clear that all companies, IT security ones in particular, wanted to associate their products with blockchain technology at all cost. I remember such period as the “blockchain fever”. Unfortunately, many use cases were unrealistic, unnecessary and some even absurd, which in the end took its toll on the industry’s expectations.

Which were the factors that led to those unrealistic expectations?

Cryptography is still ahighly specialized niche within the IT landscape that requires you to grasp a wide range of complex concepts. Since only a very small fraction of IT companies developed projects in this area, there’s a big deficit of specialized cryptography professionals in the IT market. This made it difficult for companies to incorporate into their staff the human capital necessary to properly manage blockchain projects’ expectations and ultimately make those projects succeed. Add ease of investment and the market’s obsessive interest in blockchain into the mixture and you’ll get yourself an explosive cocktail.

Another factor that played a pivotal role was the fact that blockchain technology as we know it today came about because of Bitcoin, which made it very difficult to disassociate them from each other. As a result, blockchain surfed the cryptocurrency hype. Inevitably, the discussion about the potential of these technologies became “mainstream” and attracted the attention of non-tech players that have conveyed to the public, and even some non-specialized IT industry, misconceptions about the potential of this type of technology.

Will the uncertainty in the applicability of blockchain technology slow down the investment in that area?

Whenever a technology as disruptive as blockchain emerges, it’s expected that the industry will be willing to invest almost blindfolded on promising use cases and applications.

It’s only natural, as nobody wants to miss on the “next big idea”. However, whenever the risk increases, and the return isn’t as expected a decrease in investment shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But I believe that, as blockchain technology matures, it’ll start to attract a more cautious and pragmatic type of investment.

Are you afraid that blockchain technology’s image may have been affected?

It’s too early to tell, but that may be the case. If that happens, it’ll not be unprecedented in IT’s history. Something very similar happened with Artificial Intelligence (AI). When AI emerged in the 1950’s it quickly attracted almost unlimited investment and an obsessive interest from the industry. Its enormous potential was, and still is, undeniable. When those early AI projects didn’t’ achieved their goals, mainly due to different scientific and technological setbacks, the investment was withdrawn. As soon as the technology and the scientific knowledge were able the fulfill AI’s needs the investment returned.

If something along those lines happens with blockchain, it’ll be an evidence that today’s technology isn’t developed enough to realize blockchain’s full potential.

What must happen in order for blockchain technology to realize its full potential?

In my point of view, there are different variables that may come to play. I’d say there are at least three different variables: technological, legislative and organizational.

First of all, blockchain technology must address its own scalability problems. That will unlock several use cases that are currently not feasible. As of today, blockchain’s processing and storage capacity is quite limited. When you take a closer look at the architecture of current blockchain networks you quickly realize that the outcome of this technological challenge will eventually determine its survival.

Another variable in the equation is the legislative one, since legislation over online activity is quickly growing and will keep growing in the future. Blockchain’s characteristics are almost tailor-made to fulfill the needs that will arise from such legislation. It’s therefore critical to ensure that the legislation doesn’t exclude solutions backed by blockchain technology from the outset.

And finally, the organizational variable. Are organizations willing to invest in a technology that will store events in an untamperable ledger that they cannot modify?

Which blockchain use case most fascinates you?

There are several blockchain use cases that I find interesting, but the one that fascinates me the most is e-voting. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have always viewed electronic voting systems with great skepticism.

However, and only taking into account the votes’ integrity and confidentiality, blockchain technology’s characteristics would allow for the implementation of electronic voting systems more secure and more reliable than traditional methods.

Do you think LOQR might play a role on the implantation of blockchain technology?

I believe so. LOQR’s team has a lot of accumulated know-how in areas that are key to the success of blockchain projects, such as cryptography, digital identity, cryptocurrencies, and computer security.

I have no doubts that if the opportunity arises LOQR will be up to the task!

If you had to define the LOQR in one sentence, which would it be?

It’d be our vision “Empowering Digital Lives” since I think it describes perfectly both our passion and never-ending challenge.