Interview Dave Murray RustDave Murray Rust is a researcher at TU Delft, working on human-algorithm interaction – and exploring the messy terrain between people, data and things!
Hello Dave! Would you like to introduce yourself?
I’m Dave Murray-Rust, and I’m a researcher and lecturer at TU Delft in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I started with the BLING project when I was at Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. I’m interested in all the messy bits between humans and technology. I started out looking at AI and music, and how people can interact with intelligent systems to do ‘creative stuff’. I spent a long time working on models on how people interact with their environment, looking at land use and climate change, and I’ve spent the last couple of years looking at how design and computer science come together and how we can understand the new technologies that are coming into the world and trying to create the kinds of futures that we want to live in. It’s important to always create spaces in which people can be humans – and not letting technology dictate the way things are going to be. So that can be looking at AI, and how it sees the world, and how it classifies people – and recognising that this doesn’t always line up with how people see themselves. It can mean designing systems that go wrong in useful ways – where machines do the boring bits and let humans do the interesting bits.
How did you get involved in BLING?
We got involved in BLING through talking with Keith Fisken at SEStran (the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership). We had been experimenting with location based smart contracts, and this aligned with some of the things SEStran were trying to do around transport infrastructure, and we then looked for a way to bring this work into the BLING project.
Tell us about 'GeoPact' - what problems is it trying to solve, and how does it work?
GeoPact is looking at what happens when you bring location into smart contracts. Smart contracts are part of blockchain systems – they’re programs that people write.
One of the funny things about blockchain systems is that connecting them with the physical world is always tricky, because blockchain is very formal and rules driven, while stuff in the real world is messy and interesting. So GeoPact grew out of the question of what can you do when you know where people and things are. There were ideas we played with in Edinburgh about geo-located currencies – things you could only spend in certain places, or money that would flow depending on how you moved around the world.
GeoPact grew out of this, asking how we could use the location of things in blockchain systems. There are a lot of blockchains that focus on the ownership of things – like houses. Houses are easy because they (mostly) stay in the same place, but there are other areas like logistics where you are moving expensive things around the world, and it would be very useful to adapt some blockchain approaches to help enable that.
How does blockchain enable this? Could you do something like this with other technologies?
In most cases you don’t really need a blockchain to do things, but we think there are some properties of blockchain that make them very useful to deliver approaches like this. A key thing when you’re working with location is that location is a very personal and private thing - ideally you don’t want to be sharing your location with everyone in the world!
But it’s also very useful to be able to prove some facts about where you were – so we saw that working with blockchain systems in this way means we can create systems that notarise where we were without revealing this to the whole world, and you can then say ‘I definitely was in this place at this time’ and here’s a blockchain proof that that is true. So the goal is that we can build a secure way to deal with location without sharing all of it.
The other thing that’s very useful with blockchain is that it can give objects autonomy –you can give objects on the blockchain a wallet, and they can then start spending money and being a part of financial transactions through smart contracts. By connecting together smart objects with smart contracts – and in the case of our GeoPact pilots we’re dealing with physical lock boxes – they can decide when they lock and when they unlock, and they can decide when the courier gets paid for moving them from one place to another. So the physical object has control over money -and that can support a slightly different way of thinking about the world.
What's a smart contract? Can you explain how smart contracts work with blockchain?
A smart contract is just a computer program – albeit one that runs in a blockchain environment. Smart contracts do have some special properties though: because they’re running in a blockchain context they’re things that can move money around and carry out financial transactions, and they’re run by lots of people at the same time - so they can be checked to see that they’re running correctly.
Most of the time when we explain this to people in workshops, we say smart contracts can be understood as a set of conditions and actions – if this thing happens, then do that – for example if a package arrives in a certain place, then pay the courier some money. It’s like IFTTT (If This Then That – an online automation platform) on steroids – and those are some of the ideas we’ve been bringing into our workshops to help people write smart contracts using tools like Scratch, which are used by kids to learn programming.
What are the challenges of adding location to blockchain?
Location’s interesting because there’s no completely perfect and secure and private way to manage location all at once across all the different platforms you might use. Sometimes we work with mobile phones that have their own location methods, and sometimes we work with IoT hardware - like LORA - where the network as a whole can start to identify where things are. This gets fed into the GeoPact system and it comes into the smart contracts as some of the contract conditions we mentioned earlier, and this means that we can write a smart contract that says ‘if this thing is in this place, then do something’. And we can do some more interesting things like ‘if these two things are together then do something’ – but without necessarily having to know where the two things actually are – just knowing that they’re together.
Ideally people could ‘pile up’ these smart contracts – this thing needs to get from here to there, and that thing needs to get from there to there, and it’s then up to couriers to look at them and put this one together with that one or to subcontract bits of these tasks. The hope with smart contracts is that lots of people can write them – they don’t all have to be written in a single way. They could be written by the couriers themselves rather than by a delivery agent (like Deliveroo) telling everyone how they have to do a task.
