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Central Banks Becoming Leaders in Blockchain Experimentation

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Although central banks are among the most cautious institutions in the world, they are, perhaps surprisingly, among the first to implement and experiment with blockchain technology. Central banks have been quietly researching its possibilities since 2014. Over the past two years, the beginning of a new wave has emerged as more central banks launch large-scale pilots and research efforts, including rapid and complete cross-border interbank securities.

The Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology team at the World Economic Forum interviewed dozens of central bank researchers and analysed more than 60 reports on past and current research efforts. The findings were released today in a white paper, Central Banks and Distributed Ledger Technology: How are Central Banks Exploring Blockchain Today?

“As the blockchain hype cools, we are starting to see the real use cases for blockchain technology take the spotlight,” said Ashley Lannquist, Blockchain Project Lead at the World Economic Forum. “Central bank activities with blockchain and distributed ledger technology are not always well known or communicated. As a result, there is much speculation and misunderstanding about objectives and the state of research. Dozens of central banks around the world are actively investigating whether blockchain can help solve long-standing challenges such as banking and payments system efficiency, payments security and resilience, as well as financial inclusion.”

It is not widely known, for instance, that the Bank of France has fully replaced its centralized process for the provisioning and sharing of SEPA Credit Identifiers (SCIs) with a decentralized, blockchain-based solution. SEPA, or Single Euro Payments Area, is a payment scheme created by the European Union and managed on a country-by-country basis for facilitating efficient and secure cross-border retail debit and card payments across European countries. The solution is a private deployment of the Ethereum blockchain network and has been in use since December 2017. It has enabled greater time efficiency, process auditability and disaster recovery.

The fact that dozens of central banks are exploring, and in some cases implementing, blockchain technology is significant, according to the white paper. It is an early indicator of the potential use of this emerging technology across financial and monetary systems. “Central banks play one of the most critical roles in the global economy, and their decisions about implementing distributed ledger and digital currency technologies in the future can have far-reaching implications for economies,” Lannquist said.

Top 10 central bank use cases

Following interviews and analysis, how central banks are experimenting with blockchain can be highlighted by 10 top use cases.

Retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) –
A substitute or complement for cash and an alternative to traditional bank deposits. A central-bank-issued digital currency can be operated and settled in a peer-to-peer and decentralized manner, widely available for consumer use. Central banks from several countries are experimenting, including those from the the Eastern Caribbean, Sweden, Uruguay, the Bahamas and Cambodia.

Wholesale central bank digital currency (CBDC) – This kind of digital currency would only be available for commercial banks and clearing houses to use the wholesale interbank market.Central bank-issued digital currency would be operated and settled in a peer-to-peer and decentralized manner. Central banks from several countries are experimenting, including those from South Africa, Canada, Japan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Cambodia.

Interbank securities settlement – A focused application of blockchain technology, sometimes involving CBDC, enabling the rapid interbank clearing and settlement of securities for cash. This can achieve “delivery versus payment” interbank systems where two parties trading an asset, such as a security for cash, can conduct the payment for and delivery of the asset simultaneously. Central banks exploring this include the Bank of Japan, Monetary Authority of Singapore, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.

Payment system resiliency and contingency – The use of distributed ledger technology in a primary or back-up domestic interbank payment and settlement system to provide safety and continuity in case of threats, including technical or network failure, natural disaster, cybercrime and others. Often, this use case is coupled with others as part of the set of benefits that a distributed ledger technology implementation could potentially offer. Central banks exploring this include the Central Bank of Brazil and Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.

Bond issuance and lifecycle management – The use of distributed ledger technology in the bond auction, issuance or other life-cycle processes to reduce costs and increase efficiency. This may be applied to bonds issued and managed by sovereign states, international organizations or government agencies. Central banks or government regulators could be “observer nodes” to monitor activity where relevant. Early implementation is being conducted by the World Bank with their 2018 “bond-i” project.

Know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money-laundering (AML) – Digital KYC/AML processes that leverage distributed ledger technology to track and share relevant customer payment and identity information to streamline processes. This may connect to a digital national identity platform or plug into pre-existing e-KYC or AML systems. Central banks exploring this include the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

Information exchange and data sharing – The use of distributed or decentralized databases to create alternative systems for information and data sharing between or within related government or private sector institutions. Central banks exploring include the Central Bank of Brazil.

Trade finance – The employment of a decentralized database and functionality to enable faster, more efficient and more inclusive trade financing. Improves on today’s trade finance processes, which are often paper-based, labour-intensive and time-intensive. Customer information and transaction histories are shared between participants in the decentralized database while maintaining privacy and confidentiality where needed. Central banks exploring this include the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

Cash money supply chain – The use of distributed ledger technology for issuing, tracking and managing the delivery and movement of cash from production facilities to the central bank and commercial bank branches; could include the ordering, depositing or movement of funds, and could simplify regulatory reporting. Central banks exploring this include the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.

