Whether it’s personal, social, corporate, scientific or political, data will have a key role in determining the functionality and efficiency of the systems that will underlie the infrastructures of entire communities as humanity becomes more and more digital.
Data has rightly earned the title of “new gold.” It is fast becoming the main drive behind modern business. Companies collect and analyze data to improve the efficiency of their services and products.
And as with everything of value, there’s reason to believe that future wars will be fought over data stores. But there’s really much more to data than monetary value.
Scientists use it to propel their research forward at lightning speed. Data is helping discover and fight diseases. Political parties use data to plan campaigns and possibly affect public opinion in their favor. Governments agencies use it for a plethora of legitimate and illegitimate activities.
And more importantly, data is the food of artificial intelligence, the phenomenon that is taking the world by storm and finding its way into every domain and industry.
Data’s growth in value gives rise to a number of security, ownership and transparency challenges. Secure and auditable data stores that are under the control of no single party can provide a potential solution to these challenges and help us avoid the pitfalls that lie ahead.
Fortunately, the technology for the creation of such data store is already available. Blockchain, the technology powering cryptocurrencies, has been providing secure and transparent monetary transactions since the advent of bitcoin. Hopefully, the same concept can help overcome many of the obstacles that lie in the path of a data driven world.
Here are my initial thoughts.
Transparency and independence in artificial intelligence algorithms
Machine learning algorithms are becoming more and more prominent in the software that are controlling practically everything from social media timelines to advertising, healthcare, fighting crime, driving cars and whatnot. And machine learning relies immensely on data to train and become better at its functions.
We’ve already seen cases where bad use of data has resulted in biased AI algorithms that manifest racist and sexist behavior. But in contrast to rules and logic, data-based algorithms are very opaque and hard to examine.
This can lead to disputes and disasters as AI algorithms take on more critical tasks, especially if they make questionable decisions. Academics and scientists warned earlier this year over how big data and artificial intelligence can threaten democracy if governments start using data to manipulate the masses to do their bidding.
While figuring out the mechanics behind neural networks and AI algorithms is a complicated task, blockchain can move us toward this goal by providing a platform for data transparency. Companies and organizations can store the history of their data on blockchains, where independent experts can examine their data in terms of balance and bias. This can also expose any potential tampering with the data.
We’ve already experienced that openness in source code leads to the development of more secure and reliable software. As data takes a more prominent role in the functionality of AI-powered software, openness in data will also become critical. Blockchain can be the key to data transparency for AI.
Beyond transparency, blockchain can provide decentralized data sources that are independent of the parties that run the algorithms. This can create the basis for shared stores of data where multiple parties can contribute to the overall integrity of a dataset while no single party will have the power to manipulate data to their benefit. If we think of data as valuable assets, blockchain (and possibly smart contracts) can become the crowdfunding platforms for gathering data in a transparent and reliable way.
Instead of collecting their own data, companies and organizations can then tap into these independent databases. This can help turn the trend of every company reinventing the wheel in the dark recesses of their own lab and lead to collective efforts that help advance scientific causes for the betterment of humanity.
Ownership and authorship of data
Ever since digital assets started gaining value, ownership and rights management have been an issue. As data continues to rise in prominence and value, we need infrastructures that can grant power and control to the true owners of data.
Take social media platforms for example. We each own tonnes of data in our accounts, a digital profile that parallels (and sometimes contradicts) our personality in real life. This includes connections, preferences, history of posts… But we practically have no control or ownership of the data.
For instance, if Facebook decides to close your account, there’s no way you can take your data with you. If you want to open an account in a new platform, you can’t just import all of your information from Twitter or LinkedIn. We’re practically just generating information for the consumption of the service providers, which in turn use that data to serve up better ads and make money.
Blockchain can provide a solution to this dilemma, a distributed platform based on an open standard where user data is stored on the blockchain, independent of the social media platform. This will allow users, the true owners of the information to have full control of the data they are generating. They will be able to decide who they share that data with. They’ll be able to monetize it, and set up new accounts.
This database can also become a source of vetting news and information, where people can sign and vote for data bits on the blockchain to approve its source and authenticity.
Digital valuables can really benefit from blockchain’s infrastructure. The way blockchain solves the double spending problem can be extrapolated to other fields and domains where digital assets are exchanged. We’re already seeing blockchain showing promise in the gaming industry, where holding ownership of and exchanging in-game goods is posing a real challenge.
The key concepts behind blockchain, decentralization, transparency and resilience to tampering, make it a suitable platform for the future of our connected world. Full discussions are beyond the scope of this article.
But if you would want to further investigate on the topic, I suggest you explore the intersection of blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT). The current centralized networking model will be hard-pressed connecting the billions of devices that will be collecting data and performing functions at the edge. Blockchain shows promise there.
Also, blockchain’s model of cybersecurity answers many of the shortcomings of current centralized systems. Protecting critical infrastructure against cyberattacks such as DDoS and data tampering will be key to supporting critical internet-driven operations in the future. That’s a promise that blockchain fulfills.
Blockchain is definitely not panacea to the problems of a data-driven world. But it surely puts us in a better position to meet the challenges that lie ahead.