Following the launch of the Blockchain Task Force by ICT Cabinet Secretary Joseph Mucheru four weeks ago, many Kenyans have continued to wonder what the team is all about.
The group’s role is clearly spelt out in the Kenya Gazette notice CXX-No 33 dated March 9, 2018. In a nutshell, however, it will explore and publish a blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) road map for Kenya.
Which then brings out the question: What exactly is blockchain or AI, and more importantly, why should we as a country care?
We have repeatedly discussed blockchain technology, but there is no harm in summarising it as a special type of database whose records are irreversibly transcribed upon consensus between multiple stakeholders.
This is another way of saying that trust and control of updating the database or ledger of records is not exclusively reserved to one party, but is instead spread across multiple players or actors.
Trust and control of the database is therefore decentralised and distributed through mathematically proven algorithms known as consensus protocols.
Decentralised and distributed trust is a good property, particularly in environments where trust bestowed to centralised or single authorities is often abused to the detriment of the majority.
One can immediately see opportunities to use such systems in very diverse sectors of our economy and governance systems.
The finance, lands, customs, insurance, stock and electoral management systems easily come to mind given that they concentrate trust and control in one party, thus creating what is known as a single point of ‘trust’ failure.
Indeed, any other centralised trust systems can potentially benefit from blockchain technologies through disintermediation.
Recent Internet sensations like Uber, Facebook and Google are by design single points of trust failure and can potentially be disrupted by redesigning them along the blockchain paradigm.
We are essentially at the early stages of what is increasingly being called Internet 3.0 and the task force must identify and spell out the critical policy, institutional, technical and administrative pillars that must be in place to ensure that Kenya does not lose out on these emerging opportunities.
As with all new technologies, there will no doubt be risks and challenges. These must be identified and appropriate strategies proposed to mitigate them accordingly.
MIMICKING HUMAN BEHAVIOUR
Now to artificial intelligence.
AI is generally defined as any system that acts like humans. It mimics human behaviour based on how it perceives the external environment and arrives at a specific action to take from amongst multiple options.
Cases of computers playing chess and beating the best human player are typical examples of AI in action. Other examples include self-driving cars or even that Google map application on your phone that directs you to the nearest petrol station.
AI research has been going on for the past 50 years but has had exponential applications in recent times due to the greater computing power of devices as well as availability of large data sets being automatically generated.
With higher computing power, the machines are able to not only process large amounts of data faster, but they also can pinpoint patterns within large datasets that are invisible to the human eye.
AI could, for example, examine a chest X-ray, compare that with thousands of previous X-rays and identify the same disease that would not have been picked out by an expert radiologist.
Given the scarcity of radiologists in rural settings, one could therefore remotely offer high-quality radiology services to such locations by leveraging AI.
However, AI decisions are only as good as the quality of the dataset the machines are scanning through. Faulty datasets would mean faulty interpretations with potentially fatal outcomes.
To ensure that the AI machines are dealing with reliable datasets, one would naturally want to store such critical datasets on a blockchain infrastructure for reasons described above.
This is a snapshot of what is possible within the blockchain space but the full scope of the opportunities actually exists outside the task force. That is why the public has been invited to interact and share their insights with the task force over the coming two months.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu