Julie Maupin has traveled the world, attained extensive academic credentials including graduate degrees in law and economics from Yale, a PhD in international development studies, and is a leading expert on international economic law and global governance regimes. With a long held affinity for technology, she was able to shift her focus to a variety of topics within the realm of distributed ledgers while serving as a law professor at Duke University, and later as a Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute. The IOTA Foundation is undoubtedly fortunate to count an expert of her quality among its ranks. Let’s get to know Dr. Maupin:
Tell us a little about your Background
Perhaps the first thing to clear up is: I’m not French (sorry, IOTA France!). Most people assume I am, because of the name, and because I live in Europe. But in fact I grew up in the US, in rural Colorado. It’s a place that tends to attract people who want to make their own path in life – free from external constraints, but also devoid of much in the way of government support – the classic “pioneer spirit”. I think this mentality has influenced my own life to a sizable extent. I’ve had a pretty non-traditional career path.
My first job after leaving school in the mid-90s was working for a non-profit relief and development agency in Bosnia. When I went there, I had only a vague idea of what to expect. The reality was even more sobering than the sporadic TV reports that had reached the outside world. In the city where I worked, Bihać, there were only women and children. All the men over 16 had been sent to the front lines. It was my first experience with the very real, and very harsh, connection between economic prosperity and basic human rights. Everyone who had the means to flee the war did. The rest got stuck – and endured 4 horrendous years. This realization was what birthed in me the desire to study both economics and law, to understand the interconnections between economic empowerment and social empowerment on a global scale.
I returned to the US with this goal in mind. I had to somehow figure out how to finance my studies first, though. It was the late 90s, so I did what everybody else was doing: I moved to Seattle and jumped on the tech bandwagon, landing at Monster.com. This too turned out to be a very formative experience. I got to ride the internet boom and bust cycle, to which the blockchain space now shows striking parallels. Then, as now, it was incredibly difficult to pick winners and losers. Internet-related technologies were developing at a dizzying pace, cash was easy to come by, and no one really had a clue where it would all lead. When the internet bubble burst in 2001, around a third of everyone I knew lost their jobs overnight. And it wasn’t necessarily the “coolest” companies that stuck around. The thing is, humans and the markets we create can be terribly irrational. The gap between hype and substance is sometimes very large indeed. All that glitters isn’t gold.
Another important lesson that came from that time was one I didn’t actually learn until several years later. While at Monster, I landed and developed a very successful client relationship with a mid-sized regional bank called Washington Mutual. Our team conceptualized and built an internet-based suite of human capital management tools to support the bank’s ambitious nation-wide expansion plans. Everything went swimmingly, and within a few years, WaMu had become one of the largest banks and home lenders in the United States. Unfortunately, it turned out this was largely due to its aggressive expansion into the sub-prime mortgage loan market. The company went completely bust in 2007 when the sub-prime loan crisis hit. I had left the Monster five years before to pursue my graduate studies at Yale. But looking back, I realized that the technology we built in the early 2000s had generated the pipeline of loan underwriters which in turn allowed WaMu to follow that path. We were a cog in the wheel. Without the help of internet-based recruiting tools, WaMu probably wouldn’t have been able to hire enough people fast enough to sustain such explosive growth rates.
The moral to the story? When you’re in the middle of it, you have very little idea of the longer-term systemic impacts of the technologies you’re working on. Technological innovation brings with it externalities – both positive and negative – which are all but impossible to forecast in advance. This was true of the internet, and it’s just as true of distributed ledgers, IoT technologies, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and every other cutting-edge field today. Innovators need be alive to this reality and approach their work with due humility and vigilance.
How did you get into the crypto DLT world?
In 2012 I came across an article on Bitcoin while teaching at Duke Law School. (Thanks to my graduate studies at Yale and a PhD in Switzerland, I had become a specialist in international economic law – international trade, investment, financial regulation, monetary regimes, etc.) I was immediately fascinated by the way Bitcoin used economic incentives to solve the Byzantine General’s problem of getting a decentralized network of independent nodes to converge upon a consensus solution. I immediately saw the potential for opening up access to the global financial system to populations that have long been excluded. The unbanked, for one, but also micro-entrepreneurs who have difficulty accessing global capital streams.
I started reading up on the technology and monitoring forums where it was being actively discussed. At the time, there were very few lawyers or social scientists taking an interest in the technology. Most thought it was a fad and would quickly would die out. “There’s no there there”, many academic colleagues told me. Alternatively, “the government will shut it down any day and that will be the end of it.” But despite all the early drama with Silk Road, Mt. Gox, etc, it was clear to me this was a real innovation and could very well prove revolutionary for the global economy. Then Ethereum came along, and an explosion of many other interesting projects thereafter, and I was hooked. For me it was kind of the perfect storm of the things I find most fascinating: economics, law, technology, behavioral and social psychology… all combined with the potential to unleash previously impossible economic empowerment models at mass scale for historically disadvantaged populations around the world. What’s not to love?
