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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Daniel Yim (SOM ‘18), Principal at Noblis and Head of Asia at Government Blockchain Association

Daniel Yim is Principal at Noblis, a non-profit organization which provides technological solutions to the Federal Government, for which he serves on the Economic Analytics for Decision Support COE and the Blockchain Working Group. Previously, he worked as a Management Consultant for IBM and Deloitte, and served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He received a BS in Commerce from the University of Virginia and later an MBA from the Yale School of Management in 2018.

The Politic: How did you get involved in blockchain and what’s your current work?

Daniel Yim: I’m on the technology side of things more so than cryptocurrency. If you ask me about the cryptocurrency market, as in what drives it and the economics side of things, I wouldn’t be able to answer that. Investing isn’t my space. I’m a Management Consultant in the public sector, so all of my clients are federal government agencies. And when it comes to technology for the Federal Government, I help them implement those new technologies so that they can increase their operational efficiency. I also represent the Government Blockchain Association (GBA), which is a non-profit organization also based out of the Washington DC area. We have a mission of connecting the technology providers and the government decision makers together to promote and foster the use of blockchain technology. Again, it’s not the cryptocurrency kind of things. And quite frankly, our clients–the decision makers and the CIOs–in the federal space are little bit wary about what the cryptocurrency market has displayed thus far. Even convincing them to invest in blockchain technology for their operational efficiency can be challenging, because they oftentimes associate blockchain technology with Bitcoin or Ethereum, which are high volatility in value. So they look at blockchain as a high-risk investment. 

As for my background, I started my career in the Navy, where I served as a Supply Corps officer. So, when I first got into this technology, I looked into solving supply-chain challenges. If you look at F-35 fighter jets, the government spent billions of dollars building this program up. It’s now out on the fleet, but despite the fact that Lockheed Martin is in charge of building these machines together, it’s difficult to verify the source of the aircraft components. These aircrafts are made up of thousands of parts from all around the world. 

And these parts could be coming from adversaries. There was a report from one of the major news agencies, just a few years ago, and they reported that 15 percent of all spare and replacement parts in the Defense Department’s supply chain are counterfeit. They were reporting that U.S. customs seized about 5.6 million counterfeit microchips which were destined to be installed in commercial and military aircraft. That’s pretty alarming. That was a few years ago, but it’s my understanding that that’s been a growing back ever since.

Do you know about the mango-tracking project at Walmart? My understanding is that the reason why the U.S. Walmart launched that project was actually because of Walmart China. If you think about food safety in China, it’s a really big problem. And Walmart China actually launched the same project before we did it with mangos here– they did it with pork. They were trying to figure out which farm the pork came from. I think that makes a lot of sense when you translate it into the military supply chain. These parts could be coming from China or Russia, and some of them are, so that’s a big concern for us.

Here’s another application I’m working on. The company I’m working for right now is called Noblis, which is a spinoff of The MITRE Corporation– a federally-funded, government think tank. MIT’s Lincoln Lab was created after World War II in the 1950s. The Pentagon actually funded the creation of the Lincoln Lab. They wanted Lincoln Lab to provide research needed to develop defense against potential air threats. About 10 years later, the U.S. government gathered about 500 scientists and support personnel from the Lincoln Lab and created a federally-funded think tank called The MITRE Corporation. I think the 1990s is when The MITRE Corporation spun off to create a division called MITRE Tech Systems. And over time, we’ve become Noblis. So, it’s a non-profit organization that is rooted from the MIT’s Lincoln Lab. We have researchers and consultants who work for our company. The earnings don’t go to shareholders or partners, but go right back into the firm as investments. 

The reason I’m saying this is because a year ago, Noblis funded a large-scale research project to create technology for autonomous vehicles. What’s interesting is that we have a fleet of them, and they share data with each other using blockchain technology. This research project also includes creation of ecosystem where vehicles/drivers are compensated using blockchain-enabled utility coins for selling right-of-way or for letting others operate faster around them. On the contrary, vehicles can pay for the right to go first or to drive faster around others.

Interesting– is the purpose of that data sharing to prevent collisions?       

If one vehicle is let loose and starts to navigate its way around, it will detect certain things. If there’s a chair in the way and Vehicle A wants to send that data to other vehicles, without knowing exactly what the object is, it will say, “Don’t come here because you’ll run into it.” In order to travel the most efficient way possible, the autonomous vehicles won’t go there, because otherwise they’ll waste time or run into the chair or crash into it. And the data sharing and data security is done using blockchain. The way I explain blockchain is that it’s simply a “data construct.” It’s nothing more than how data is organized and how data is secured. Simple as that! It’s not Bitcoin. It’s not Ethereum. It’s data organization and data structure– the way the data is shared and secured between the vehicles is the goal of blockchain. 

That sounds pretty simple. Why do you think people associate blockchain with cryptocurrency?

If you think about the history of blockchain, the concept has been around. It was called something different, but blockchain was introduced in 2008 through this person, or group of people, called Satoshi Nakamoto. And that was 2008.

Bitcoin was introduced to the world in 2008. The reason why blockchain gained fame is because of Bitcoin. Over the last 10-plus years, people started hearing different stories about this thing called “Bitcoin.” Crazy stories like, “Oh, this guy spent 10,000 Bitcoins on Domino’s pizza, and now it’s worth 800 million dollars?” There was also something along the lines of, “This guy bought a Lamborghini for $115 using Bitcoin which he bought back in 2011?” These stories are grabbing people’s attention because it’s so radical: What’s behind this thing called Bitcoin, and why’s it so special? It’s only natural that people associate blockchain technology with Bitcoin, but it needs to be made clear that blockchain is not the same thing.

