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UK Chief Science Adviser Urges Government to Start Deploying Blockchains for Public Services

Op-ed - UK Chief Science Adviser Urges Government to Start Deploying Blockchains for Public Services

The U.K.’s chief scientific adviser has urged the government to adopt the blockchain technology that powers Bitcoin to run various public services, BBC Newsreports.

The recommendation comes in the form of a new report produced by the U.K. Government Office for Science, edited by Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific adviser, which looks at the future of distributed ledger (or blockchain) technology and advocates the use of blockchains for a variety of services.

The report, titled “Distributed ledger technology: beyond block chain,” explores how distributed ledger technology can revolutionize services, both in government and the private sector, and recommends government actions to maximize the opportunities and reduce the risks of this new technology. The stated aim of the report is to decrypt blockchain technology for policy audiences and provide policymakers with the vision and evidence to help them to decide where action is necessary, and how best to deploy it.

In the foreword, Parliament members Matthew Hancock, minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general, and Ed Vaizey, minister of state for Culture and the digital economy, say that distributed ledgers will disrupt how we think about and store data, and propose that Great Britain should take a leadership role.

The MPs refer to key national technology assets, including the Alan Turing Institute, the Open Data Institute and Digital Catapult, which are to be put to work to achieve technology leadership and support governmental initiatives.

In March, Bitcoin Magazinereported that the U.K. government would launch a new research initiative to bring together the Research Councils, Alan Turing Institute and Digital Catapult with industry in order to address the research opportunities and challenges for digital currency technology and increase research funding in this area by £10 million (U.S. $14.6 million). Now, the Office for Science proposes new steps to start using distributed ledger technology for public services.

Senior experts from business, government and academia were brought together to assess the opportunities for distributed ledgers to be used within government and the private sector, and to determine what actions government and others need to take to facilitate the beneficial use of distributed ledger technology and to avoid possible harms. The report includes a chapter on the possible government applications in the U.K. – the eventual impact of distributed ledger technology on British society may be “as significant as foundational events such as the creation of Magna Carta” – and a chapter on global perspectives.

“Algorithms that enable the creation of distributed ledgers are powerful, disruptive innovations that could transform the delivery of public and private services and enhance productivity through a wide range of applications,” says Walport in the executive summary. “The electronic distribution of digital cash offers potential efficiencies and, unlike physical cash, it brings with it a ledger of transactions that is absent from physical cash.”

However, Walport notes that the strong association of blockchain technology with Bitcoin represents an important problem when it comes to communicating the potential benefits of distributed ledgers to politicians and the public.

“Bitcoin creates suspicion amongst citizens and government policymakers because of its association with criminal transactions and ‘dark web’ trading sites, such as the now defunct Silk Road,” he says.

According to the report, distributed ledger technologies have the potential to help governments to collect taxes, deliver benefits, issue passports, record land registries, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services. In the National Health Service (NHS), the technology offers the potential to improve health care by improving and authenticating the delivery of services and by sharing records securely according to exact rules.

See the report, which is freely downloadable, for the full text of the eight recommendations to the British government. Taken together, the recommendations outline an integrated action plan aimed at achieving a systematic understanding of the technical and regulatory aspects of distributed ledgers, and developing a roadmap.

The Alan Turing Institute, established in 2015 as the U.K.’s national institute for data science and officially launched in November 2015, is expected to play an important role. The report urges the private sector to consider investing in the Institute to support the pre-competitive research that will ultimately facilitate new commercial applications that are robust and secure. This includes work on obvious areas such as cryptography and cybersecurity but also extends to the development of new types of algorithms.

Most recommendations call for further study and road-mapping in a typical bureaucratic language of government documents, but two recommendations outline specific implementation steps:

Recommendation 7: Understanding the true potential of distributed ledgers requires not only research but also using the technology for real life applications. Government should establish trials of distributed ledgers in order to assess the technology’s usability within the public sector.

Recommendation 3: Government could support the creation of distributed ledger demonstrators for local government that will bring together all the elements necessary to test the technology and its application. A demonstrator at a city level could provide important opportunities for trialling and implementing distributed ledger technologies. Innovate UK could use its work with cities in the development of “city deals” to implement the development of a city demonstrator.