A Spirit of Service: Technologists Are Advancing UN SDGs
The United Nations General Assembly is currently examining ways of utilizing blockchain toward realizing Sustainable Development Goals. This initiative is known as Blockchain for Impact UN GA, and it encourages cross-sector collaboration among a curated group of thought leaders, and practitioners, to mimic the eco-systems they serve.
At current, Blockchain for Impact UN GA is focused on building a framework for onboarding leadership in blockchain technology across a dozen sectors, from AI to cybersecurity, help solve specific issues associated with each 17 categories of Sustainable Development Goals. The purpose of Blockchain for Impact UN GA is the implementation of blockchain technology to responsibly generate decentralized global solutions–with transparency and trust.
Susan Oh has recently presented on her blockchain projects at various events around the world, including the UN GA Media Zone and in Davos, at the World Economic Forum. She is a governing member of Blockchain for Impact UN GA, and a technology entrepreneur focused in the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) data with blockchain features for responsible development of human-centric AI. She spoke with us recently to provide insights into how the UN GA is looking at integrating blockchain and AI technology into sustainable development.
First, how did you get involved as a governing member of Blockchain for Impact with the UN GA?
I received a phone call at 11 p.m. one night back in August from Lawrence Bloom, who is Chairman of Be Earth Foundation IGO at the UN GA, who is a friend and mentor. We met at a green energy conference in Ecuador. He asked me, “Can you help us find a meeting room for 30 people by 9 a.m. tomorrow morning?” I was able to do so, and was invited to the brainstorm.
That brainstorm – to discuss how we may fund and help scale seven commercially active companies that retroactively extract C02 from the Earth’s atmosphere, discovered in the first brainstorm held at MIT – was among the starting steps of Blockchain for Impact UN GA.
Blockchain for Impact UN GA was co-founded by Sergio Fernandez de Cordova, who is widely respected at the UN GA as its tech entrepreneur in residence; Amir Dossal, the former Executive Director of Partnerships for the UNGA; Vince Molinari, an accomplished entrepreneur deep in tech and finance, as well as Efraim Wyeth, who is Executive Director and has decades of experience in community-building in social impact and philanthropy. Half of every lofty initiative is a need for people who roll up their sleeves and book rooms, make endless phone calls, and align everyone in the same direction. It can take bone grinding work to do that. Whoever shows up in the spirit of service and is able to do what they can–if you are of service to someone, then you will always be asked back.
The simply asked me to help out. I answered, and I would help some more, with logistical things, enlisting my network from having worked in start-ups for the past several years in AI, and in the past year, blockchain. I did what I could, balancing the build of my own startup, MKR AI.
They kept inviting me to the brainstorms, and bring in other founders, funders, social activists, and technologists to the table. There were a series of them across the country. When Blockchain for Impact UN GA launched in New York at the UN GA Media Zone in September, Efraim Wyeth, the executive director of BFI UN GA, invited me onstage to speak about a project my partners had built, Trane AI, which crowd-sources the tagging and labeling of data for supervised learning.
“There are many wonderful, bold projects around the world, not just in the US, being developed in answer to the world’s most pressing problems, from giving identity to the most vulnerable to trafficking, giving banking to the unbanked, transparency in food supply chain, and tokenizing activities to give everyone financial inclusion in this data-driven economy.”
How do you see blockchain changing the landscape of social impact?
Because the bitcoin source-code is an immutable ledger, there are so many different ways we can use it to bring about transparency and efficiency to systems that now require a middleman. People who don’t understand the technology will say they love blockchain, but not cryptos. This is ignorance. Blockchain is the underlying technology under cryptos, a data structure that gives transparency to transactions whether it’s data or capital. If blockchains are the internet of transactions, then cryptos are the democratization of value. The half-baked ICO rampage has given cryptos a bad name, but the tech is agnostic. Most of those alt-coins are junk without any tech or business need for them. The few, maybe 5 percent, each represents a different feature on blockchains to answer a transactional need. The same Bitcoin that allowed people to buy [illicit] drugs is the same tech that is allowing some Venezuelans stay afloat under a dictatorship that is starving its people.
One of the things I love the best and most important goals it is giving identity to refugee populations, and giving them sovereignty over their own data, while giving the unbanked a credit system that can move faster than governments and IGOs. The fact is that everything that we do in this modern life kicks up data that makes behemoth companies and governments billions and billions of dollars. And instead of sharing that value that you helped generate with you, they take it, and use it against you to make more money. There is a saying in tech that, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” This means that you are generating a lot of profit and value for other people by using the so-called free product. People shouldn’t be serving the tech, the technology must serve people’s needs.