The reason why I started telling you about the history of Bitcoin is that if you look at two graphs… One, if you go to Google Trends and type in the term “blockchain” and maximize the graph from its inception, and two, if you look at another graph from CoinMarketCap of the pricing and market cap of cryptocurrency… If you look up Bitcoin value, the price-change over time from its inception, the graphs look very similar to one another. And that’s because people’s interest in blockchain technology follows the value of Bitcoin. It actually goes back to what I just explained above. People are interested in blockchain because they’re interested in making money, perhaps because of greed or economic interest.

But if you look at the entire graph, where it starts to pick up after 2008 is around 2016. So, this technology has been around for eight years, but during that time, only the computer nerds, the software engineers, and the systems engineers were interested in blockchain. The general public only started to show interest in 2016, and that’s evident from Google Trends. The increase in the number of searches for blockchain started in 2016, and 2017 is when everyone started producing whitepapers about blockchain. In fact, even within the Federal Government, there were so many agencies that created whitepapers. You can also see that when the value of Bitcoin semi-crashed in early 2018, the interest in Blockchain also dropped– it just follows. It follows all the way through.

To me, it’s a natural sort of path, of finding the stable stage of technology, because you have to go through that hype. You have to let everyone talk about the technology and feel the hype about it, and then let people find some disappointments of the technology. There’s a bunch of people that say blockchain is nothing– that there are so many flaws around it. But with those flaws, that’s how technologies will improve. Otherwise, they won’t improve to perfection. It’s similar to the internet today. The internet wasn’t originally designed to do all of the functions we have now. It was initially just created to exchange messages between universities or entities. 

I’m looking forward to the future where blockchain has gone through the hype cycle of heightened expectations, gone through the lowest point of its graph, and then kind of hopped back up to the point of stabilization, where organizations finally understand that blockchain is actually not that complicated. It’s a data construct protected by encryption, and something unique called “consensus mechanisms” or algorithms.

Imagine that nobody knew or cared about cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. How much easier would it be for you to sell federal agencies on blockchain technology? 

I think it would be even more difficult. And you said this before when you were saying that there are some strong negative opinions about blockchain or cryptocurrency. It goes in both directions. There are people who are extremely against it, and there are people who are extremely supportive of this technology. The only reason why, at this point, most of the federal CIOs would even consider investing in this technology is because they’ve heard of it. But if cryptocurrencies went away from the face of the Earth, that would be different.

To clarify, I mean a world in which you wouldn’t have to jump through the hurdles of selling the idea of blockchain– given the bad rap of cryptocurrencies.

I’ve never thought about this– a world where there’s no bad rap, but there are still people developing the solution. That sounds like an even earlier stage of this technology, because going back to the hype cycle, we’re even earlier stage than heightened expectations. Because when you get to the point of heightened expectation, that means a lot of it is out there and a lot of people are talking about it. I believe we’re passing through that right now. But going all the way back to the bottom of the graph, when we’re starting to talk about it, and CIOs are starting to hear about, the chance of anyone putting money on the table–both federal and commercial–is going to be extremely difficult. The matter of fact is that everyone wants to claim the glory of being the first integrator of a new technology, but nobody wants to be the failure of the investment in unknown technology. There’s a contradiction here, as with anything else, that’s only natural.

Switching it up– how did you feel about the environment for crypto/blockchain at Yale?

Yeah, I definitely see some room for growth. When I was there at the School of Management, I was looking for a faculty member who could sponsor my independent study on blockchain. I couldn’t find anyone there. I eventually got in touch with Professor Jack Balkin at the Yale Law School who sponsored my research and helped me do the independent study.

The extent to what I know about Yale and blockchain is that one of the first, if not the first conference, was held at the Yale Law School. I think that was early 2017. There’s a link to a video which includes a panel discussion on blockchain and how it may affect the legal world. And their perspective on blockchain is very interesting because they talk about smart contracts, which are nothing more than automated, electronic contracts that can execute the terms of the contract on its own– and the back-end technology is blockchain. If I remember correctly, they were talking about how, in the future, there’s going to be a huge demand for lawyers who know how to code, or programmers who would want to go to law school. Because if you compare traditional contracts against the smart contracts, the major difference is the fact that the smart contracts are created using a different language, which is called coding. Basically, a coder has to look at a contract written by a lawyer, translate it to a new language, and type it in to tell the computer system what to do. But they were debating on whether that language, the coding language, is legally enforceable. I thought that was a really interesting perspective of looking at smart contracts and blockchain. Because of my business background, my MBA mindset, I looked at crypto and blockchain in a completely different sense.

What I want to tell you is that I think there is this: I don’t know how it is now at Yale… I think the Law School is more interested in the blockchain technology and the impact to the legal world… But I also think the School of Management should seriously consider educating their students on blockchain and how it can potentially be beneficial in various industries including financial, supply chain, operations, smart contracts, and etc. because like you were saying, schools like UPenn, MIT, UC Berkeley, and plenty others provide that type of educational opportunity to students. 

I think it’s shocking, even among Computer Science students, how few people are clued in on cryptocurrency and blockchain (myself included).

No way. I was so hoping that at least the Engineering School would educate their students about it. 

Listening to some other alums, it sounds like even if Yale’s mission is a liberal arts education, blockchain technology will really permeate the humanities in the future.

Totally. I remember attending a conference over at the School of Forestry, and there was this discussion of using blockchain for sustainability– around energy-sharing and supply-chain management, which makes sense. Stuff like sustainable resources. If there’s a certification for being a sustainable company, and these companies are to abide by the rules of using only the sources that are sustainably sourced, then how do you actually verify or authenticate those certified companies? It can be done through blockchain. Those were the use cases and discussions that the School of Forestry’s speakers and panelists were talking about.