The Woman Who Makes Machines Talk Blockchain

It’s a Saturday afternoon in August and I’m sitting in a cavernous art deco building that once served as the Reno post office. With me is Allison Clift-Jennings, whose all black outfit (jeans, top, glasses and nails) does nothing to dull her full, energetic smile. We’re at the offices of Filament, a company she founded in 2013 to provide hardware and software solutions to companies building the Internet of Things.

“I am an American. I like to own things,” she tells me. And when she says it, I know it’s a confession.

Reno is Clift-Jennings’s town. She was born and raised here, went to university about a mile from the Filament office, which is just blocks away from another office where she started her first company. Over the years, she’s pursued opportunities in other states, but she’s always come back. And as the product of a culture that prizes private property and self-reliance, it’s not surprising that Clift-Jennings likes having stuff. What is perhaps surprising is that for the last five years she’s been the CEO of a company which is hell bent on making it easier for people to not own things.

Filament began working on the the Internet of Things before that term even existed. “We called it ‘connected devices,’” Clift-Jennings says. Recently Filament gained a reputation as being a blockchain company. Earlier this year it shipped a product called the Blocklet that basically works as a blockchain hardware wallet for machines. Insert it into the usb port of a computer, coffee machine, or smart lock, and that machine gains the ability to sign messages to any blockchain. “You can send [the blocklet] a data payload, like sensor data, and out comes a blockchain transaction you can unload onto Ethereum or bitcoin or Hyperledger. Whatever you want,” says Clift-Jennings. Also slated for production is a computer chip that hardware manufacturers will be able to embed directly into their products.

Functionally, these products provide a way for connected devices to accept payments and use those transactions to automatically trigger changes in the machine’s behavior. With such a capability, hardware manufacturers could design their products to be sold as a service rather than to own.

In the common room of Filament’s open-air office, Clift-Jennings asks me to consider the efficiency of owning a drill. “How many time units total do you think that motor’s turned in its lifetime before that consumer sells it, throws it away, has a garage sale?”

People like to call blockchains trust-less systems. But they aren’t. Rather than eradicate trust, they reallocate it to computer systems.

I think of my own drill sitting in my apartment in New York and begin tallying the hours of work it’s put in over the years. The shelves. The pictures frames. The planters I made for the roof.

“Nine to eleven minutes,” says Clift-Jennings. Not hours. “Nine to eleven minutes. We all have these things in our garages or our work benches or our closets in our apartments and we use them once in a while to hang a photo or something like that. Do we all need them?”

Again, I think of my own drill. But now I think of the spot in my living room where I store it. The Corner of Shame and Clutter, a little space between the couch and the window, where I’ve interred all my once urgent necessities.

Clift-Jennings proposes a seductive alternative. What if, instead of owning that drill, I could go down to the neighborhood Lowe’s, borrow one and pay (perhaps in cryptocurrency) for the amount of use I get out of it. Not just rent it, but pay for the actual metered use. “I like that future more than what we do today,” she says. “This is the more responsible approach. As a human, as a member of society.”

It’s also a future in which I can open my living room window again.

TheChain: Image

Making this future a reality will require us to dial down our collective appetite for ownership. Oddly enough, Clift-Jennings thinks Nevadans are primed to make this shift. Although the state is known for its libertarian values, it’s also the birthplace of Burning Man, a primal celebration of collectivism that unfolds annually just 100 miles north of Reno. Next year, the Burning Man committee will occupy offices in the same building as Filament, and Clift-Jennings, who is a regular attendee, could not be happier.

One floor below, in the Filament office, engineers will be banging out the technical requirements of the sharing economy. It’s not enough simply to give machines the ability to receive and send payments. They will also need to reliably report information about their operations to multiple parties that may or may not trust each other. Here too, the blockchain could come in handy.

Before Filament began dabbling in this technology, it was building connected sensors. Clift-Jennings points above my head to an air vent hanging from the high ceiling of the office. Attached to it is an early Filament device, the Tap. From its post, it records vibrations in the vent’s fan, which Clift-Jennings uses to monitor when it is on and off. It can even indicate the health of the ball-bearings of the fan and give notice of an impending failure.

Sensors like these, the price of which has plummeted in recent years, abound. It’s now easier than ever to ask our machines remotely what is going on inside them. What we are lacking is a way to reliably record this information.

