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Exploring challenges to democracy in the digital age

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Late last month, I joined Steven Malby, head of the Commonwealth’s Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform, on an early morning train to St Hugh’s College in Oxford for a workshop on Cybersecurity and the Democratic Process. The workshop was jointly organised by the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism and the Organisation of American States.

Cybersecurity is an important and expanding area of work for the Commonwealth.  We are currently working on four cyber projects to help member countries implement the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration adopted at the last Commonwealth Summit.  They include a programme in the Caribbean to train investigators, prosecutors and judges on cybercrime investigation; the establishment and training of criminal justice focal points for electronic evidence across the Commonwealth; a review of cyber laws and policies in three African countries; and the development of a guide and technical support to strengthen cybersecurity in elections.

At the workshop in Oxford, Steven spoke on a panel about good practices and experiences in addressing digital threats to elections. He highlighted the role of election management bodies in the Commonwealth and how the quality of an election is inextricably tied to the authority and trust in the electoral institution. He emphasised that an election management body must have control over the whole process so that the election is viewed as legitimate. The legitimacy of the election process can be questioned by the public when there is an electronic vote, rather than traditional ballots with pen and paper.  It is critical to ensure that in whatever format the election takes place, it is – and is perceived as – free and fair.

In Oxford, we also heard from government representatives from Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Colombia about the cybersecurity threats they face. Participants learned that overwhelmingly, threats come in the form of viruses and malware. However, some countries had found hacks that could be traced back to government actors. The Commonwealth encourages cooperation between member countries so that there is awareness and knowledge of these cybersecurity risks. It is only with an understanding of these threats that frameworks can be developed to manage them.

The workshop participants also heard from the UK National Cyber Security Centre about the volume and types of cybersecurity threats experienced in the UK. This prompted discussion on how and whether ‘fake news’ and disinformation should be viewed in cybersecurity terms. There was also an interesting presentation by William Dutton of Oxford University regarding the role of the internet and social media in swaying political beliefs. His data suggested that while the internet can create ‘echo-chambers’ (where our views are sorted by complex algorithms), this has little effect on changing our political inclinations in practice.

Overall, we had a very insightful day in Oxford hearing from other regions about cybersecurity challenges faced and fruitful conversations about what can be done to remedy these issues.  The Commonwealth hopes to build upon the learnings of the day to inform the delivery of our four projects over the coming year.

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The Promise of Blockchain in Mega Sport Events

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Authors: Dr. Aiman Erbad and Dr. Mohamed Abdallah

Amid the excitement and anticipation of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM, sport remains a business. Like other global industries, the adoption of technology innovations is driving greater efficiency and transparency to generate benefits for sports organizations, leagues, clubs, and fans.

Researchers at the College of Science and Engineering (CSE), Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), make the case for adopting blockchain-powered solutions in delivering seamless sport mega events by outlining some of the top use cases.

Understanding blockchain

“Blockchain can solve many real-world problems,” explains Dr. Mohamed Abdallah, Associate Professor in the Division of Information and Computing Technology (ICT) at CSE.

“For mega sport events, the benefits can be exceptional. Because of its transparent data structure, blockchain can facilitate secure and reliable data exchange at the individual, institutional, or national systems level as needed, without the need for intermediaries to ensure mutual trust and the authenticity of the data exchanged.”

The chaos of the UEFA Champions League final between English team Liverpool and Spanish club Real Madrid in May 2022, which resulted from the illegal distribution of non-validated tickets, is likely to have accelerated the recognition of blockchain’s benefits for the sport industry. The ensuing government inquiry unequivocally called for using blockchain for ticketing to prevent a similar fiasco at future events. A closer look at the nature of this cutting-edge technology reveals why.

How blockchain works

By its functional nature, a blockchain is a distributed (or shared) digital ledger that stores encrypted blocks of transaction data securely chained together in chronological order. Unlike other ledgers or databases, blockchain combines unique security features based on cryptographic techniques and its chronological chain structure.

In its standard form, blockchain provides immutability (data entered is permanently recorded), transparency (data is visible to everyone involved), and decentralization (all computers in the network have a copy of the blockchain to collectively maintain control). These features facilitate a tamper-proof, reliable way of storing, exchanging, and tracking information.

A key use case for mega events: preventing ticketing scandals

Dr. Abdallah and Dr. Aiman Erbad, Associate Professor and Head of ICT at CSE, add their expert voices to arguments that the UEFA Champions League final chaos could have been prevented using a blockchain platform with a self-enforcing contract capability to facilitate a secure ticket purchase process.

In practical terms, tickets can be stored on the blockchain denoted with unique cryptographic tokens. Each ticket can be linked to the authentic owner, providing traceability and accountability that prevents forgery. In this way, it can effectively reduce the impact of bots and/or scammers buying large numbers of tickets for illegal resale.