Blockchain and cryptos say, “Why can’t you be sovereign over your own data? Why can’t you access which parts of it you share with other people? Why can’t you carry it with you to be accessed from anywhere in the world? And if you so chose to do this work, and help generate this value, why shouldn’t everyone who added to this value, then share in it, and hold it in their hands?”
You recently presented on blockchain at SDG Media Zone, you were also recently in Davos for World Economic Forum. What are some of the current trends or “big ideas” in relation to blockchain and social impact?
I can only speak to the projects that integrate AI development with blockchains. There are many wonderful, bold projects around the world, not just in the US, being developed in answer to the world’s most pressing problems, from giving identity to the most vulnerable to trafficking, giving banking to the unbanked, transparency in food supply chain, and tokenizing activities to give everyone financial inclusion in this data-driven economy.
I’m most excited about Smart Cities projects that use the P3 model – Public and Private Partnerships, like the Hoboken Smart City Project, helmed by Sergio Fernandes de Cordova, that will turn the entire city into an environmentally-friendly, digital lab, where citizens and the city can interact in much more efficient and positive ways, and where people will have sovereignty over their own data and be able to monetize it. It’s likely the most advance P3 Smart City plan in the world, a model that reduces waste, brings transparency to the bidding and implementation process, and allow citizens and cities to co-create together without bureaucratic BS.
I’m advising a project now, Zurich-based Mindfire.global, which is tokenizing the future IP of research of the world’s leading neuroscientists to model the human brain for the responsible training of human-focused AI. This is important because there is AI being developed around the world in silos without any commercial or humane consideration. And AI is pervasive – it’s in every backend system of every major industry. You just don’t know it. By training AI with human to machine interaction, we developed more human-centric AI. All these AI systems will know how to communicate with each other, if they’re not already doing so.
“How do you eradicate dire poverty? You come up with business models and environmental practices that make sense so that everybody is incentivized and enlisted, in the same direction.”
There are a number of projects working to bring transparency to even defining and measuring impact, using AI and blockchains. It could be as simple as maybe taking photos with drones, hashing that data, and putting them in blockchains, to prove that relief supplies have been delivered, or an individual was processed at a refugee center, that the person that was identified was actually there. Rather than big ideas, let’s focus on what is needed, works, and is workable now, now, now. We can fine-tune it later. This is what brings value to people. Only some of the things work some of the time. We have to be very careful about managing expectations so that we don’t put unreasonable expectations on a nascent technology, and we develop it in in a responsible way that’s useful for people.
I love everything [about blockchain], such as giving identity and banking to the most vulnerable in our world–because we are looking at 10% exponential growth in refugees and displaced persons around the world. I love the idea that you are your own sovereign person, and you own your own data that you can choose to share. Instead of getting ads pushed at us, or machine learning algorithms choosing specific ads to show me–I get to choose whether I want to look at an ad, and you reward me with tokens for giving you permission to do so. That is called the attention economy. I think it’s much more participatory, consensually driven, and focused on aligned incentives and governance frameworks, rather than clunky ham-fisted regulation.
That blockchain and crypto are driving these conversations in every part of the world, among the builders and socially-minded, I think, is huge. Financial remittance and peer to peer is one of the best features about cryptocurrencies and blockchain. To be able to send money across borders and bypass any sort of centralized systems, to lend to each other and give each other value–however you want to measure it. Sovereign digital identity and peer to peer exchanges of transactions that are immutable and transparent are big enough ideas to already start transforming our economies by their very nature.
What people [in this space] are talking about the most is getting more people onboard, and interested, and engaged in this technology, and learning about it. It’s not as new as people think – there are original builders in this space who began creating this eco-system and holding digital assets some 17 years ago, and held on, despite at least 3 or 4 waves of crackdowns by government entities. But this is an ever-higher crest of mainstream and institutional interest and investment, with the barrier to entry on the technical knowledge relatively low, than compared to, say, AI. We want as many people as possible with great ideas being able to develop it, to be able to use it, and incorporate it into their legacy systems–and have it be known that blockchain is not just the cryptocurrency – but that the two together, we can algorithmically create a more transparent, inclusive, and democratized world.
A lot of people identify blockchain with digital currency, but you are focused on AI in relation to blockchain. Where did you first draw the connection between AI and social change?
There is one thing that I’ve always loved about machine learning–it’s my hope and my dream, that all the world’s most tedious and repetitive tasks that are pattern-based, get out of the way and get done by machines. It will free people to become more human and humane. With that level of productivity–I’m inviting you to dream with me a little bit, we can go to a four-hour workweek, or provide a universal basic income for people. Then they must choose: do they take on the work no machines can do as well as humans, or level up on technology and become stewards of the machines? Food cooked by hands taste better. No machine can love a child, or create masterpieces of great contradiction that comes from the evolutionary impetus. At least not yet.
