LK: You are essentially the hipster of smart contracts, trying to build them before they were cool. Please share how you started working on your thesis of smart contracts and what was the "light bulb" moment?
AN: Well, many thanks for the compliment and I have never thought about my research direction that way. But it is true that I unwittingly started working on smart contracts already in 2001 when my PhD project commenced. First, I formally reasoned about cross-organisational business-to-business collaboration models for production and supply chains using Petri-net formalism. Towards the end of my PhD project that was partially funded by the EU-FP7 research project called CrossWork, I had to develop proof-of-concept prototypes for Brussels and in 2005, I started with the development of an eContracting language I termed eSML for eSourcing Markup Language. It was also part of my PhD project to investigate novel means of business-transaction management, an issue I could not resolve back then. Thus, I was left with an unresolved trust-management issue, while I had everything else resolved quite a lot for what is now called smart contracts.
When I then went to Helsinki in January 2007 for becoming a post-doc, I tried to explain to Finnish industry how we can have machine-readable contracts and use those for running very agile and lean peer-to-peer collaborations for which we manage the lifecycles in a Cloud tool kit, etc. That was at a time when Finns mostly were still busy building cellies with buttons and the entire industry was organised as one big pyramid with the government/Nokia/banksters in the capstone. Finns thought I am out of my mind and it is also important to understand that Cloud means pilvi in Finnish, which also means one is stoned. The next question was often where I had my PhD degree from and when I answered TU-Eindhoven in The Netherlands, my credibility was usually gone out of the window. In Finland, doing business meant back then that you have to hop naked into the sauna with some Finnish government politician and a bottle of vodka to pull in some new contracts. I assume that has not changed much since then.
On a more serious note, the biggest unsolved problem I had was the trust issue in such a peer-to-peer collaboration scenario with machine-readable contracts. It was only in 2014 when I was a scientist at TTU.ee that I came across the whitepaper of Vitalik Buterin about Ethereum and my head exploded. I knew right away this is a big deal and walked along the corridor of my department hyperventilating in front of my colleagues, trying to explain the significance of Ethereum to them. The response was confusion and my colleagues were sure that I had now finally really lost all my marbles.
To me it was clear that the blockchain was exactly the transaction machinery that I could not figure out in my own PhD thesis to solve the trust issue. Note that blockchain technology is a trust-engine that allows to collaborate in a trustless environment because of the ability to immutably record events in a consensual way. However, when Vitalik sort of wrote in the whitepaper that we can now do smart contracts and all problems are solved, because of my PhD research, I knew right away that was a very naive conclusion and with smart contracts neither being smart, nor being contracts, the real problems would only start now.
Thus, my response back in 2014 was to dust off all my old research work I had started in 2001 and map my work top-down into this amazing new domain of smart-contract research. The important difference to earlier days in Finland and Estonia was that post the 2014 inception of the Ethereum whitepaper, suddenly people listened to me without automatically assuming I was totally out of my mind.
One more curious story about my Finland days was that I realised my cross-organisational collaboration models that I could specify with my eContracting language eSML, would require an e-governance lifecycle management for several phases being the negotiation stage of a proto-contract, the technical distributed rollout of a consensually agreed upon contract, the enactment stage, the orderly rollback of an enactment when eContract agreements are violated and finally, an orderly termination of such eContracting-based collaboration to make sure no digital clutter would remain left behind.
My colleagues at University Helsinki thought I am totally wasting my time with such useless work that was still funded from 2008 till 2011 as a fundamental research project by Akademia Finland money. For the orderly rollback mechanisms, I won a best paper award back at the prestigious EDOC 2012 conference and then I later continued to publish my e-governance lifecycle management work in 3 conference papers. Again, after being completely ignored and alone while doing this type of fundamental research work, it was with some satisfaction to see later that governance has been recognised years later in the blockchain space when Dash scored over Bitcoin during the latter's block-size wars.
