Technology is reshaping the corporate world. Blockchain and artificial intelligence are capable of unlocking human potential and, more than that, powering change for good.

In Davos, at the TCS, Forbes, and MIT Trust Data Consortium summit Unlocking Human Potential with Blockchain+Al, a panel of leading experts who grapple with these questions every day debated how data can be a positive force, but also risks leaving people behind.

How corporates can put the potential of blockchain into action was explored by N. Ganapathy Subramaniam, Chief Operating Officer & Executive Director at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

Blockchain is one of the technologies that sits at the heart of what TCS calls Business 4.0. Of the four main elements — mass personalization, creating exponential value, leveraging ecosystems and embracing risks — it’s the latter two that are the most transformative, he said.

“When you look at these two aspects, organizations have been able to create transactions based on experience. Take Uber, for example, the experience is about moving from one place to another. But underlying that experience are many transactions. One is Uber being able to collect money from me, another is Uber paying the taxi driver.”

In this context, blockchain is fascinating, he said, because it inherently creates ecosystems and financial value.

Putting the ideas about blockchain solutions into action is a conversation TCS has often, Subramaniam said.

“Is it robust enough? Will it perform? That is one of the core elements of the concerns our customers have.

“The second is, I have a solution, but I have a lot of enterprise systems. Will it coexist with my enterprise systems?

“The third one is, we figured out that everyone is talking about blockchain, but should I go for a public loop blockchain, or a private loop blockchain?

“The coexistence, the inter-probability, the scale, performance. All of this is very crucial for constructing the right blockchain solutions,” he said.

Human imagination

TCS has patented blockchain technology that allows for a 65% reduction in workflows.

But to truly take advantage of any of these solutions, corporates had to look at the bigger picture.

According to Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Mastercard, that meant harnessing the power of human imagination. For too long, we’ve worked in a way that impedes creativity, he said.

Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Mastercard, shares his thoughts alongside an esteemed panel at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting

“Stifling rules laid down by generations of regulators and managers and legislators try to control and contain ideas, rather than let them take flight,” he said.

Artificial intelligence gives us the opportunity to put imagination at the core mission of the technology, he argued.

“We think of AI more as augmented imagination than some form of intelligence that requires humans to stoke its boilers and force-feed it with data on a journey to unexplored lands where we are just passengers.

“Technology is actually a constant companion,” he added, “a toolkit that would allow us to turn ideas into reality. But only if we put human beings and the extraordinary power of imagination at the heart.”

The power of data

Beyond imagination, collaboration is also key to making this new technology work for everyone, said Smadar Itzkovich, founder and CEO of Israel Smart Mobility Living Lab (ISMLL).

Globalization 4.0 — the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum Annual General meeting — is all about bringing people together.

Multinational companies, start-ups, cities, organizations should all join together and use cutting-edge technology to create game-changing solutions for the public good, she said.

Itzkovich uses data-driven technology to power insights to build smart cities.

The insights from data are only useful if everyone agrees to share that data, she explains. “Data is the raw material which is powering the innovations with AI. For those people represented in that data, and those who stand to benefit from these technologies, this is truly Globalization 4.0.”

But what happens if people aren’t in that data?

Claire Melamed, Executive Director at Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, underscored how big data can leave great swathes of the population behind and said, in terms of data collection, that Chad has the least visible population in the world.

“Less than half the babies born in any given year are registered, effectively they are invisible to their governments,” Melamed explained.

The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting saw Claire Melamed discuss the importance of sharing data

This matters, she said, because when it comes to investment decisions about schools, healthcare, and roads, these people aren’t being taken into account. In an emergency situation like a natural disaster, health workers couldn’t hope to help people with the right equipment if they don’t know who is there.

“If they don’t know how many babies, how many pregnant women, how many elderly people, how do they know what to bring? How did they know where to take it? Invisibility sometimes, in some places, can be a matter of life or death,” she warned.

Technology holds the key to solving that issue.

“We need new things,” she said. “We need a mobile phone handset with connectivity in every clinic and every school so babies can be registered at birth, so that when vaccination programmes come, we can join up our programs and put everybody in the data.

“As we are thinking about AI and blockchain, and new technologies, and all the things built with data, we should think about the population of Chad, how is this going to help them?

“This is not new technology, we know how to do it, we just have to decide to do it.”

Who is the data working for?

While much of the discussion focused on data and its use for the common good, Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the world wide web and professor at MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, warned that there was one question that was not being asked enough: Who is that data working for?

“If I get [Amazon] to recommend what I buy my kids for their birthday presents, whose interest is it working in? My kids, their interest, or my interests?

“There are clearly big concerns people have that AI doesn’t work for them.”

Because of this, Berners-Lee is working on a project that allows people to own their own data.

Imagine, he said, if people could gather all their data; their Amazon purchases, bank statements, fitness data, health data from doctors. They would suddenly own more data on themselves than any one organization, and they would be able to run their own AI on it.

This could solve the issue of trust and new technology, he said.

“In that case, when you ask a question of the AI, you are asking a question you can trust because this is something that works for you.”

Looking ahead

Mike Federle, the CEO of Forbes, reminded everyone that blockchain and AI are already changing our lives.

For example, a team at his magazine tried to source an entire meal where every ingredient could be tracked through blockchain technology.

They found that they could track a tuna fish from an Indonesian fishing fleet, caught off the coast of Fiji, all along the supply chain until it came to their table.

“Let’s keep the stories coming on AI and Blockchain,” he urged.

The world is paying attention.