When did you first discover IOTA and what aspects attracted you the most?
It was actually my friend Pindar Wong, a successful 1990s internet entrepreneur and chairman of the first Scaling Bitcoin conference, who first put me on to IOTA. He connected me with Dom Schiener, and we met up for lunch in Berlin in early 2017. I had read Serguei Popov’s white paper and was intrigued by the notion of a lightweight DLT architecture. By that time it had become clear that the internal economic incentive structures of most public blockchains made them impracticable for financial inclusion use cases – mining fees were simply too high to support micro-payments. I used the opportunity to ask Dom a number of critical questions about IOTA’s approach. He answered openly and honestly, and while it was apparent there were still some significant technological challenges to overcome, the potential upsides of the DAG-based approach were also quite evident.
For me, the real selling point was the opportunity to become involved in a substantive way in contributing to a project that could put distributed ledger technology to work on behalf of important public interests. Economic inclusion, renewable energy, accountable and efficient public sector governance, end-user driven permissionless peer-to-peer economies… David and Dom recognized and shared my passion for these topics and asked me to come on board the IOTA Foundation to help shape and drive them. The chance to work with governments, international organizations, NGOs, think tanks, and others to experiment with socially beneficial use cases for DLTs – all while continuing my advocacy work as a champion of sensible, innovation-friendly regulatory policies – was too attractive to resist.
Unfortunately, back then there was still no foundation in existence to work for! So the first year of my involvement had to be dedicated to the more mundane administrative tasks of helping get the foundation registered and set up in Germany. It wasn’t until very recently that I was finally able to accept formal employment with the foundation and begin focusing on building up its social impact and regulatory affairs efforts. It’s tremendously exciting. We’re thrilled to have an enormous amount of interest coming from public sector actors who want to work with the foundation and experiment with tangle-based use cases. Our current projects run the gamut from space to rainforests to smart cities to UN logistics. There’s not a single day that’s boring. I’m absolutely loving it!
The main challenge right now, and my top priority, is hiring a great team to help steward all of these exciting ideas from conception to completion. Our approach to social impact innovation is collaborative and iterative, and that requires awesome people with the right mix of skill sets. (Keep an eye out for IOTA Foundation social impact job postings to be listed soon!)
Editors Note: These job postings are now up! Scroll down to the “Social Impact” section of the IOTA jobs listing.
We keep hearing that “data is the new oil” and we can see the way in which the data we generate is being used by companies. Do you really think that the data we give away for free today could end up having that much value?
There’s no doubt our data is valuable. The internet as we know it today has led to a huge concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of firms precisely because they are the clearing houses for our data. People always talk about the GAFA four (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). But it’s important to realize the same thing has happened in the East with BAWT (Baidoo, Alibaba, Weibo, Tencent). These companies are wildly valuable and profitable today precisely because of how much they know about us.
If you haven’t gone down the rabbit hole of figuring out just how much information they know about you, I highly encourage you to do so. It kind of feels like a slap in the face. It forces you to confront some very deep and very personal questions about how much you value your freedom to maintain an inviolable private sphere and how easily and cheaply you’re willing to trade away your most intimate life details for little conveniences like predictive (auto-filling) personalized search engine results.
Zooming out from the personal to the societal, history is rife with examples of large-scale surveillance programs being used to control, manipulate, and oppress entire populations. We have to keep this backdrop in mind and continually remind ourselves to not just sit on our laurels and trust that others will always use our personal information beneficently. Big data can be used to do amazing things – like generate much more rapid advances in the development of new medical treatments. But as we’ve all seen recently, it can also be used to sway political elections, repress democratic movements, sow misinformation and distrust among sub-groups of otherwise peacefully co-existing populations, and further other nefarious objectives.
How do you see the level of awareness users have when handing their data over to different service providers on the internet?
Users have definitely become more aware of the importance of this issue thanks to scandals like the Snowden revelations, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica affair, etc. That’s a good thing. Still, many people haven’t taken the time to really understand what’s at stake. And most people don’t yet realize that we have new technological tools for creating very differently structured data economies. Self-sovereign digital identity solutions, for example. The DLT community needs to become much savvier in communicating the advantages of these evolving new technologies and explaining how they can help us move away from the oligopolistic structure of the present data economy.
Could you explain briefly what the GDPR is and why is so important?