It was recognised that not having e-governance provisions in place is a major deficiency in managing the progress of a blockchain solution. Also in the smart-contract space, Tezos (who only now emerge from legal disputes) scored during their ICO with having explicit e-governance provisions right from their inception. The need for e-governance is now a well recognised factor in the blockchain space and it is once again quite a satisfaction that years after being fobbed and ridiculed for allegedly totally wasting my time, reality comes around to prove the need for theoretical research work I started years before the real-life need had emerged.
LK: TalTech has started their blockchain research group as I understand. Please tell us more about this great initiative and what you plan to achieve.
AN: I started publishing ever more papers again in the area of smart contracts and distributed blockchain applications. Eventually, that could not be ignored any more and thus, kind colleagues backed my plan for the creation of a dedicated research group for blockchain technology. It helps that I have funding from the smart-contract company Qtum.org for 3 PhD students and I am hopeful to pull in more such funding. The nice thing is that I see endless opportunities for research activities and the only limitation is the time budget and also the funding budget. The latter I hope to tackle with good investment from mostly blockchain-technology startups.
LK: You have written various whitepapers for amazing blockchain projects in the past few years. Some of them have raised a lot of money for development. Which of these was and is the most exciting for you?
AN: They were all exciting in a way, often in a very positive way and sometimes also in a not so good way. The blockchain industry is a mixed bag and while I try to practice diligent on-boarding since 2018, this industry is full of never ending surprises. For sure, I had a very good experience with my first ICO where I contributed with a whitepaper, namely for Qtum.org who now fund 3 of my PhD students. My take on these whitepapers is rather philosophical. For me this is primarily an exercise of action-design research where I try to pick up on startup cases that I translate into well written technical reports, aka whitepapers in the ICO domain.
My real goal is always that I want to harvest interesting bottom-up emerging industry cases that I subsequently rewrite ex post the ICO phase and aim to have published in a scholarly peer-reviewed forum such as a workshop, or a conference that produce proceeding publications. While I always hope for the best that the ICO team succeeds in their business plans, I care more that these papers are properly produced and subsequently scholarly published so that other teams can pick up and try again in a more competent way in case the initial ICO startup team fails. Blockchain startup teams very quickly collapse and fade away, or mess up because of lack of competence, that is always possible. Still, the paper publications that express blockchain innovations remain for any other team to inspire.
LK: What is your vision on the future of blockchain? Do you have some specific dream or change that you hope to see in the world thanks to this tech?
AN: Being an anarchist, I am profoundly irritated how the public is being fobbed by the fraudulent financial system and also government is very problematic. I know that government and central banks have always been the biggest enemies to human progress and also so-called qualitative bureaucracy is a big block to progress. More concretely and what I mean with qualitative bureaucracy is these very pyramidal public- and private organisations that are stacked with hordes of useless and obsolete information workers who are prone to act in corrupt and fraudulent ways. Traditionally, organisations have tried to centrally control and manage trust with these layers and layers of humans with dubious motives.
Additionally, such organisations also suffer from the so-called chimney effect where most time spent is with vertical information flow and questionable condensation to the top of a pyramid where then absurd decisions are made based on absurdly condensed and outdated information sets. For anybody who understands what the sociotechnical implication of blockchain technology is, living in a society that is plagued by the problems I describe above, is super frustrating and even depressing. With blockchain technology, we can replace such qualitative e-governance by layers of fraudulent and corrupt bureaucracy with mathematical e-governance by blockchain truth engines between collaborating entities that must not even trust each other.
LK: What are your thoughts on how to achieve this?
AN: It depends on how progressive and innovative people are. If we understand that governments and central banks are always the biggest stumbling blocks for innovation and progress in society then these are the entities that could in principle allow for an orderly evolution towards a broad adoption of blockchain technology, which is not only good for establishing clean bureaucracy. Blockchain technology also has the capability of revolutionising production, logistics, finance and insurance, healthcare, and so on. The other scenario is that governments and central banks simply stonewall and criminalise blockchain technology to solidify outdated, expensive and corrupt structures.