Using blockchain-based “smart contract” technology, ticketing entities can set the required resale rules to ensure a fair and secure market. These digital contracts can facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers while maintaining data accountability and traceability.

A related use case is storing the chain of ticket ownership. These records cannot be forged since changes are verified and tracked, ensuring data integrity. It can help customers validate the authenticity of tickets to avoid being trapped by ticketing scams.

Other use cases in sport

Blockchain-powered fan engagement is a growing use case for the sports industry. Several professional leagues and clubs are using blockchain to establish trustworthy fan databases that facilitate the distribution of “fan tokens”. With the status of a digital asset (created on a blockchain), the tokens can be redeemed by fans for rewards such as VIP experiences or ticket promotions. The increased fan engagement can potentially create new revenue streams for clubs; for example, incentivizing them to attend more events in person. Fan tokens have been rolled out by professional sports teams all over the world, including Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona.

In another use case, the market for sports collectibles and memorabilia can leverage blockchain to establish trust and traceability. Experts have warned that fraud is rampant in the sports collectibles and memorabilia market. Blockchain can ensure the authenticity of special items through the use of digital identities.

CSE’s own blockchain-based applications

CSE faculty members are developing innovative use cases for blockchain in a range of applied settings.

“Our research focuses on the applicability of blockchain in solving real-world problems, such as securing data access in healthcare and decentralized trading,” says Dr. Erbad.

“We also study the technical aspects of blockchain to enhance its security, privacy, and efficiency. We have investigated the possibility of reducing energy consumption in public blockchains and developed an energy-efficient consensus algorithm. In other areas, we have also investigated using artificial intelligence in combination with blockchain smart contracts, called Rational Contracts, to provide smart resource trading with optimal prices in smart city applications.”

Among CSE’s blockchain-based applications are a trading platform for electric vehicle charging in smart cities, a decentralized ride-sharing service, a privacy-preserving decentralized stock exchange platform, a scalable energy trading sealed-bid auction mechanism, real-time secure health data exchange system, and a cooperative spectrum management system for 5G networks.

A national blueprint for Qatar

CSE had a leading role in developing the Qatar National Blockchain Blueprint in collaboration with the Communications Regulatory Authority and Qatar University. The blueprint highlights how blockchain can advance Qatar’s innovative and growing IT sector.

Essential blockchain requirements and recommendations for building a solid regulatory framework drive its pivotal goal of facilitating blockchain’s adoption at the national level, in support of Qatar National Vision 2030 and Qatar National Development Strategy. To achieve this, the blueprint outlines the conditions and incentives each sector must provide for the level of technology adoption needed to allow start-ups, pilot projects, and new companies to emerge. The strategy is an important step for Qatar, its sports, and other leading industries, to reap the societal benefits of this innovative technology.

For more information on the work of the College of Science and Engineering, please visit cse.hbku.edu.qa. To know more about Qatar National Blockchain Blueprint, please visit: https://www.cra.gov.qa/document/national-blockchain-blueprint

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Interesting archaeological discovery in Israel

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An ancient scarab from three thousand years ago was surprisingly discovered during a school trip to Azor, near Tel Aviv, Israel. The scene depicted on the scarab probably represents the conferral of legitimate power and authority on a local ruler.

“We were wandering around, when I saw something that looked like a small toy on the ground,” told Gilad Stern of the Education Centre of the Israeli Antiquities Authorityntre, who was leading the school trip. “An inner voice told me: ‘Pick it up and turn it over.’ I was amazed: it was a scarab with a clearly engraved scene, the dream of every amateur archaeologist. The pupils were really enthusiastic!”.

The visit of the Rabin Middle School eight graders took place as part of a tour guide course organised by the Education Centre of the Israel Antiquities Authority for the third consecutive year. The course enables students to teach the residents of Azor about the local archaeological heritage.

The scarab was designed in the shape of the common dung beetle. The ancient Egyptians saw in the gesture of the tiny scarab, which rolls a ball of dung twice its size where it stores its future offspring, the embodiment of creation and regeneration, similar to the gesture of the Creator God.

According to Dr. Amir Golani, an expert of the Israeli Antiquities Authority specialized in the Bronze Age period, “the scarab was used as a seal and was a symbol of power and status. It could be inserted into a necklace or a ring. It is made of silicate earthenware covered with a bluish-green glaze. It could have fallen from the hands of an important and influential personage passing through the area, or it could have been deliberately buried in the ground with other objects and after thousands of years returned to the surface. It is difficult to determine the precise original context.”

The lower, flat part of the scarab seal depicts a figure seated on a chair in front of a standing figure, whose arm is raised above that of the seated person. The standing figure has an elongated head, which seems to represent the crown of an Egyptian pharaoh. It is possible that we are seeing here a snapshot of a scene in which the Egyptian pharaoh confers power and authority on a local Canaanite.