The General Data Protection Regulation is the EU’s response to the problem of ubiquitous personal data being handed out by everyone everywhere with little thought for the consequences. It mandates “privacy by design” as the default approach for companies and other entities that collect or handle individuals’ data. It requires data controllers and data processors to ensure that consumers provide explicit consent to the collection and use of their data and gives them the right to revoke that consent at any time. The GDPR also enshrines the notion of the “right to be forgotten”, which was articulated in a judicial decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The idea here is that people should be able to request the deletion of their data if they later change their minds about that data being available to others. Overall, the GDPR is important because it places the burden on data handlers to respect end users’ privacy rights to a greater degree than in the past. It also has implications for data handlers outside the EU to the extent that their data collection and processing activities may have connections with people, entities, or infrastructure located within the EU.
What’s the position of the IOTA Foundation regarding GDPR?
The IOTA Foundation is a strong supporter of data privacy and end-user-controlled data policies. We are registered in Germany, in the heart of the EU, and we are working closely with European authorities to make sure the GDPR is interpreted and applied in ways that accomplish the regulation’s underlying policy goals. Unfortunately, the GDPR was written for a pre-blockchain world. Some of its provisions – in particular its definitions of data controllers and data processors – fit uneasily with the architecture of distributed ledger technologies, where anonymous and distributed nodes all over the world interact in novel ways with different types of encrypted user data. Our approach is to actively partner with leading innovators and regulators to find sensible ways of implementing the GDPR without stifling the exciting innovation that’s happening in the DLT and IoT spaces.
The good news is these technologies themselves provide new solutions to some of the problems the GDPR was written to address. For example, quantum-resistant encryption can enable users to securely transmit data without worrying that it might be revealed unwillingly to third parties in the coming years. Self-sovereign identity constructs, as I mentioned before, can help manage things like consent permissions and revocations. And advancements in zero-knowledge proofs, which enable users to carry out transactions without revealing personal data at all, might prove to be useful ways of effectively implementing the right to be forgotten by ensuring that the relevant data is never remembered in the first place. All in all we’re very hopeful that good solutions can be found. Our interactions with policymakers and regulators so far have all shown a high willingness on the part of everyone to work together and find sensible approaches.
How far do you think we are from having smart cities and digital governance? Any cities/cases you could point as pioneers in this matters?
These are very exciting topics for IOTA, and active areas of exploration. As you’ve probably seen on the foundation’s blog, we’re involved in early stage projects with a number of cities and governments around the world, and we’re actively working on scaling those collaborations toward the next stage of testing in specific use cases.
In order to have smart cities, of course, you need to have a lot of things in place. You need sensors; you need identity solutions for humans, machines, and things; you need a fast, secure machine-to-machine transaction protocol facilitating both data exchange and payments (IOTA); you need adequate connectivity infrastructure; you need data protection regulations & digital signature laws and policies that support a smart cities environment while also protecting citizens’ rights… It’s not a trivial thing. Many moving parts have to come together in order to create a single smart cities experiment, much less an entire fully functioning smart city!
The same is true of digital governance initiatives. Whenever you make a governance process digital, you have to make sure it’s reliable, safe, efficient, cost-effective, accessible to everyone (including the 95 year-old grandma in the back woods of some remote mountain area)… and so on. In other words, we are already beginning many exciting experiments. But we are still at the beginning. There’s a lot more scoping, developing, testing, evaluating, modifying, re-testing, re-evaluating, etc. that needs to happen before these big ideas become reality. I think we’ll start to see some very innovative showcase experiments go live in the next two years or so. It’ll take significantly longer before we find ourselves living in true smart cities. But it’s incredibly exciting to be part of this process, to be helping shape it from the ground up.
The IF seems to be very aware of the importance of designing a sustainable technology for the IoT economy. How important is this from your point of view? Do you think other projects in the crypto ecosystem are considering environmental impact of their design?
Environmental impact is a factor we cannot afford to ignore anymore. We’ve all helped produce the problem of human-induced climate change, and we all need to be part of the solution. So yes, sustainable technology is something the IOTA Foundation is 100% committed to. It’s one of the main reasons our devs and researchers often depart from the blockchain space status quo. It’s also why IOTA goes out of its way to partner with entities that are pouring resources into developing novel low-power, high-efficiency devices. The innovation community has a responsibility to come up with distributed ledger architectures that are capable of realizing all of the amazing visions and dreams of a peer-to-peer economy without further destroying our planet. It’s that simple. I do think other projects are beginning to see this too. The scalability debates still dominate most technical discussions. But I’m hearing more and more talk nowadays about reducing the energy requirements of devices, protocols, and algorithms, so I’m hopeful we’ll see further improvements in the coming years.
How do you see the world in 5 years in terms of data usage?
I hope in five years we’ll be using data much more thoughtfully, securely, and efficiently. I hope data will have moved closer to being seen not just as a commodity (“data is the new oil”) but as a public resource. With big data and machine learning, there’s tremendous potential to rapidly improve the quality of life for a whole lot of people, and also to learn a lot more about and do a much better job protecting many other forms of life on this little planet of ours – and maybe even beyond. I’m optimistic.