In that case we must merely wait for a little while until such a society collapses under its own corrupted weight and then we hopefully already see a blockchain-technology based infrastructure in place to rescue such a collapse. A prominent example for this is Venezuela where cryptos such as Dash and BTC have been widely adopted because of the devastating and lethal hyperinflation waves that local government and central banks are responsible for. The same we can observe in comparable territories that suffer from equal problems such as Venezuela, e.g., Zimbabwe, Ukraine, North Korea, Argentina, and some EU countries that have been brought to a state of bankruptcy.
LK: When do you think blockchain would be a standard part of curriculum in universities around the world?
AN: The situation with state-funded universities is very interesting. On the one hand, there is a lot of resistance to observe because of the anti-government nature of blockchain technology. Many professors also have their research tracks with a surrounding ecosystem that pretends nothing has changed and recent blockchain-technology innovations can simply be ignored. On the other hand, the rise of blockchain technology and its fundamental deep impact on how we should now run society, all of that hits us so hard that there is a struggle to keep up with the pace. We urgently need to establish courses for teaching fundamentals of blockchain technology, smart contracts, consensus algorithms, end so on. Those who are capable and knowledgable have been soaked up by private industry and there are many online courses popping up.
Also note that blockchain technology is freely available online together with endless tutorials, blogs, videos, etc. Simultaneously, I have observed over many years of lecturing, that even top students who do very well in exams, they are incapable of teaching themselves, even when all information is fully available online at a finger tip. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, only a very small minority of students is capable of learning by themselves based on freely available material they find online. However, 90% and above of students need a very structured lecture- and seminar environment to learn something new. Many students who are firmly indoctrinated into centralistic and top-down control thinking, actually feel very threatened by learning anything that has to do with something like blockchain technology that inherently enables total distribution, decentralisation, disintermediation and disruption of all aspect of societal structures that people are used to.
For many, such technology is super scary and the immediate reaction is rejection. If there is not an immediate total rejection, then the next attempt is to find ways of "taming" blockchain technology so that existing central-planning structures and outdated support technologies are not endangered. For me, the psychological impact of blockchain technology on society is very interesting and surely we will need to see also philosophically considerable changes in education systems that put far less emphasis on indoctrinating pupils and students into top-down, central-planning thinking.
LK: Your greatest achievement in life so far? Does not have to be related to work.
AN: That is a mixed bag. For sure, I consider it an achievement to be the father of 3 healthy and lovely children. Nothing can be more important than that and subsequently, I feel responsible to do what is right and ethical so that my children can grow up in a world that is less plagued by inherently criminal public- and private organisations and their shady networks of promoters.
On another note, I have been part of a team that trained the first ever informatics PhDs of Afghanistan. In that capacity, I traveled over a period of 4 years to Kabul university and lectured there on a master level. In Afghanistan, there is a law that states only PhDs are allowed to lecture on a master level. Thus, with a team, we set up the first ever master studies for informatics in Afghanistan at the University of Kabul while we also trained Afghan PhD students so that they can finally run their own informatics master program. Personally, I managed to successfully supervise three Afghan informatics doctoral students to successful defences and by now we have the 4th generation of Afghan informatics master-studies graduates that have come out. Now the fresh Afghan PhD graduates can actually run this informatics master-studies program themselves. Along that line, I could also consider it a success that in the year of 2018, I managed as a supervisor to get 5 PhD students of mine accepted for their concrete defences. Four of those PhD candidates successfully defended still in 2018 while the 5th PhD candidate successfully defended in February because of some bureaucratic hiccups and delays.
Of course, on the side of those ICOs for which I produced whitepapers in 2017 and 2018, these whitepapers helped to raise a very considerable amount of money that hopefully is used now for building very disruptive blockchain systems. It is my hope that all of this will culminate in research funding for my blockchain-technology research group so that I can grow the group of PhD students I supervise and conduct research with.