New Zealand Women in Blockchain:
Part 1 - Alex Sims, Associate Professor at The University of Auckland
Welcome to the first part of a series covering some of the amazing New Zealand women in blockchain. The first person to be showcased is the incredible Alex Sims.
Alex Sims primary areas of research (in relation to blockchain and crypto) include DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations), smart contracts, and the regulation of cryptocurrencies. Teaching in the Department of Commercial Law, she’s squeezing blockchain into her courses although many of her students haven’t previously heard of blockchain.
Additionally, Sims supervises graduate students’ dissertations and theses on blockchain and DLT (distributed ledger technology). Her students are looking at the opportunities in New Zealand for putting land titles on the blockchain and also custodial arrangements for cryptocurrencies and crypto assets.
Currently, Sims is part of a research project which is exploring the use of blockchain in the construction industry. This research, dubbed “Chip of the new block”, is funded by the BRANZ Building Research Levy. The main areas of focus involve how blockchain can change the way building assets, distribution, and supply is managed.
An industry must first understand a new technology before it can make informed decisions about where it can add value. This is the first challenge of Blockchain—understanding what it is and what it can do for the industry. - Alex Sims
Despite her keen enthusiasm for blockchain technology, it isn’t shared by her family and she isn’t allowed to talk about it at home!
My brain literally exploded as I realised that blockchain would change everything. – Alex Sims
Alex, tell me about your career path. How did you end up where you are today, in regard to blockchain?
I've been an academic at the University of Auckland since 2000. My main areas of research were intellectual property and consumer law. I've always been interested in tech, and have taught law and technology etc. I listen to lots of podcasts/audiobooks. In May 2016 I heard two podcasts back to back about blockchain and smart contracts (one from a Canadian tech and culture podcast and the other one was on Radio NZ). The NZ one was an interview with Mark Pascall - he was organizing a blockchain conference taking place a few days later. While I had heard about Bitcoin, I hadn't thought much about it, it was just some weird internet money. But when I heard the podcasts my brain literally exploded as I realised that blockchain would change everything. So, I fell down the rabbit hole, went to the conference and then basically changed all my research to blockchain.
What does your typical day look like?
It depends on what I'm doing but normally starts with biking to CrossFit, then biking to work. I tend to spend a bit too much time on admin and don't actually spend as much time reading as I should. When I was talking to someone the other day about books to read (I read a lot of economics and other books) and she said that I was lucky as she couldn't read books during the day. I never read books at work during the day! Instead, almost all the books I read are actually audio books as I listen to them when I'm doing other things. (I must admit that I don't watch television/Netflix etc - so my choice is between Netflix and books...)
What publications/blogs/podcasts do you use to keep up with blockchain news?
I listen to a lot of podcasts, just some of them are:
Anything written by Vitalik Butterin is a must read and I use LinkedIn to find articles.
What is the best book (or other resource) for blockchain beginners?
There are so many! It is getting a bit old now, but "The Age of Cryptocurrency" by Paul Vigna and Michael Casey was good. Also, I've got some links to good resources on my University profile page.
Which blockchain application excites you the most?
The blockchain application that excites me the most at the moment is Dfinity.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing blockchain adoption worldwide? In NZ?
The biggest challenge facing blockchain adoption worldwide is the entrenched thinking of many people. It doesn’t help that bitcoin (and therefore cryptocurrencies) have been equated with criminal activity by many people. Sure, some criminal activity has occurred, but the traditional banking system (especially the UK banking system) is used far more for criminal activity - and it’s not just the banking system. Professionals such as lawyers and accountants have often unwittingly facilitated large money laundering.
Most people do not like change, and even though they grumble about systems that don't work properly, they are comfortable with those systems. Also, I think that a number of people are unable to understand that different ways are possible. Plus, the incumbents and their advisors don't want change and they have an outsized influence on the government!
How do we overcome these challenges?
A lot of people have attempted to get the Government in New Zealand to understand blockchain and its advantages and opportunities for New Zealand with limited success. While there are some people in certain government departments who are doing great work, they’re the exception. There is too much fragmentation in government.
Some people say that cryptocurrencies are slow and expensive to use, and conventional payment systems, e.g. VISA are superior. Well yes, currently VISA has some advantages, but that is the same as when the first motor cars started to be driven. Car owners were mocked and ridiculed because horse-drawn transport at the time was much more dependable - where are the horses now? This post is excellent as it shows that cryptocurrencies are trying to replicate existing payment systems, rather than create new ones, with the effect of transforming society.
When it comes to transparency (while maintaining privacy and the security of data), how is blockchain going to change our current systems?
It all depends on the application; at times we will want radical transparency, but at other times you won't. One way that blockchains can change our current systems is that if you own assets or money and get someone to look after them, i.e. a custodian, that custodian becomes the owner of those assets/money and you become a creditor. Sure, there are laws that are meant to protect you from the custodian making off with your assets/money, but laws do not actually stop the custodian acting illegally. With blockchain, we can tokenize assets so that not only do you retain the ownership of the assets, the technology is such that with using multi signatures etc the custodian cannot engage in any wrongdoing. That will dramatically change financial markets.
Then there is the argument over permissioned vs public blockchains. I think a parallel can be drawn between the early internet and blockchain. With the early internet people and businesses were scared, so they had their walled gardens (think AOL, Compuserve etc) but the utility of what were in effect intranets was limited. Yes, nice and safe, but couldn't do very much = permissioned blockchains. When the walled gardens came down, that was when the power of the internet was unleashed = public blockchains.
So, at the moment I can understand why people and organisations want the comfort of permissioned blockchains but, over time, public blockchains will win.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
There is a saying that we have Palaeolithic brains, medieval organisations and god-like technology. Blockchain potentially allows us to create new forms of organisations called decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs). I'm particularly interested in DAOs. Instead of Uber with its management and shareholders, you could have an Uber-like DAO.
The users of the DAO would pay in DAO tokens, drivers would be paid in the DAO tokens. The token holders would make decisions about how the DAO would run, so they would govern the DAO. There are all sorts of governance systems possible (that is one reason why I like Dfinity as it has a very interesting proposed governance system). This would mean that the split between shareholders/management/employees (independent contractors) would be torn down. If the DAO did well then, those drivers (and others) who had held onto their tokens would benefit.
Disclaimer: The above references an opinion and is for informational purposes only. Do not take this as personalised financial or investment advice. The opinions expressed by the author do not represent the opinion of BitPrime.
Last updated: 14/03/2019