A wide range of stark and contrasting opinions on the future interplay of blockchain, AI, and IoT were shared during a series of panels and speeches at the GMIC event in Beijing. Industry players from around the world converged to discuss how China and other economies could look in the future based on changes to data and how it’s gathered, used, and abused. Our future dual identities, lack of privacy protection in blockchain, and Malta as the next Switzerland were key parts of the discussions. Speakers joining via video link from London had a warning for China’s internet policy.

Cui Baoqiu, Xiaomi VP of AI and Cloud Platform, Chief Architect

Xiaomi gathers tons of data; blockchain is immature, with few applications at present

Xiaomi VP of Cloud and AI, Cui Baoqiu. (Image credit: GMIC)

“We want to build Xiaomi into a big data company. Our first product, our core product, is the mobile phone. People use it 24/7 which means our mobile phones can collect all kinds of data about our customers. How can we utilize this data and provide value-added services? This is our mission.”

While phones were the core, Xiaomi has cooperated with other companies to build other products that slot into its ecosystem.

“In four years we’ve invested in over 100 companies which have launched hundreds of products covering smart home appliances and wearables. Now there are over 100 million activated devices supporting data collection for Xiaomi. Why does Xiaomi have an advantage in AI? Because we have big data.”

However, later in the forum when discussing the Facebook data issue, Cui said, “If there are only a few users then the data won’t be that much at risk, but if there are over 10 or 100 million users then companies will manipulate this big pool of data.”

Cui wanted to be clear that blockchain is quite a different thing to AI or the IoT and that it is not yet fit for purpose.

“In 2016, a team at Xiaomi said they wanted to use blockchain to solve some problems of data sharing and privacy. At that time, I began to think about blockchain and came to the conclusion that for data sharing or validating, blockchain has great value. However, for privacy, blockchain is just one tool. It cannot really solve the problem of privacy. We’re interested in blockchain at Xiaomi and looking into products using it, but I want to say that blockchain is not some panacea or silver spoon. Blockchain has a bright future, but in the short term, after strategic discussions, in our view, it is not a mature technology and its application is limited.”

Yuan Yuming, Dean Huobi Blockchain Application Research

Blockchain can be used to wrest power from big players

Yuan Yuming, Dean Huobi Blockchain Application Research. (Image credit: GMIC)

Yuan talked about how blockchain can help serve other technology projects by reducing transaction costs for acquiring data. In the future, if blockchain can reward people for submitting materials, say for AI projects, then all will benefit.

Rewards earned through blockchain should also go beyond incentives to empower content producers:

“There’s a saying that content is everything, however it really isn’t. Very few items of content have value… Most of the money goes into the pockets of the owners of the channel. But with blockchain, as long as the content is good, money will come naturally. If creators and promoters are rewarded via blockchain, they will be motivated to work. Blockchain can undermine the value of channels.”

Wu Xing, Founder BitCV

Blockchain is not sexy and cannot protect privacy.

“Blockchain is very popular but it’s just a protocol. From a tech perspective it’s not sexy,” said Wu to ground what the conversation was actually about.

“Blockchain does not apply so well to privacy protection. Internet companies make revenues and supply services by utilizing user data. If we can enable the individuals to manage that data then blockchain will have some value here, but it doesn’t mean every vertical can use it.”

Wu Peng, CEO of Yuanben Blockchain, agreed on blockchain’s role in helping individuals take control: “Every individual has the right to charge for the value of a transaction. With decentralization, we can prevent just a few giant companies from controlling all the data

Despite a somewhat gloomy outlook for specific elements of the technology, he was still upbeat overall: “Blockchain can’t solve everything but it can increase trust. Despite the amount of electricity it uses, blockchain can provide value for the world. It’s a historic change for humanity.”

Gao Dongliang Yunchuang Angel Technology Co-founder and Chairman

Blockchain and AI combined will help realize President Xi’s vision and better public welfare.

Donald Gao Dongliang of Yunchuan Angel Tech speaking at GMIC. (Image credit: GMIC)

Gao was one of the most upbeat about blockchain and said the inventor should be awarded a Nobel Prize.

“We will have a centralized processor combining AI and blockchain technology. We should have a long-term vision. I believe there will be an explosion of applications of blockchain in 3 to 5 years. The first will be the industrialization of the digital economy,” he said, referring to President Xi’s goals for rejuvenating industry and strengthening China’s digital economy. “For example, IT and cultural industries where the key is digital assets. In the past there were many assets which we didn’t know how to value, but blockchain allows it. We can accelerate the transfer of value and information and reduce the friction of information. Blockchain will let us accelerate the industrialization of digital assets, which was stressed by Chairman Xi.”

