The Decentralists

Game Changers: A new approach to Self-sovereign Identity on a Blockchain, with special guest, Ali Farahbakhsh

November 18, 2021 Mike Cholod, Henry Karpus & Geoff Glave
The Decentralists
Game Changers: A new approach to Self-sovereign Identity on a Blockchain, with special guest, Ali Farahbakhsh
Show Notes Transcript

The Decentralists are introducing a new segment called Game Changers. 

Great ideas can be Game Changers and we will talk to the people who made them great!

On this episode we talk with Ali Farahbakhsh, Master of Applied Science student at the University of British Columbia. Ali has dual degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics, with a broad range of research interests including: Communication networks, information theory, and distributed systems. 

This past summer, Ali was a research Intern with the Peer Social Foundation, designing a purpose-built blockchain for digital identity using a new, self-sovereign consensus model.   

Ali’s whitepaper, Self-Sovereign Identity Based on Blockchain -  A Design Roadmap is available for viewing from the Peer Social and Manyone websites, under a new content category, Game Changers.

Henry : Hey, everyone, it's Henry, Mike, and Geoff of The Decentralists, and welcome to our short-form podcast called Game Changers; in Game Changers, we explore novel cutting-edge ideas and approaches pertaining to the internet, social media, and of course, decentralism. This week, we've got a very special guest Ali Farahbakhsh, now Ali Farahbakhsh is a Master of applied science student at the University of British Columbia; he has dual degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics with a broad range of research interests, including communication networks, information theory, and distributed systems. 

Recently, Ali began to gradually add quantum information theory to this impressive list, Ali is trying to use insights from different fields to build better and more understandable systems, now he doesn't restrict himself to theoretical or practical projects only as he believes that blending both approaches is far more productive. This past summer, Ali was a research intern with the Peer Social Foundation, the non-profit division of Manyone, designing a new model for purpose-built blockchains based on delivering a true self-sovereign digital identity with consensus. 

Now, Ali's final research report, Self-sovereign Identity Based on Blockchain: A Design Roadmap, is available for viewing and download from the Peer Social and Manyone websites under a new content category we called Ideas, Ali, welcome to The Decentralists.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Hi, Henry, it's actually great to be here with you guys.

Henry : Thank you for taking the time, now, Ali, you're not just your average Master's student, you're also a member of the blockchain program at UBC, whatever got you interested in blockchain, Ali?

Ali Farahbakhsh: Well, the main reason for my interest in blockchain is the fact that it is a very modern and disruptive technology, and it touched upon many aspects of our daily lives, so in this sense, I believe that it is the next big thing after the internet. So, the internet helps humans to gather next to each other, disregarding physical distances, and now blockchain helps us address fundamental issues about establishing the truth in such a virtual gathering. 

Now, we've had systems for such tasks for roughly the past 50 years, but almost all of them were dealing with closed groups of entities, so the main breakthrough of blockchains, which makes it quite interesting is the fact that they actually allow globally dispersed entities to work together without trusting each other, this is quite amazing stuff and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

Geoff : What do you think about the fact that blockchain for many people is just so tightly tied to Bitcoin when in reality the notion of a secured distributed ledger has almost infinite uses? But whenever you say blockchain, any book you buy about blockchain, it's all just about getting rich from Bitcoin.

Henry : Yeah, crypto.

Geoff : Crypto this, crypto that, do you feel that that's been helpful in just getting that term out though, or it's been a hindrance that everyone just assumes you're some scammer trying to sell cryptocurrency?

Ali Farahbakhsh: I believe that it can be both a hindrance and a blessing at the same time, so some of the ideas in the blockchain field-initiated directly from the cryptocurrency field, and mainly from Bitcoin, and so Bitcoin opened the door that we weren't able to open before that. And also since it deals with cryptocurrencies and money, which is maybe one of the most important assets that we have globally, it kind of helped people to understand the necessity of having such a system. But at the end of the day, I agree with you, with the fact that it is also kind of a hindrance to understanding the real potential of what we can achieve with blockchain in general.

Mike : Right, so Ali, I remember when we had our first call and you were looking at an internship to work on blockchain and all of this other good stuff, and one of the ideas that we talked about was this, to follow on to Geoff's point, a lot of the focus that happens in this blockchain distributed ledger type space is tied to these tokens. And these tokens were kind of initially brought up as a reward mechanism for people operating these systems that helped guarantee the truth. 

And one of the things that I talked to you about was this idea that what other implications could you have on something like an identity system where identity is something that is based on a fundamental kind of acceptance of the truth. If I'm going to share my identity with an entity, a person or a business, that identity by virtue of me sharing it with somebody, technically means I trust that person, and I remember that being a little bit of a flip, so when you started your research this summer with the Peer Social Foundation and Manyone, what were you hoping to discover about blockchain that you maybe had a misconception of before?

Ali Farahbakhsh: Well, as soon as I got aware of the general direction Manyone was aiming at, I felt that there was some non-trivial relationship between how we treat identity in the modern digital world and decentralization fabrics like blockchains. So, this issue was interesting enough for me to be dragged into it, and once I started reading about it, I understood that my initial guess was actually right, and there was a significant amount of work in this area. 

This is actually how I got familiar with the notion of self-sovereign identity, in which you just give all the control and ownership of identity, and identifiers to the owners of it, and so naturally coming from an engineering background, I started to ask questions about the extent to which we can push the boundaries of the existing solutions for self-sovereign identity using blockchains. And this is how actually we together, arrived at this census that we can think of an open, globally managed blockchain, and this is an issue which is not well addressed in the current estate of the art. 