A device like the blocklet makes it possible for machines to send these status reports to a tamperproof, timestamped record, which could be very convenient in instances when that information is shared among mistrustful parties.

Truckers, for example, could use a blockchain to log mileage reports when they have to prove they’re not working longer than they’re allowed. Car owners could provide blockchain records as a diagnostic audit trail when putting their vehicles on the secondhand market. Many of the use-cases for Filament’s products appeal specifically to the auto and mobility industry, which Clift-Jennings says accounts for 90 percent of the company’s client base.

As she describes all the data that devices like the blocklet might transport onto blockchain systems, including kilowatt-hour readings from smart energy meters, and geolocation of shipping containers, I have my concerns.

People like to call blockchains trust-less systems. But they aren’t. Rather than eradicate trust, they reallocate it to computer systems. Cryptocurrencies prevent counterfeiting and ensure a predictable monetary supply with computer code so we don’t have to trust the government to do these things, But even in these systems, trust tends to collect and bubble up in places you might not expect. In bitcoin, you have to trust the developers who write the core client and you have to trust the wallet software that you use to interface with the blockchain.

Filament is moving trust around too from human beings to machines. For example, instead of having a company rep stop by your apartment to check the gas meter, the meter will turn the report in by itself.

Which begs the question, how well can we trust our machines?

Clift-Jennings agrees that there’s little a consumer can do to verify that a machine is honestly self-reporting. And if the data is bad, putting it onto a blockchain doesn’t magically make it good. Which is part of the reason she believes the tools Filament sells should be widely available. “Makers should be able to make their own blockchain-enabled hardware so they don’t need to trust big companies,” she says.

Filament was actually started with makers in mind. When she talks about the timeline of the company, Clift-Jennings breaks it up into inflection points. Originally, they were building connected sensors for the DIY community (back then the company was called Pinocchio). When sales lagged, they started focusing on industry clients. Filament only considered making blockchain-connected sensors when its clients began asking for a way to pay for the service of their devices, so they wouldn’t have to buy the device itself. From these demands, the blocklet was born.

For lunch, I walked with Clift-Jennings down to a restaurant on the Truckee River where we talked about more personal inflection points at her company. On New Year’s Eve, in 2016, mid-way through a fundraising round, Clift-Jennings announced to her investors in a blog post that she was going to be transitioning from a male to a female and changing her name from Eric to Allison. She had already told her the rest of her company separately.

Clift-Jennings doesn’t go out of her way to identify herself as a transgender CEO. But she recognizes that as a high-profile person, she has some responsibility to share her story in hopes it will help others who are struggling with gender dysphoria.

Growing up, Clift-Jennings sensed that there was something different about her. But it would take her years to gain the vocabulary to define it, a delay she thinks was probably exacerbated by her religious upbringing. “When I finally came to the realization of what was going on I was suffering some pretty bad dysphoria. It would come in waves. I’d be fine for a couple years and then really bad for a couple years,” she says describing the common sensation in transgender people that their assigned gender is not their true gender, that the body somehow got it wrong.

Eventually she decided that fixing the asynchrony between her perceived self and her physical identity was important enough that she could put everything else on the line. Before telling her co-workers about her plans, she prepared for the worst. “You have to think about every single person and know that it’s possible that any one of them or all of them could never speak to you again over this. That’s sobering,” she says.

Her team, however, stood behind her through the change and by the end of the funding round, Filament had raised $5 million.

Clift-Jennings doesn’t go out of her way to identify herself as a transgender CEO. But she recognizes that as a high-profile person, she has some responsibility to share her story in hopes it will help others who are struggling with gender dysphoria.

When we finished up at the restaurant, I had to meet someone at the library. Clift-Jennings started explaining to me how to get there and then said, “I can just take you. Or is that creepy?” I laughed and got in her car.

As she drove, Clift-Jennings promised me I was going to like the library. I smiled politely. I’ve never really been in a library that was anything but intimidating. But when I got there I saw what she was talking about. Reno has, hands down, the nicest library I’ve ever seen. It’s a jungle of plants and water installations flooded with natural light. And, most remarkably, it’s packed with people.

It struck me there that we already know how to do this. The sharing economy is the oldest economy there is. And someday, when we have more trustworthy machines, perhaps we’ll feel as comfortable sharing drills and cars as we do sharing books.