An in-depth Interview with Blockchain luminary Gary Nuttall

Distlytics Ltd.

Gary Nuttall

PJT Today I am speaking with Gary Nuttall, Managing Director of Distlytics Ltd. Distlytics is a ground-breaking consultancy implementing Distributed Ledger
Technology (aka “Blockchain”) within Financial Services. I know Gary from when we both worked in the Business Intelligence space and wanted to get his perspective on both the current state of this area and its future possibilities.

Gary, would you mind telling readers a little about yourself and your journey prior to Distlytics?

GPN My career spans multiple industries – I began in retail 25+ years ago working on Management Information, Decision Support and Expert Systems. Moved on to Pharmaceuticals (implementing a greenfield BI/DW platform), then the wine industry, commodities trading and then commercial insurance.

The strand that has remained central to my career has been business intelligence and analytics – using data to improve business processes and enabling better informed decision making.

PJT Can you expand on what Distlytics does and how it does it?
 
GPN I’ve been interested in Blockchain for several years and saw that many developments are implemented using a shared Distributed Ledger architecture. This made me think, how do you perform analytics on a distributed ledger? Lots of people are exploring using a blockchain-based solution to improve business performance or create new products and services but nobody was thinking about the analytics layer. So: Distributed Ledger + Analytics = Distlytics.

The original focus therefore was to identify how an analytics layer could be introduced, what the best architecture would be, were there suitable existing technologies or would something unique need to be developed etc. All very interesting stuff and right up my street as it involved new and emerging technology, business improvement and BI.

It quickly became clear however that I was ahead of the game and that many organisations were only just at the “what’s blockchain and how can we use it?” phase. Therefore I started with providing consultancy and running Proof of Concepts to explore the technology and its suitability in the London Commercial Insurance Market.

PJT Given your work over the last few years, you would seem to have an ideal perspective from which to comment on the future adoption of blockchain technology and how it is evolving. Even in early 2017, it seems that the word blockchain is likely to cause furrowed brows and a change of topic to something less challenging than public keys, distributed databases and hash values.

Before talking to us about how you have seen blockchain used, can you try to provide a brief business-centric overview of what a blockchain is and how it works?

GPN I have a fairly simple, albeit technical, definition of what it is: It’s a Write-only, cryptographically secured, distributed, programmable, database. It sounds quite boring and nothing massively new, in terms of what it is; and that criticism is fair. The magic happens when you look not at what it is but rather on what it enables “out of the box”. Each of the individual features can be delivered by existing technologies but it would be very difficult (and expensive) to provide them all as standard.

Part of what I do as a consultant is to get people excited about what the technology enables, not how it does it. Fundamentally, blockchain is a protocol (it describes how something is done). In the 1980s there was a protocol introduced called TCP with the IP layer added to give us TCP/IP. Most non-technical people haven’t heard of TCP/IP and techie people would struggle to explain how it works. However, everyone agrees that “The Internet” has changed the World and that’s what TCP/IP is used for. I usually try to move conversations on from what it is/how it works to what it enables and what benefits it brings (more of which later).

PJT It seems that sometimes while people might grasp the essentials of blockchain there is then a “so what?” moment.

In your experience, are there any key facts, examples of usage, or even just anecdotes that help the penny to drop?

GPN The major consultancies appear to be in the game of “who can publish the biggest number” currently when talking about potential savings that organisations could achieve. PwC suggested Reinsurers could save $5-$10Bn in reduced expenses. Accenture indicated banks could save $8-$12Bn p.a. and McKinsey suggested up to $110Bn saving in Financial Services over three years.

So, some attention grabbing numbers about the potential. Nobody has, Bitcoin aside, actually implemented anything at scale and delivered the magnitude of benefits proposed.

PJT Can you tell me a bit more about how Distlytics recommends blockchain is used and the advantages that this confers?
 
GPN The starting point is to emphasise that blockchain is not necessarily the right answer. There are occasions when a traditional database is better, or a change to a business process would deliver more benefit at lower risk. With each use case it’s important to examine key requirements and to map them against what blockchain can offer.

At one extreme, if the problem is around maintaining a central master list that teams within a single organisation can use then something like Master Data Services (or for a small firm, a central spreadsheet!) suffices. At the other end of the spectrum, if there’s a need for multiple parties to access a common data repository that is write-only (thereby providing good in-built audit), is distributed (and so cyber resilient), cryptographically stored (so cyber resistant), and would benefit from multiple parties having access to “their” data then a blockchain begins to look like a potential solution.

PJT What about the broader market, what compelling blockchain stories have emerged over the last 12 months?
 