So you could have someone putting out a contract for delivery with a smart contract attached to it, and couriers deciding if they want to accept that, or the other way round and couriers can have standardised contracts and smart contracts and people select couriers based on the contracts that they offer.
There are lots of interesting things and structures that come up when you talk to people about how they do things at the moment – so law firms have very fast deliveries from one office to another, and to make that work they have secure boxes in their offices where people drop off documents and at a specified time a courier picks that up and transports it to another place where it’s opened in their secure environment. So there are lots of structures that people would like to be able to write (smart) contracts for, where at the moment it’s a complex negotiation.
This is really an enabling technology – so the hope is that people will be able to use these tools to come up with interesting things that we haven’t thought of.
Where can GeoPact-type approaches be used?
Recently we’ve been working a lot with logistics and in particular with couriers, and particularly looking at ways to come up with smart hardware and systems that will change the way in which they do their work. The original impetus came from looking at active travel (moving around without using cars – bicycles, scooters, walking, running – where you are providing the energy for travel) and for ways to for people to verify that they’ve done active travel journeys, and then to be able to prove that to the government as a way to talk about carbon reduction targets and to enable things like participatory budgeting – so if you can prove that everyone in your building is really cycling a lot then maybe the council will fund bike racks outside your flats. Or if you commuted to work on your bike 10 times in a month you might get a free bike service. And you could write all of that in a location-aware smart contract that you participate in.
Can you tell us more about the potential for using blockchain in transportation and logistics?
One of the exciting ideas is how can all the different transport and mobility systems we use connect - so could you get a ticket that lets you pick up a scooter, go to a station, take a train, and then get an e-bike at the end to do the last mile of your journey – all one one ticket? Another one of the ideas that keeps coming up our GeoPact workshops is about using location-aware smart contracts to manage train ticket refunds. In the UK, if I get a ticket from a train company, the contract says I will arrive in this place at this time, and if I don’t I’ll get a portion of my money back, or if I’m more than 5 hours late then I get a different refund. You can bring some of these terms and conditions into a smart contract, and then you wouldn’t have to fill out a form and convince someone that this delay happened, you could have a system that handled refunds in an automatic and transparent way.
There is potential wherever you are connecting the computational world with the physical one. That’s a place where we’d look to work with other systems, e.g. on blockchain interoperability, so you know about the provenance of this thing and we’ll help figure out how it moves around.
Some of our work has been influenced by a courier firm that we’ve worked with called Zedify, and they do their deliveries by bike, and if someone wants something to go from Glasgow to Edinburgh, they’ll have a courier pick it up in Glasgow, load it on the train there, and then the package goes to Edinburgh and another bike courier picks it up and takes it where it’s supposed to be going. So the hope is that location-based smart contracts help make those kinds of things easy. Because you have more a chain of assurance of what’s happening. You could leave a package in an autonomous hub or in a special compartment on a train with the security of the smart contract saying we know where it is and what’s happened to it. So you can create a slightly physical (location-aware) audit trail.
Do you see any barriers to adopting these technologies?
The barrier to adoption we’re most interested in at the moment is how do we get people to write smart contracts? It’s kind of a social barrier as much as a technical one – people aren’t used to thinking that they’re allowed to structure th
e interactions they take part in. So that’s why our next stream of work is going to be - about ways to demystify smart contracts and get people to design and create their own smart contracts. And that hopefully moves them on to being able to more easily make prototype systems.
We’re working on a workshop that takes people through some guided thinking that uses traditional design tools of Post-its and discussion and collaboration and gradually moves them to writing stories about how interactions should work that can be then translated into smart contracts. The interesting thing here is you can get a bunch of people around a table to talk about how a contact should work because you have a very different discussion if you have not just the people who want to move parcels around but the couriers and the logistics managers and the people who receive them. We’re looking at workshops that bring all these different stakeholders together to then collaboratively design the type of contract they would like to have happen.
You always find out with design that people don’t know all the things that bother them until they happen, or you help them think about all the issues.
What are your plans to develop GeoPact - what happens next?
The other direction we’re starting to look in is co-creating smart contracts, and how this would work in creative industries for example, in places where people have to do lots of shared work, can they start to write smart contracts that help them make sure that that is done in a way they’re all happy with. So were’re starting to look into IP and asset management things.
We’re looking to work with the Surflogh project (Sustainable URban Frieght LOGistics Hubs), as they hav
e some of the slightly smart transport infrastructure that would be a very natural fit with GeoPact in terms of connecting to smart contracts in the background and they have some shared partners with BLING.
We’re very keen to find people who’d like to go through our workshop and see if there are location-based smart contracts they would like to build. So there is a nice path from coming in with an idea to doing a workshop to develop their ideas to implementing a functional prototype.