“If ownership is clear and transaction costs almost zero, we can maximize social welfare. We can provide the best life with the integration of digital technologies. In the future, we can integrate robots, AI, IoT, and big data to build a new digital economic world.”

Danny Deng, Chairman of Tai Cloud

Our digital identities will outweigh our physical ones, Malta could be the next Switzerland and blockchain can bring more data back into the public sphere.

Danny Deng had many opinions to share at GMIC. (Image credit: GMIC)

“We all know that the Chinese market is monopolized by large e-commerce platforms like TMall, JD.com, and Alibaba. They’re the main channels to access products, but they represent blackholes of data. Any data that has entered these platforms cannot be shared publicly. We want to combine sales and manufacturers’ data and share it with the public. Take fruit as an example. Different data will be of interest to farmers and to the government, and so have different values. With blockchain we can redefine the value of data.”

Read more: Virtual identities and governance: Danny Deng on China’s blockchain future

Deng also believes that in the future we won’t need big companies, just designers. Place a design on the blockchain and if enough interest is shown, the object can be made and the go-to-market time will be much reduced.

As well as fruit, Tai Cloud is using blockchain to solve real world problems in China. One area of development is medical notes. Hospitals are refusing to share patient data, according to Deng, whereas blockchain’s decentralized nature could make this possible.“Who ensures the safety of a centralized data platform, especially after the crisis of Facebook?”

In other areas of healthcare blockchain can reduce costs. “Most of the cost of genetic testing goes to the middlemen. We want service providers to be in touch with buyers directly,” said Deng.

“In the physical world we have police and courts, prisons and laws to keep everyone on the right tracks, but in digital nations, such kinds of force cannot be used physically where everything is virtualized, so people can be punished via smart contracts. Maybe AI will judge whether you’re right or wrong, rather than a real person.”

Deng believes the changes brought about by data technology will split us into virtual and physical citizens: “We will have two kinds of identity. One is physical, so which country I’m born in, which nationality I have. The other will be a digital identification and will be much more important than my real-world identification. This will become a problem for governments when you can choose which services you want – from more open countries.”

These changes will present an opportunity for countries around the world to totally reposition themselves: “For example, Malta. It’s the biggest bitcoin trading country in the world. A couple of months ago, no-one knew Malta, but it might be the future Switzerland. All countries will compete with each other to attract the most talented people, best technology, and smartest capital. If you miss this chance, you may miss a hundred years.”

Frank Zheng
Frank Zheng, Director General of the World Blockchain Organization. (Image credit: GMIC)

This looming competition means countries have to start getting serious about blockchain: “Even in China, different cities, different provinces have different policies for blockchain and so more and more people are going to Hangzhou, to Hainan because they’re more open to blockchain technology. No regulation is not good regulation – we need to find a balance.”

Frank Zheng, Director General of the World Blockchain Organization agreed about Malta and the efforts it is making in blockchain. He believes that regulation around the world is still unclear which is holding blockchain back: “If we want to build a digital country, we need to create blockchain zones. In these zones, blockchain firms can cooperate together.”

Carlos Creus Moreira, Wisekey Founder and CEO

China needs to think of itself as an internet platform; cut off from global platforms it will not be able to compete.

“The next phase of the internet is as a platform. China needs to think in terms of a platform, not only an internet because the current architecture of the internet is totally decentralized. You cannot build legislation on something which is decentralized. You can block the internet and create your own intranet but those measures will handicap your own competitiveness in the future,” said Creus Moreira via a video link from London.

“There is a much better way to do it–via platforms. Look at Google, Apple, Facebook. They’re becoming platforms. In a platform environment, you need to control everything that platform does. If China becomes an internet platform, China will be in a very strong position to compete against other platforms. Otherwise, other platforms will become so dominant that it will be impossible to compete against them.

“But in order to become a platform, you cannot just select products. Like a supermarket has to offer a range of products. So you have to have a very strong digital identity strategy in China. All the objects you produce and import need a digital identity. Then decentralized blockchain platforms to store the ID and that people can access. People can then use their human identities to control those objects – cars, house, alarm system.

“This will create a huge amount of data which can be mined with AI and improve the system. The number one for China is to think about the platform and become able in the next five years what I believe you could become: the most dominant platform on the internet due to the size of your population and country.”

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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