Talking About Blockchain

Blockchain and AI are vastly developing, yet many of us still aren’t fully aware of how exactly they can impact our lives. Mrinalini Kochupillai explains the benefits and dispels existing concerns of such technologies

One of my highlights in 2019 was to moderate a panel at TechWeek 2019 in Frankfurt. Apart from the topic “AI and the Future of Work”, I was impressed by the lineup of panelists who discussed, among other questions, how organizations can motivate workers who are nervous about change management and artificial intelligence. Among them was Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai, whom afterwards I had a chance to interview. Mrinalini has a background in intellectual property law and is passionate about combining the traditional and modern. Her focus is in understanding traditional technologies in health and agricultural sectors and how one can bring them together with modern technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Asumpta: When did you bump into AI?

Mrinalini: Just two or three years ago! I was working as a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute and putting together an international conference on ethics in innovation with high level partners. The idea at that time was to have a series of conferences on the theme of Ethics in Innovation in different fields of Technology. The second thing we wanted to do, was to bring together the world’s first Youth Forum on Ethics in Innovation, where we would give the youth from different parts of the world the opportunity to talk about technologies that are traditional to their regions and how they can interface these traditional know-how with emerging technologies like AI and Blockchain to globalize them. It was a big success in some ways and in others it was severely criticized: perhaps because it was such a foreign concept at that time. But the whole event sparked greater interest in me and as the main organizer of the conference; I started reading and learning a lot about Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and how these technologies are being used to promote different methods of doing businesses.

Asumpta: It’s interesting how people get into Artificial intelligence. And what is your area of research at the moment?

Right now I’m engaged in two things: One is designing and establishing an International Center for Sustainable Innovations Research and Education (SIRN). It is bringing several NGOs, academic institutions, businesses and individuals working in the field of traditional knowledge, together with those who are working in high-tech science, to one forum, SIRN. The second thing I am doing is actually establishing the very first start-up under SIRN. The start-up will use blockchain technology to bring ecological and economic benefits to small farmers who are engaged with conserving biodiversity. The goal is to facilitate the traceability of material and also ensure that through smart contracts, benefit-sharing is ensured to small farmers who are engaged in cultivation with agrobiodiversity.

Asumpta: Can you put this into an example? How is the blockchain going to benefit small farmers, let’s say in India, in this artificial intelligence era?

Blockchain, can, for example, support direct sales of farmers’ seeds and produce to diverse end users like consumers and researcher, while also ensuring automated (monetary) benefit sharing and downstream innovations. It is important to know that although the first thing that people relate with blockchain is bitcoin, bitcoin is just one of the use cases of blockchain technology. However, what blockchain as a rapidly evolving technology promises is the empowerment of the masses. The technology takes away power from the hands of a few and distributes that power to many. And the way that it does it, is by simply allowing anybody and everybody to participate in the whole system and to contribute and benefit from it. To begin with we do need people who have the resources to bring that technology to the grassroots. Also, to fully access its features and benefits, one needs to have at least basic cellphones or access to the Internet.

Asumpta: How is this then going to empower individuals?

In many ways. E.g.,by reducing the need for intermediaries, enhancing traceability in value chains and supply chains, making automated execution of contracts and digital payments quicker, with less money lost in transaction fees. Unlike the World Wide Web and most systems that exist in the computer’s world, all the information fed in the system is not contained in one single location or in one master copy, but in multiple locations with multiple copies. When you have multiple copies of the same transaction history, then even if someone would try and manipulate the data or change something in the data on one location/copy, from all the other locations/copies, one would be able to recognize that there’s something wrong here. So it is difficult to be corrupt or to single-handedly change transaction histories.

Asumpta: How does this work practically and how would this help a farmer in Kenya for example?

If a farmer in Kenya is producing a specific type of grain, which is very unusual and this grain is unique to Kenya and this farmer wants to sell that grain to a supplier in Europe, usually what would happen with a paper-based transaction, would be that a big company in Europe would buy that bag of grain from the Kenyan farmer. They would make that payment right there and the farmer would probably not even have a record of that transaction kept anywhere. Nobody would be able to check these records. But in a blockchain system, this particular transaction would be recorded and kept in multiple computers across the globe. Tomorrow, if the same supplier of seeds was to say that he wants to use that in a research program and develop something based on it and sell it in the market, then you can trace it back to the original source of this seed. This immutable record on the blockchain, in combination with smart contracts, would facilitate and ensure monetary benefit sharing with the farmer.

Asumpta: What is needed for a farmer or anyone who want to do this uncomplicated transaction through blockchain to do so?  

We need companies that offer blockchain based services that support such data collection, sharing and monetization. This is one of the solutions that SIRN and my start-up are seeking funds to develop. But one company and stand-alone effort is not enough. Blockchain and AI together can usher in a whole new era of grassroots and sustainable innovations. There are some groups which are already doing preliminary work in this sphere. They are working with small farmers to help them supply their materials directly to end consumers and even avoid the transaction fee that is caused by the change of currency when supplying across borders. We need to create more such solutions, be more imaginative and at the same time more aware of the real-world problems Blockchain and AI can solve.

Asumpta: What about data security? Blockchain and bigdata go hand in hand or concurrently and if I have my personal data out there and anyone is allowed to get them, how safe is my personal data and what ethic does it imply?

Ethics vis-a- vis bigdata, as far as I have seen is very culture-specific. In India for example, people don’t think about data rights as something that is so closely linked with their own security. But in other countries, such as Germany, many people are very anxious about sharing data. In the agriculture sector where I am working, most importantly with biodiversity and with local farmers, we are trying to make sure that the farmers are the winners and the data that is being shared is really about the seeds that the farmers have created. Although all this data is also considered to be non-personal, by the fact that all of the data can lead to the discovery of the farmer’s personal information, it is important to secure all types of data, including non-personal data.

Asumpta: How is the processing of personal data going to be a challenge when it comes to its compliance with the law in Europe (GDPR)?

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe deals with personal data. Personal data, however, is defined in very broad terms. In agriculture for example, the distinction between personal and non-personal data becomes slimmer and slimmer. So GDPR becomes very relevant no matter what type of data we’re dealing with. GDPR then is very interesting as a law, because it is walking on a tightrope. On one hand the European parliament recognizes that data is the new currency and data is currently more valuable than or – it will only become more and more valuable in the era of artificial intelligence and blockchain. The law also seeks to promote data portability and monetization of data by individuals. At the same time, the law also wants to ensure that concentration of power when it comes to managing and holding data be avoided or minimized. Those who are giving access to data nevertheless insist that the way the data is collected, the purpose for which it is used, the duration for which it is kept accessible, should remain somehow in the control of the data provider, and once it is accessed and stored, it should be deletable. And here already you see the problem with blockchain, because one of blockchain’s major strengths is that once data is entered into a blockchain, it is immutable, nobody can delete it. But every law has its limitations and human ingenuity finds loopholes and gaps in any law.

Asumpta: In that case how can we properly manage our digital footprints, or rather should we really manage our digital footprints at all?

We need to be careful where and to whom we are giving our consent, when we are giving out data and when our data is being collected. At the same time, we need to inform ourselves and slowly be active participants in this artificial intelligence age and go beyond the debate of considering AI and robots as pure danger, and something that will take over our jobs. We need to recognize that the technology will also benefit us, and indeed is already benefiting us in numerous known and unknown ways. As citizens of the digital age, we must also responsibly and ethically support the growth of the technology by contributing our data to reliable and trusted sources.

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