“This scene fundamentally reflects the geopolitical reality that prevailed in the Land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age (approx. 1500-1000 BC), when local Canaanite rulers lived under Egypt’s political and cultural hegemony (and sometimes rebelled against it)” – said Dr. Golani. “It is therefore very likely that the seal dates back to the Late Bronze Age, when the local Canaanites were ruled by the Egyptian Empire”.

Scarab seals are indeed distinctly Egyptian, but their widespread use extended beyond the borders of ancient Egypt. Hundreds of scarabs were discovered in the Land of ancient Israel, mostly in tombs, but also in settlement layers. Some of them were imported from Egypt, many others were imitated in ancient Israel by local craftsmen under Egyptian influence. The level of workmanship of the particular scarab found is not typical of Egypt and may be a product of local craftsmen.

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Towards Efficient Matrix Multiplication

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Algorithms have, over the years, helped mathematicians/scientists solve numerous fundamental operations. From the early use of simple algorithms by Egyptian, Greek, and Persian mathematicians to the shift towards more robust AI-enabled algorithms, their evolution has manifested incredible progress in the technological realm. While Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are extending their reach and contributions in various military and civilian domains, it is interesting to witness the application of the technology on itself, i.e., using ML to improve the effectiveness of its underlying algorithms.

Despite the increased familiarisation with algorithms over time, it remains fairly strenuous to find new algorithms that can prove reliable and accurate. Interestingly, ‘Discovering faster matrix multiplication algorithms with reinforcement learning,’ a recent study by DeepMind, a British AI subsidiary in London, published in Nature, has demonstrated some interesting findings in this regard. It revealed new shortcuts simulated by AI for faster mathematical calculations vis-à-vis matrix multiplication.

DeepMind developed an AI system called ‘AlphaTensor’, to expedite matrix multiplication. Matrix multiplication – which uses two grids of numbers multiplied together – is a simple algebraic expression often taught in high school. However, its ubiquitous use in the digital world and computing has considerable influence.

‘AlphaTensor’ was tasked with creating novel, correct, and efficient algorithms to carry out matrix multiplication with the least number of steps possible. The algorithm discovery process was treated as a single-player game. It used AlphaZero – the same AI agent which gained global traction when it displayed extraordinary intelligence in board games like Chess and Go.

AlphaTensor conceptualised the board into a 3-D array of numbers which, through a limited number of moves, tried to find the correct multiplication algorithms. It uses reinforcement learning, where the neural networks interact with the environment toward a specific goal. If the results are favourable, the internal parameters are updated. It also uses Tree Search, in which the ML explores the results of branching possibilities to choose the next action. It seeks to identify the most promising action at each step. The outcomes are used to sharpen neural networks, further helping the tree search, and providing more successes to learn from.

As per the paper’s findings, AlphaTensor discovered thousands of algorithms for various sizes for multiplication matrices, some of which were able to break decades-long computational efficiency records of the previously existing algorithms. They overshadowed the towering complexity of the best-known Strassen’s two-level algorithm for multiplying matrix. For example, AlphaTensor found an algorithm for solving a 4 x 4 matrice in 47 steps overperforming the Strassen algorithm, which used 49 steps for the same operation. Similarly, if a set of matrices was solved using 80 multiplication steps, AlphaTensor reduced it to only 76 steps. This development has caused quite a stir in the tech world as it is being claimed that a fifty-year old record has been broken in Computer Science.

However, the episode underlines some important implications. Given that matrix multiplication is a core component of the digital world, companies around the world have invested considerable time and resources in computer hardware for matrix multiplication. Since it is used across a wide range of domains, including computing, processing images, generating graphics, running simulations, digital communication, and neural networks etc. – to name a few, even minor improvements in matrix multiplication’s efficiency could have a notable and widespread impact in the concerned fields.

The findings manifest the potential of ML to solve even more complicated mathematical problems. The automatic discovery of algorithms via ML offers new capacities to surpass the existing best human-designed algorithms. It introduces new ML techniques, which have the potential to increase computing speed by 20 percent leading to much more feasible timelines. It is pertinent to mention that a lesser number of operations lead to not only lesser time but also less amount of energy spent.

The finding has presented a model to gamify ML to solve mathematical operations. It exhibited that AlphaZero is a potent algorithm that could be used beyond winning traditional games and be applied to solving complex mathematical operations/tasks.

This DeepMind discovery can pave the way for future research on understanding matrix multiplication algorithms and be an inspiration to use AI for algorithm discovery for other computing tasks and set the stage for a possible breakthrough in the field. 

The increased efficiency of matrix multiplication has once again brought into light the ever-expanding potential of AI. To be fair, such developments do not infer that human programmers would be out of the job soon; rather, at least for now, it should be seen as an addition of an optimisation tool in the coder’s arsenal, which could lead to more innovative discoveries in the future with remarkable implications for the world.

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