Pioneering blockchain innovation in the Arizona desert
Dragan Boscovic is not sitting around waiting for the future to happen. After years of driving emerging tech innovations for companies such as Motorola and MMI Google and acting as Distinguished Visiting Scholar for mediaX at Stanford University, Dr. Boscovic has set his sights on the possibilities of blockchain technologies and their implications for the future of the internet.
Currently, Boscovic is a Research Professor at the School of Computing, Information, and Decision System Engineering at Arizona State University and the Research Director of the Arizona Blockchain Applied Research Center (AZ BARC). AZ BARC is an initiative of the Partnership for Economic Innovation (PEI) and is leveraging emerging blockchain research to create usable products for the global marketplace.
Boscovic recently spoke with INSIDE INNOVATION about his role as Research Director of AZ BARC, current projects, and what “if’s” blockchain will make possible in the next ten years.
This interview has been edited for both clarity and length.
INSIDE INNOVATION: You’ve worked in burgeoning tech and developed products and services for years, first as a Ph.D. at Boston University and then with Motorola’s applied research center in the U.K. When did you become interested in blockchain?
BOSCOVIC: As a researcher in tech innovation, I like to think, ‘What is next?’ I'm not always interested in the present moment. I always ask myself, ‘What if we had this?’, ‘How is this going to improve how I go about my daily business or how I interact with my family?’ That is what is driving me. I always look one step ahead of everyone else. Blockchain is that next thing, so naturally, it piqued my curiosity.
INSIDE INNOVATION: In popular culture, blockchain is often associated with cryptocurrency and, more recently, NFTs. Can you explain blockchain and why you believe it has implications beyond those popular applications?
BOSCOVIC: Blockchain is the next wave of the internet. The internet went through two major iterations over the last 30 years. For those of us that are a little bit older, we remember the early days when the internet changed how information is disseminated, published, and accessed. Then 10 years ago, we had another internet evolution that was about communication. We are currently going through a third phase of innovations and blockchain is a major part of that—it’s going to change how we do business on the internet. Blockchain actually provides a source of trust, so that we no longer need corporations or brokers. We are going to see all kinds of improvements, how business is done and how new corporations will function.
INSIDE INNOVATION: You talk about development in tech as the result of “if” statements. What are the “if” statements surrounding blockchain and what solutions do you hope they lead to?
BOSCOVIC: I started to work on blockchain in 2014 and one of the “if's” that was on my mind was, what if we can apply blockchain outside its usual application, which was cryptocurrency, as you mentioned. What if we can use blockchain to secure our IT infrastructure? What if we can use blockchain to enhance data privacy? Or to enhance the transparency of our governments? There are quite a few “if's” and as we go forward at the Arizona Blockchain Applied Research Center we will be exploring those.
INSIDE INNOVATION: As Research Director of AZ BARC, you connect industry leaders with researchers to come up with practical solutions for real-world challenges. Can you tell me about some of the projects you’re working on right now?
BOSCOVIC: Currently, we have three major projects. The first concerns the supply chain for medical devices. This is a relatively known blockchain application, but what we are trying to do is take this known use and apply it to a real-world problem. The idea is to use blockchain technology to have a better account of where medical devices are inside a given hospital. For example, you could have some of the medical equipment that is mobile and it will be taken and deployed in rooms where there is a need for them. But the following day, someone might need that equipment elsewhere. Without blockchain, somebody will need to go door-to-door to find that, which wastes time and resources.
What we are devising is basically tracking inventory and all other necessary operational information for such medical devices so we can account for all of them in real-time. Not only is it knowing where they are located, but when was the last time they have been serviced if they have an expiration date associated with them.
INSIDE INNOVATION: How does that work, exactly?
BOSCOVIC: We rely on something called a digital twin. This is a concept that is really very useful for blockchain. A digital twin is a digital replica of a physical device that contains all the metadata and descriptions needed to know what the physical object is all about. Any transformation on the physical object is then captured in its digital twin and stored and kept on a blockchain for others to use and audit.
INSIDE INNOVATION: Digital twin sounds like something you might find in a sci-fi movie but it seems like the concept is an essential part of how blockchain technology helps address marketplace challenges. Is there another project that utilizes the digital twin concept?