So, most of the existing systems have closed groups, which are actually in charge of maintaining the blockchain, and this is not very good when you, yeah, think of it as a big picture.

Mike : Yeah, it's like centralizing decentralization.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Yeah, you can think of it like that.

Mike : Right, let's look a little bit at the results, you wrote an awesome paper by the way, and I encourage everybody who's got any interest in blockchain, especially somebody who's technical, to download it and read it. But what was the key kind of finding of your research as you started to delve into this, how could self-sovereign identity be kind of more say, properly handled with blockchain tech?

Ali Farahbakhsh: Well, I believe that the results of our research are two-fold; first of all, we were able to pinpoint the main design choices and challenges in creating such a global self-sovereign identity system on a blockchain, so we kind of realized that it's feasible, and we can really think of such a system. This helped us to have an initial sketch, which can be used to delve into more detail and to design and implement an actual system. The second result is more of an observation; we realized that the notion of self-sovereignty is emerging in different fields with slightly different flavours. 

This pushed us to ask whether we can find a more fundamental notion of self-sovereignty that can be used as a basis for all of these different directions, and for instance, we have the notions of data sovereignty and identity sovereignty, maybe we can look at these two as manifestations of the same concept.

Mike : For sure, all right, Ali, so somebody who wants to read your paper, downloads it, gets an introduction, okay, a little taste of your idea of self-sovereign identity on a blockchain, where do you see the research going in future iterations as you continue, and other folks maybe contribute to your research? So, where do we expand this idea that you've kind of come up with for self-sovereign identity structures on a blockchain?

Ali Farahbakhsh: I believe our next step is to use the initial sketch of our summer research in order to take one more step towards an actual global blockchain designed for self-sovereign identity. So, I believe that we have to move towards a prototype, an implementation, which we can work with, and see the hidden problems and challenges of designing such a global system.

Mike : Right, and so what did you discover when you were doing your investigation? And this is maybe too early to answer, but what were the primary differences between, let's say a typical blockchain, and now when I say typical, let's keep it to the ones that people may understand Bitcoin or an Ethereum, and this idea of self-sovereign identity on the blockchain? What would be the different way to handle consensus and, or the way it works? 

Because I think you spoke to the governing mechanism, you have all the miners and the developers in Ethereum, in Bitcoin, and they kind of make decisions as to when you fork things or don't or whatever, and sometimes it can be a messy process. How does it differ in your perceived future of a self-sovereign identity on a blockchain?

Ali Farahbakhsh: It is not different from the existing known blockchains, it is more of a combination of their strengths, so we have a system that is global, so it has to be scalable, we need it to be open, we don't want it to be controlled by a centralized group of miners as it's been done in the current self-sovereign identity systems based on blockchains. And so, yes, we need it to be global and open like Bitcoin is in simple terms, we need it to be scalable, which is a hot issue in blockchain research nowadays, yes, even for Bitcoin and Ethereum, and we need it to be verifiable and all of this stuff are actually important aspects of many current blockchains. 

And our system, since it deals with such an important thing which is identity, so we needed to actually have all of these good properties, and that's why we kind of have to take the best from all the existing systems.

Mike : Right.

Henry : Ali, I'd like to ask a fundamental question, Ali, as an expert, what is the difference between the blockchain that you talk about and a distributed ledger?

Ali Farahbakhsh: There aren't any necessary differences, so it actually depends on how we decide to look at it moving forward. So, basically, the consensus mechanisms may be different, so the tokenization, or let's say the incentives involved in the system may be different because blockchains are usually more suitable for tokens. And then it's kind of vague to talk about it right now, so yeah, we have to delve into more detail to talk about that.

Henry : Okay, no, I get it, but the fact is they're very, very closely related and it's a question of the type that you require for a particular job, I guess.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Yeah, exactly.

Henry : Okay.

Geoff : And I'll also, I would add the degree to which, coming back to this Bitcoin world, the degree to which you need the computational power of Iceland in order to mine these things, which doesn't necessarily apply here. Which is also kind of the black mark, which is perhaps on blockchain a little bit, as people automatically assume that it eats gigawatts of power and generates all this heat and all this stuff, which isn't necessarily what you're talking about here when you're talking about a distributed ledger for self-sovereign identity.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Exactly, even the data structure can be different, so it may turn out that we don't actually need blocks to be chained together, and we can maybe, leverage the properties of the system that we're working with, which is, identity, in order to have a more sophisticated approach to the problem, but nonetheless blockchains can also be used.

Mike : Right, well, and I think if I was to say, Ali, we've been kind of mavericks at this whole thing, approaching identity from a different perspective, even as you pointed out self-sovereign identity from a different perspective. And I'm really excited about the opportunity to bring the same type of approach to blockchain because when I look at the landscape of the blockchain world and kind of the distributed computing world, there are lots of people doing great things to enable us to move these technologies and processes to the edge, which is great and gives the average user more control. 

But I think it still needs to go further, and that is to some kind of model that you've proposed, which is to somehow figure out a way where the consensus, if it's necessary to validate and guarantee kind of the results of what's stored and the information stored on a blockchain that, that consensus gets determined by the people that use the blockchain versus the people that provide the computing power to make it happen.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Yeah, yeah, I see your point.

Henry : Point makes a lot of sense, I want to thank you for joining us on Game Changers today, hearing from your perspective, which is just a little bit more, let's just say, academic than ours, has really opened my mind, certainly. Thank you so much, Ali.

Ali Farahbakhsh: Oh, well, thank you, it was an honour to be here with you guys.

Mike : Thanks, Ali.

Geoff : Thanks, Ali.

Ali Farahbakhsh: I enjoyed it, goodbye.