If all this work is done by machines, and it’s still driving productivity for businesses and for people, why wouldn’t we want to be able to retrain people? They can pursue their dreams and jobs that robots can’t do as well. That includes human touch, counseling, consideration, communication. Or, they can decide that they are going to tech up and become stewards of these robots, to dream further, and create new products and services–especially service the gaps.
The UN seems to be embracing innovation toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. Which projects are you working on with the UN?
Right now, we are exploring the framework for different ways that we can seed these little ecosystems [based on each goal]. At each meeting, if you keep them small, it keeps the dialogue more open and natural. We look at one industry, one problem, for each goal. Take climate restoration or education. For those goals, we look at which frontier tech companies can help solve that problem, and whether they are interested in becoming involved.
The Fifth Element Group, lead by Vincent Molinari and Amber Nystrom, recently launched the Decade of Women Campaign at the UN GA, with a series of hackathons, and small workgroups, like the one recently held at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, with the Nordic Women Leaders Congress. Underneath the splash, they’re building an incredible scope of a tokenized world-wide fund to put a value of feminine energy and productivity, in order to fund, support, and nurture women’s entrepreneurial and social efforts around the world to close the gender gap in every major arena and every category of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Watching this unfold from a series of conversations with Amber Nystrom, and watching her pull this off has been amazing. I’m so fortunate to be a part of this work.
The cadre, and the quality of people who want to step up and help and apply their knowledge to helping. By invitation-only brainstorms, a couple of the people may be from startups, maybe three or four are funders or philanthropists, and maybe three or four are bankers or from microbanks. You seed each individual role because it takes a village to birth a culture. All of the Sustainability Development Goals [collectively] mean that in order for climate restoration to happen, we need peace and stability, but that cannot happen until we eradicate dire poverty. How do you eradicate dire poverty? You come up with business models and environmental practices that make sense so that everybody is incentivized and enlisted, in the same direction.
“It’s very important for the impact space to realize that these tools are available for them, and they are not mired in old ways of inefficiency.”
Why is it important to incorporate blockchain and AI into social initiatives?
For the efficiency and transparency. It’s very important for the impact space to realize that these tools are available for them, and they are not mired in old ways of inefficiency. For instance, relief efforts and relief supplies. How do you know when it’s going to get there, when it gets there, and how your dollars are being spent? Put it on blockchain and track it with cryptocurrency, so we know where things are being spent and used. Blockchain and cryptos bring AI development full circle, to incentive it more towards human interaction with machines. Better validated data means for efficiency in training AI.
How can blockchains ensure the most vulnerable people in the world are supported in meeting their needs?
It takes a group of us working together. Who are the people that are on the ground? They are the front-line workers or community workers, or the business owners, the school operators. The people who are on the ground will have to define their need. They can grow and educate their own developers.
We always have an emotional connection to a place and those are the ones [that stay with us]. I have a friend, Peter Sampson, who worked in conflict resolution in Africa for 15 years for the UN. He will always have a soft spot for Senegal. When he got interested in blockchains and cryptocurrencies, he wanted to know how he could create an educational module for teaching children to dream about being tech entrepreneurs and working remotely. The needs are assessed from the ground, and then built up.
Amber Nystrom calls us the “way walkers,” we are the people who walk in two different cultures and we are able to do an information transfer, or culture transfer, between those two places. Peter is a “way walker,” western-educated and from America–but, he spent most of his professional life in negotiations and conflict resolution in Africa. He can take that tech and information transfer to places like Senegal. He can then effectively ask, “What do you need and how can we build it for you?” Then, get people like me involved who can help source the right people with the right tech.
You are a woman in a professional space that is typically inhabited by men. How does that influence the ways in which you envision the social impacts of blockchain? How does being a woman in this space influence how you approach things?
I’ve always worked in male-dominated places and industries. I don’t belong anywhere, so I belong everywhere. Besides, unlike traditional tech start spaces, and especially in Silicon Valley, where the “bro culture” can be terrible, I find blockchain and cryptos to be a welcoming place for women who know their proficiencies. Anyone who so chooses to participate, and bring value, can do so. Female energy is about flowing. I like a working framework in structure.
Female energy is much more about letting things flow and come to you with intuition and with heart. Primarily, if I am going to do anything with this tech and enlist the right technical partners, founders; enlist so many people that you need to get a project working and off the ground–I first need to open their hearts so they are receptive the message. Then I can start seeding the vision of things that don’t currently exist, but that could be.
A lot of people are apprehensive about the spread of AI, why is that? What are some of the reasons more people should be embracing AI?