BOSCOVIC: Yes, the second project we’re working on also relies on the use of digital twins and is about device security. In a broad sense, the project is about multi-signal device ID management and building a system of trust for physical objects connected to the internet of things (IOT). We can't ask an IOT device for a driver’s license, so we have to establish another source of trust.
We are tracking a device's history and activity in relation to other similar devices and, based on its operation and the past history of operations, which we have access to through blockchain, we are able to compare and basically vouch for a given device even without any explicit ID.
Since each IOT device has a digital twin on the blockchain, whatever it does in the real world, it is being captured in its digital twin. Now, I can have another application that is going to analyze that digital twin and look for any anomalies. If there are anomalies in behavior or deviation from what is expected, we can detect untrustworthy devices.
So, a metaphor might be if you order a pizza in a future restaurant and the server is a robot. How would you trust that robot? That is what we are going to answer. We are looking into the behavior of the machines and their operations and ways of doing things, so if we detect anomalies in such an operation, we would say, "I'm not sure we can trust this robot."
INSIDE INNOVATION: I’m ready to put my trust in pizza robots. You said you have three projects you are working on at AZ BARC, what is the third one and how is it applying blockchain? Does it also include pizza?
BOSCOVIC: No pizza on this one. Our third project concerns the privacy and transparency of the voting systems, something that the general public might be very interested in. It is all about accurately accounting for all the votes or the activities of participants without really asking them to explicitly identify how they voted, for instance.
We can preserve the privacy of the voting system while at the same time vouching for the accuracy of the count or the tally of the votes. This is done through a specific approach that is called zero knowledge proof and that might be too technical or too mathematical for this interview. I'm not sure that I would even be able to explain it without a whiteboard.
INSIDE INNOVATION: Well, we’d love to see a whiteboard explanation another time. We know that blockchain research and innovation is happening all over the world right now, so what makes AZ BARC unique in the field of blockchain research?
BOSCOVIC: Given my industrial background, I understand the modalities of operations in those corporations and I know what they want to get out of the research. This is what is most unique about AZ BARC, we are applying blockchain to the marketplace, which is something I don’t see as explicitly elsewhere.
In research, we have different modalities. There is academic research and there is applied research. Academic research is about advancing the knowledge of blockchain and writing papers that you can share and cite as something that you have done. Applied research is more about innovation—how the knowledge that has been developed already can be applied to real-world problems.
This is what makes AZ BARC so important. We use applied research in direct connection with real-world marketplace challenges. My role as Research Director is to talk and listen to our industrial partners, understand the problem that they would like to solve, and come up with a solution that incorporates aspects of blockchain needed to address that problem.
INSIDE INNOVATION: You’ve walked through the projects you are currently working on. Could you define some of the areas of what is possible in blockchain? Can it help save lives or save money or protect privacy? How else can it affect people's lives?
BOSCOVIC: As I said, we should think of a blockchain as an infrastructural play that builds on what we already know about the internet. My “if's” are always based on what we can improve about the internet experience through the use of blockchain. As an average person, you might be concerned about online privacy and who might be monitoring your clicks. Or you might be concerned about security and who might be stealing your credit card details.
If you are in business, you might be asking who is trying to break into your servers. If you are a bank, you might be asking whether this large deposit is legitimate money or is it money laundering. All those are the “if's'' that we can answer through blockchain since it provides data immutability, data integrity, and acts as a source of trust.
INSIDE INNOVATION: As you think about the next ten years of blockchain innovation, what do you look forward to the most?
BOSCOVIC: That blockchain is transformational, both in social and business ways. So, what excites me or what I see as a big change coming over the next 10 years is how we do a lot of the things we try to do right now but are limited because of security concerns on a digital platform. Maybe you will not need to go to a bank, but rather bank with your friends. Blockchain could provide the trust to do that without the necessity of an outside institution.
We already had a project that is about mutual insurance, where each participant is basically insuring each other and approving the claims. If you do not have a claim this year, that is not going to pay a big fat salary to the CEO of the insurance company. It is going to roll over into your next year's premium.
So, what excites me is anticipating the transformation that is going to happen. I don’t know exactly what will happen but I know that transformation is knocking on the door.
Read more about Dragan Boscovic here.
Learn more about AZ BARC – the Arizona Blockchain Applied Research Center here.
Stephanie Tomlin is Director of Marketing for PEI and Founder of Inside Innovation. Recently she interviewed Chris Camacho, Scott Carlson, and Wes Gullett.