GPN I’ve been attending blockchain conferences for several years (and have presented at quite a few). The technology seems to be following a familiar path – we’re not actually moving forwards that much. There’s increasing investment, lots of hype but very few examples of anybody moving beyond Proof of Concept. Whilst 2016 was the year of PoC’s, it’s hoped that 2017 will be the year of pilots and 2018 the year of productionisation.

There are however two notable exceptions. First, Everledger is putting diamonds on a blockchain to prove origination and authenticity as so reduce fraud and blood diamond trade. Second, Estonia, as a nation, is the first to put many of its digital services onto blockchain and it already provides a global digital identity scheme. There’s likely to be a big change in 2017 as projects move out of stealth mode (several financial trading exchanges are moving from PoC to pilot). Watch this space.

PJT Are there any newer features or capabilities, either existing or pending, which you see as providing greater utility based on blockchain foundations?
 
GPN The Bitcoin protocol code was released in 2009 (at that time the word blockchain wasn’t even used). Since then we’ve seen the launch of numerous other protocols (e.g. Ripple, Ethereum and Eris/Monax). There have been major developments in scalability (e.g. BigChainDB) and performance (SETL.IO) and the market is rapidly evolving with new protocols being developed and existing ones maturing. It is however still a fairly new technology.
 
PJT What challenges do you see to the wider adoption of blockchain, be these regulatory, legal, technical, to do with privacy (on both sides of the argument) or relating to people’s understanding of the technology and what it can do?
 
GPN I’m going to stick my neck out and say that regulators shouldn’t try to regulate blockchain. Just like how they don’t regulate relational databases or spreadsheets. What they do regulate is organisations and processes and how the technology is applied. So, regulators will take a great interest in cryptocurrencies and how smart contracts are used to auto-execute trades, etc. They’re unlikely to attempt to regulate the protocols themselves.

Privacy is going to be interesting with the upcoming EU GDPR. I’m writing a paper on this as there’s a range of issues to address (how do you delete a record from a write-only database?) As mentioned earlier, people don’t really need to understand how the technology works, they need to understand how it can be used. Likewise the regulators will need to develop their awareness. Kudos to the FCA who are running their Innovation Sandbox with 14 companies pushing the regulatory boundaries – of which eight of the projects are blockchain-based.

PJT Concerns around blockchain have sometimes centred on possible issues such as the enforceability of smart contracts in law, the potential for specific miners to monopolise a market (negating the benefits of the distributed model) and the time taken to mine new chain links not being compatible with some types of transactions. What do you say to allay the fears of people who raise these issues?
 
GPN It’s now generally accepted that “Smart Contracts” was a poor choice of words as they’re neither smart not contracts. It does sound more innovative that “computer programmes” which is what they actually are! There are several approaches to resolve the enforceability issue – The simplest is to retain existing, legally recognised contracts and reference them to the smart contract. The smart contract performs the execution of the contract and the original provides the legal wrapper. Another is to write smart contracts in a form that is legally binding and accepted. This is an opportunity that lawyers who want to write software are getting excited about (it gives them work!)

Miner monopolisation really depends upon which protocol is being used and whether the implementation is a public or private blockchain. Bitcoin is currently dominated by the computing power controlled by Chinese miners – and that’s making some people (and Governments) nervous.

Time taken to mine is, again, protocol dependent. Bitcoin takes around 10 minutes for a transaction to be confirmed, Ethereum is at least twice as fast, so neither are suited for low latency volume processing. By comparison, Symbiont claims 87,000 transactions per second and that should suffice for most processing requirements. Ethereum is working on its Raiden Network to offer very high speed processing too.

For those who have concerns about legality and performance I’d say that this is a rapidly evolving technology. In just a few years we’ve seen orders of magnitude performance improvements. On the legal side, there remains uncertainty and that’s why I suspect there’ll be a blend of old and new ways run in parallel until new precedents have been established in law.

PJT Many people will associate blockchain with its most well known implementation, Bitcoin. Not everyone will immediately have a positive reaction to this association. How do you address concerns that might arise relating to everything from the volatility of Bitcoins, to news stories of Bitcoin theft, to the perennial linkage with money laundering and the dark economy?

Given this less than propitious environment, how do you provide an alternative and more positive message?

GPN Every Bitcoin “failure” has been at the application, not protocol, level. Bitcoin thefts (e.g. Mt Gox) are rather like a bank being broken into – it doesn’t reflect a failure of pounds (or dollars). Most blockchain protocols are open source and the associated cryptocurrencies are worth millions. This means that they’re highly susceptible to attack and that’s actually what strengthens the protocol. Human beings develop immunity to disease through exposure to it and it’s the same with Bitcoin.

