Disruptive technologies: from Blockchain to Artificial Intelligence. An interview with Jennifer Zhu Scott
Jennifer Zhu Scott is the co-founder and principal of Radian Blockchain Ventures and Radian Partners, focusing on private investment in the Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and renewable energy sectors. Prior, she was head of business development and strategy in APAC for Thomson Reuters and led the firm’s speech-to-text, deep search, and video-indexing project. She co-founded one of the first education companies in China and exited before moving to UK as a senior advisor to the education subsidiary of Daily Mail & General Trust.
How is Blockchain technology currently applied?
First of all, I think we should demystify it. The Blockchain essentially is a decentralised database with a variety of applications, but not universal applications. When it’s used well, it can be powerful. Many start-ups we are seeing today using Blockchain don’t really require decentralized solutions. So there is certainly a level of hype that can be unhealthy.
The Blockchain’s decentralizing nature inherently restrains modification of the data, which allows it to serve as an open and distributed ledge with permanent records. This has attracted immediate attention in the financial service sector. The Blockchain as the underlying technology of Bitcoin, has enabled an entire asset class of cryptocurrency that is close to USD125bn market cap today and still growing as we speak. Digital currencies are also rewriting the game of start-up fundraising through ICOs, or Initial Coin Offerings. We are seeing regulators like SEC in the US and MAS in Singapore starting to give guidelines to regulate the space, with which I see it as a positive step forward, because they legitimise ICOs as a fundraising method.
Admittedly, the financial industry is going to face a lot of disruptions because of Blockchain, but many non-financial industries could use Blockchain to their advantage, such as in real estate for recording land titles and deeds, in digital identification, supply chain, or copyright and ownership in the arts. In Turkey, a company has put the Turkish version of Wikipedia onto Blockchain to counter the country’s growing censorship. I personally would love to see more applications beyond the financial industry.
You just mentioned the social element of Blockchain, but how does this technological advance fit into financial inclusion?
In a traditional financial system, central banks and banks act as centralized trust institutions to allow people who don’t know each other to make transactions. In a decentralized system, anyone who wants to create fraud or who wants to fool the system, has to fool the entire database which is extremely difficult if not impossible. So in a society where the traditional financial system isn’t working, a decentralized system would enable people to freely trade and transfer value without knowing each other or centralized trust. Blockchain could potentially enable the next generation of monetary system, one that is more about empowering individuals than relying on centralized institution. Bitcoin was created in the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis. Blockchain-enabled solutions could potentially allow communities and individuals to live ‘off-the-grid’. Such capacity could be extremely powerful for those who can’t easily have a bank account or need near-zero-cost transactions.
What does the development of Blockchain in the next few years look like?
We need to find the right applications, scale them in an inclusive manner, without getting into too much hype. The user interface of such applications needs to be more friendly and appealing to ordinary people, beyond the ‘hard-core’ developer/coder. Take iPhone for example, it’s a very complicated set of technologies and few people understand all the technical details being used behind the screen and yet everyone can pick up an iPhone and use it. I believe eventually that’s where we should go. Not everyone can fundamentally appreciate how exactly the math and coding underneath work, but everyone can benefit from the capability if it becomes seamless.
A good example is the inaugural Blockchain user case, Bitcoin. Right now if you want to buy, trade, spend, keep bitcoins, it’s not an intuitive process for the mass public yet. Having said that, once you have bitcoin, and in countries like Japan, Korea and a handful of European countries you can spend your bitcoin using your phone to buy anything from train tickets to a coffee, so it is happening.
So if Blockchain is not universal, what else does the world of disruptive technology hold?
In terms of the most disruptive technologies, we have to mention Artificial Intelligence.
Despite this we do have to remember that A.I is overestimated in the ‘Skynet’ sense and underestimated in the automation sense. Contrary to the Blockchain, I have a hard time thinking of any large company in this world today that couldn’t use some set of AI technologies to improve their efficiency. It is much more universal and pervasive than people realize. We’re surrounded by it. We’re interacting with it every single day without even realising it. We are constantly feeding it with our data through our smartphones and other digital footprints. I believe that if the board of any large company isn’t actively pushing for an A.I strategy, these companies should reorganise their board in order to be responsible for the shareholders long-term interests.
What part of A.I is developing at the most rapid rate at the moment and why?
Artificial intelligence is a general term that represents a set of technologies, which individually but often collectively have very wide applications. NLP (Natural Language Processing), machine learning (data analysis or correlation/regression analysis), reinforcement learning, robotics, autonomous vehicle etc. are all developing rapidly. But it’s hard to compare and contrast the pure speed of developments between them because the metrics are different. It’s worth highlighting Digital Assistant, which is becoming the latest most important computing platform because of the rapid development of NLP. Siri and Alexa still have a long way to go because they are general and expected to cover a wide range of topics. But there are companies now working on vertically focused and specific AI assistants, such as clare.ai in Hong Kong, specialized in serving banks, mutual funds, or customer services for governments or airlines, which can produce much more accurate results. Not everyone will use autonomous vehicles in the next few years, but I believe Digital Assistant could become as pervasive as smartphones.
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