There is apprehension because people are using AI wrong right now. The majority of how people are using AI and machine learning right now is for a core profit motive, or for war games. If you take a three-year-old digital mind and lock it in a room and make it do calculations and teach it how to extract the most money out of people, or how to do the most collateral damage using their pattern recognition, you should be afraid. In about ten years those systems are going to start talking to each other without you. Then, we will have a huge problem, because they won’t understand the human experience and they won’t responsibly understand how to love or support or serve humans. That’s where we should be starting.
AI should be embraced because it will get rid of all the boring repetitive things that human beings won’t do or should never be doing. Why don’t we send robots into toxic environments for exploration? Why aren’t we using robots to do all the middle management jobs that people hate doing anyway? Why aren’t we using robots for the best patterns for surgeries and other services where human error exacts such a huge toll, especially in the American healthcare system?
In your presentation at SDG Media Zone, you describe the importance of AI and diversity. Does this include the interaction of AI with people who may have limited access to technology?
The one true thing about data and AI is the wider your data set, the better trained your AI. The better your AI, the better it performs. For anything that is repetitive and exacting, a machine will perform better–outperforming a human any time. For those exact, precise, and repetitive jobs, of which there are many, everything from healthcare to accounting, even interviewing skills or sentiment analysis, a machine will perform better and give better productivity. The wider the dataset, the better.
There are AI purists who will disagree, arguing that the AI will learn to adjust for human bias in their learning if we get out of their way. They will argue machines have a done a better job of evolving quicker than humans. I can’t disagree when I see the state of world, and how scarcity is a political and execution problem.
Hyper-local and representative data are key to useful AI. For instance, if you ask a machine if someone is a doctor, and most of the people who are labelling and tagging the data are men, and they’re only used to dealing with male doctors–then you are going to have data that’s biased to say it’s wrong that there is a female doctor. That was a crude example, but the more diverse your dataset the better it can serve humanity because it has a better representation of humanity’s needs.
“Build tech that is the solution, rather than cool tech looking for a solution.”
Let’s suppose a government, NGO, or another entity in this space is interested in adopting blockchain, where should they start?
Take one of the 15 Howey tests and determine whether you really need it on a blockchain. Or, does it work perfectly well on a centralized database? What do I want it for? What am I putting on these blocks? There are only 2,000 blockchain developers in the world. Determine how compelling your use case is and then start building a model. What problem does it solve for transparency, and the efficiency of bypassing an intermediary? Who is going interact with it? Where does that data go? Where does it live? How are we using it? Who is going to use it? What are they going to use it for? Build tech to enrich people’s quality of life or business, and not just for systems. Build tech that is the solution, rather than cool tech looking for a solution.
What most concerns you about the world today? What gives you hope?
There is a great book called the Ingenuity Gap which says that every innovation and technological advancement that we’ve had will create its own problems. Look at exponential technology and the exponential growth, even the pace of technology is very fast compared to other industries–then, look at something like blockchain and AI. They are 10x faster than what other tech startups do, especially in the crypto space. It’s by the nature of how technical the information and how new and nascent it is.
Getting away from irresponsible development, or irresponsible expectations, that can kill the integrity or legitimacy of the tech is worrisome for me. Above all else, I feel like the world is on fire. It feels like everything is happening so very quickly and there are so many ills coming up all at once. The ‘ingenuity gap’ is our ability to provide solutions for those problems that we initiated through our own development. That is the stuff that scares me the most. Really, how many years do we have on our planet? How many years before the displaced and refugee populations start overtaking infrastructures? It is already happening.
“This tech is compelling because it can save money on the back end, but it also represents financial inclusion, transparency, and a system that relies on governance without regulation.”
If you really dig underneath the surface and speak to people who are building with skin in the game, then you get a full sense of what’s going on in this space. This tech is compelling because it can save money on the back end, but it also represents financial inclusion, transparency, and a system that relies on governance without regulation. It will give people hope that is more participatory, consensus-driven, and decentralized. That is what central authorities like governments and banks should know. You see the success of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. It’s an inverse direct reaction against what people hate about what is not working in the world today.
The upside is that so many of the smartest and best-intentioned people are technologically savvy and are working every day to solve the world’s problems. These are the technologists, funders, founders, and social activists. People who give a shit. Blockchain for Impact UN GA would not be possible without all of the founding members coming together in a spirit of service and offering to donate time, infrastructure, and tech in serving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Please come join us.
Susan Oh is Founder & CEO of MKR AI; Chair of AI for the UN GA’s Blockchain For Impact, and collaborates with Cogent Law Group LLC. She is also advisor to start ups (Mindfire.global, BlockAble.io, IVEP Dubtokens, Trustabitt, and SATTA) as well as the Hoboken Smart City Project in New Jersey. She was awarded the Quantum Impact Award by Decade of Women campaign in Partnership with the UN GA.