What happened at the European Union Blockchain Observatory & Forum workshop on Blockchain, AI and IoT in Brussels on 28 March, 2019

No technology exists in a vacuum, and this is certainly the case with blockchain. Rather, blockchain is one of a number of key emerging technologies that are laying the groundwork for the fully digital economy. Other emerging technologies, in particular artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), are also expected to play important roles.

For such reasons people are speaking often about “convergence”: the idea that technological transformation will come not from individual emerging technologies, but rather from their interplay.

This was the theme of the eighth EU Blockchain Observatory & Forum, which was held on 28 March in Brussels. Below is a summary of the day’s discussion.

Welcoming the digital twin

The workshop opened with a presentation by professor Tim Weingärtner of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

The amount of digital data available in the world, he said, is growing exponentially, and with it we are seeing the growth of a new digital realm in parallel to the physical world. In this digital realm we will have IoT to gather data (“see” and “feel”), AI to analyse data and make decisions (“think”), agents like robots, 3D printers, etc. to carry out actions in the physical world (“act”), For its part, blockchain can play a crucial role by allowing us to create “digital twins”, unique, non counterfeitable digital representations of the physical world – be they of people, organisations or objects – and to provide trust in data, allowing us among other things to transact in a fully digital, trustworthy way.

Important use cases for blockchain and IoT include supply chain, the sharing economy, data markets, identity, and network management. In blockchain and AI interesting uses include helping democratise ownership of the data used to train AIs, trace the provenance and authenticity of such data, and helping explain how AIs make decisions.

Secure oracles can help trust in data

Getting trusted data onto blockchains will be an extremely important element in many blockchain use cases. Here convergence with IoT can be important, for example in supply chain use cases which really on sensors to provide data on conditions of material along the chain.

In the second presentation of the day, Arnaud Danree, IoT Product Manager of Ledger, gave an overview of secure hardware oracles the company is developing for this purpose. He explained how such oracles can provide trust in data by gathering data at source (the sensor) and then “securing” it in a blockchain so it cannot be tampered with. He then provided a look at live or near-live Ledger projects for smart hardware oracles in green energy, trust in automobile mileage, luxury goods manufacturing, and water conservation.

The presentation was followed by a panel discussion on use cases and existing implementation in convergence scenarios.

Among other things, panelists noted that a number of use cases for AI and blockchain. These included changing the infrastructure of how data is delivered to AI by giving data ownership back to individuals as well as allowing developers to market their AI models directly to users. Blockchain can also help facilitate large-scale data markets and, by allowing micropayments, open up new business models and incentives in the use of data.

Interesting use cases involving AI and IoT include supply chain, the law, healthcare and smart cities. Yet with some exceptions there are no major examples of such integrations quite yet. The general feeling among panelists was that it would take five to 10 years for mainstream adoption of convergent platforms (though one panelist expected big things happening by 2020). In terms of hurdles to overcome, panelists pointed to GDPR, infrastructure, connectivity and funding in Europe among other things.

Convergence of blockchain and AI is coming

After the lunch break, Jean-Charles Cabelguen of iExec dove deeper into the topic of AI and blockchain. When talking about AI, he said, you need to differentiate between soft AI, which is trained on datasets, and hard AI, which learns by itself from its environment. The latter is still in the RnD phase. Another important trend is edge computing, in which a certain degree of data processing is carried out on the device, not in the data center in the cloud. This can improve efficiency and speed.

AI and blockchain are transversal technologies, he added, to be used for industrial purposes: they do not exist in vacuums. We are already seeing a convergence of AI and blockchain teams within big companies. This is an important indication of the ultimate convergence and integration of these technologies. Blockchain can help AI in terms of scaling data aggregation (allowing for multiple data sets and the renting of data), managing the sharing of computer resources, and in creating a more transparent and trustworthy data economy.

Getting smart about smart cities

The workshop ended with a two-part working session focused on smart cities use cases.

The first part was a presentation by the Berkeley Research Group and Mishcon de Reya that addressed how governments can approach blockchain in a smart city context using the example of a consulting project in Abu Dhabi. Policy makers, the presenters said, are grappling with such questions as understanding how disruptive technologies impact government, citizens and private firms, and whether emerging technologies pose a threat or an opportunity to economic growth.

The second part was an open discussion with all participants on questions around smart cities.Main issues facing the implementation of blockchain and other emerging technologies in a smart cities context include: incentivising data sharing, governance, funding and education (of both policy makers and the citizenry). There are technical issues as well, for instance scaling of systems and ensuring security and data privacy. Europe, panelits felt, would also benefit from focused research and from regulation – though it should be careful not to regulate too much too soon and risk stifling innovation.

About the workshop

The Workshop took place in the offices of DG CONNECT in Brussels on 28 March, 2019

Speakers and panelists included:

  • Peteris Zilgalvis (DG CONNECT)
  • Professor Tim Weingärtner (Lucerne University of Applied Sciences)
  • Arnaud Danree (IoT Product Manager, Ledger)
  • Ibby Benali (SingularityNet.io)
  • Alessandro Biancini (Alkemy)
  • Tom de Block (AIOTI)
  • Christoph Jentzsch (Slock.it)
  • Raphael Pralat (ConsenSys / Grid+)
  • Emanuele Ragnoli (IBM research)
  • Ken Timsit (ConsenSys)
  • Dr. Jean-Charles Cabelguen (iExec)
  • Nabil Manzoor (Berkeley Research Group)
  • Kieran Brown (Berkeley Research Group
  • Tom Grogan (Mischon de Reya)

A detailed report on this workshop, including links to the presentations and the video of the day, will be published in the next two weeks on our Reports page. Be sure to check back if you are interested in this topic!