As for Bitcoin’s associated with Dark Web and drug dealing and other illicit activities, it’s true! However, dollars and pounds have been used to fund illicit activities too but that doesn’t erode people’s confidence in traditional currencies. Interestingly, crime prevention agencies actually like cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin! Don’t tell the criminals but cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin aren’t completely anonymous. In fact a complete ledger of every transaction is publicly available. This means the lineage of payments is easily traceable. As recent convictions of Danish drug dealers has proved!

PJT What industry sectors or business processes do you think blockchain is likely to have the greatest impact on in coming months? Are there any areas which you see as crying out for such a new approach?
 
GPN Imagine we’re in the 1980’s and the same question was asked a lot about the Internet! Financial Services have spent over $1Bn figuring out how to use the new technology but there’s a lot of work going on in Public Sector and third sector (i.e. charities) too. Having spoken with a wide range of people doing fascinating work, I reckon that it’ll end up transforming areas that we’re not even thinking about – there’s so much going on with copyright, media protection, music distribution, charity donations, etc. that we’ll probably be surprised by how widespread its adoption is.
PJT We have both spent considerable time working in insurance and reinsurance. An increasing number of commentators, including yourself, have suggested that blockchain can play a pivotal role in driving change and reducing costs in this sector. There has even been talk of alternative models, such as peer-to-peer insurance and of the possible disintermediation of brokers. What are your views on the potential of blockchain in Insurance?
 
GPN One of the powerful features of blockchain is that it provides an opportunity to fundamentally disrupt any business model that requires an intermediary. The insurance value chain currently involves multiple intermediaries, each of whom believe they add value (rather than cost). The work I’ve been doing in the London Commercial Insurance Market is paving the way for radical new approaches and could see the value chain between a client with an insurable risk and a capital provider underwriting the risk being dramatically shortened.

Brokers talk about removing the need for Underwriters and Underwriters question the need for Brokers in a future model. Blockchain enables both approaches and we could see radical changes in operating models as well as new products and services being developed. It’s possible that insurance may be augmented (or replaced) by alternative financial instruments that can be developed using blockchain. As an example, think of an insurance contract sliced into individual components that can then be traded in a marketplace – a new derivatives marketplace. Other financial sectors have Swaps, Options, etc. and this could extend to insurance as alternative mechanisms for risk mitigation.

PJT Are there any other aspects of blockchain technology, current or future, which you feel it would be helpful for readers to know about?
 
GPN Things are changing so fast, it’s likely that if I were to recommend something then it would be out of date before the interview is published. I would suggest that readers try to keep a watching brief on some of the bigger things – protocols such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple and Monax as well as technology consortia such as Hyperledger and also consortia specific to their sector (e.g. R3 I banking and B3I in Insurance).
 
PJT What is next for Distlytics?
 
GPN If a week is a long time in politics then it’s an age in blockchain. There is so much happening around the World. I’m working with a number of fellow consultants to build a Global capability, known as “Team Blockchain”, to help company board executives to better understand the risks and opportunities that the technology offers. I’ll continue to offer bespoke consultancy through Distlytics and will continue research into Distributed Ledger Analytics.
 
PJT What is next for Gary Nuttall and do you see blockchain as being at the centre of your future endeavours?
 
GPN I’m not a surfer but I think that blockchain is a huge wave of opportunity. It’s all about timing it right and choosing the time to surf it and, importantly, realise when it’s time for the next wave. There’s plenty to do in the blockchain space for a few years I reckon and then there’ll be another wave – Artificial Intelligence, Robo-Process Automation, Internet of Things are all growing (and in many ways complement blockchain nicely). Meanwhile I’ve become an advisor for Blocksure who’re developing a (General) Insurance platform. Having met many startups who’re working on prospective industry solutions, these guys are worth watching!

I’ll be monitoring how long the blockchain wave continues to grow and provide opportunities whilst watching the other waves. Of course, the really exciting stuff is when big waves converge and technology is no different – Blockchain, AI and IoT all provide massive opportunities. Now if we link them together then the opportunities become paradigm shifting.

PJT Gary, thank you for your time and the insights and information you have provided.
 

Gary Nuttall can be reached at gnuttall@distlytics.com. Distlytics’s website is www.distlytics.com and Gary regularly tweets with the @gpn01 hashtag.
 


 
Disclosure: Neither peterjamesthomas.com Ltd. nor any of its directors have any direct financial interest in either Distlytics or any of the other companies or organisations mentioned in this article.
 

 

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