Customer SEPA Creditor Identifier (SCI) provisioning – Blockchain-based decentralized sharing repository for SEPA credit identifiers managed by the central bank and commercial banks in the SEPA debiting scheme. This is a faster, streamlined and decentralized system for identity provisioning and sharing. It can replace pre-existing manual and centralized processes that are time- and resource-intensive, as seen in the Bank of France’s Project MADRE implementation.

Emerging economies may benefit most: Cambodia, Thailand and South Africa and others experimenting

The National Bank of Cambodia will be one of the first countries to deploy blockchain technology in its national payments system for use by consumers and commercial banks. It is implementing blockchain technology in the second half of 2019 as an experiment to support financial inclusion and greater banking system efficiency.

The Bank of Thailand and the South African Reserve Bank, among others, are experimenting with CBDC in large-scale pilots for interbank payment and settlement efficiency. The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank is exploring the suitability of distributed ledger technology (DLT) to advance multiple goals, from financial inclusion and payments efficiency to payment system resilience against storms and hurricanes.

“Over the next four years, we should expect to see many central banks decide whether they will use blockchain and distributed ledger technologies to improve their processes and economic welfare,” Lannquist said. “Given the systemic importance of central bank processes, and the relative freshness of blockchain technology, banks must carefully consider all known and unknown risks to implementation.”

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To Protect Democracies, Digital Resiliency Efforts Are Needed Now

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Across the globe, more than three billion people have no internet access. But with the increased availability of smart phones and other projects such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet system, that soon will change. To be sure, this unprecedented level of connectivity has the power to be a boon for democratic advancement and economic development. However, without pre-emptive action, it will likely result in the ills we’ve seen with rapid connectivity elsewhere that threaten democratic norms, institutions, and governance. Authoritarians have an answer to these problems: more control. Democracies need an answer too: building pre-emptive digital resilience and preparedness.

Democracies have been consistently caught off guard by rapid digitization. The disruption of information ecosystems has amplified political and economic inequity, leading to various information disorders such as disinformation, declining trust in journalism, increasing social toxicity and dissatisfaction with government, etc. In Myanmar, for example, internet connectivity empowered individuals, but rampant hate speech also facilitated the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. In the Philippines and Brazil, authoritarian populists have used social media to exploit their publics, foment hate, and win elections.

In attempting to manage the consequences of rapid digitization, governments are increasingly eliciting from the authoritarian playbook – implementing haphazard social media and cyber laws, surveillance, and censorship to the detriment of political freedoms. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2020 report outlined a “dismal year for internet freedom” and showed countries like Brazil, Nigeria, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan following China’s model of blocking internet services and conducting pervasive monitoring on their people’s virtual activities.

Democracies have not provided clear answers to rapid digitization, despite the fact that successes in countries like Finland and Taiwan demonstrate that the internet can – if combined with a thoughtful, pre-emptive, whole of society approach – actively strengthen social cohesion and democratic governance. The introduction of digital infrastructure must be accompanied by digital literacy campaigns. Governments need to be trained in cybersecurity, online communication, and on key policy issues such as open data and privacy. Civil society, especially those working with local communities and marginalized populations, need to be involved early in national digital coordination plans in order to reach more people and to ensure digital inclusion is a core consideration of these plans. These plans should include mobilization of digital safety campaigns, education initiatives, and digital skills trainings. 

To be sure, taking a pro-active, coordinated approach will require resources and time. Embracing the transparency that comes with digitization and the sheer amount of data available might also seem daunting at the beginning. However, countries and communities soon to come online are in advantageous positions to learn from other countries’ mistakes and better understand the opportunities, risks, and threats that digitization brings. There is no reason for them to experience the same negative effects of rapid digitization that we’ve been observing for years. It is better to invest upfront than be left dealing with the democratic backsliding gripping Myanmar, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and many other countries today.

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Internet of Behavior (IoB) and its Influence on Human Behavioral Psychology

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Internet of behavior is a connection between technology and human psychology which gives it the power to generate patterns and influence human behavior.

It is still in initial phase, but was able to grab a lot of attention from technology experts with its mention in ”Gartner’s Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021”. Gartner predicted that “By the end of 2025, over half of the world’s population will be subject to at least one IoB program, whether it be commercial or governmental”

Source: BMC blog on “What Is the Internet of Behaviors? IoB Explained”

Gartner acknowledges IoB as, behavioral science which can be considered under four key aspects: augmentations, decisions, emotions and companionship

From a human psychology perspective, IoB not only understands the data properly but also applies its understanding to innovate, create and promote new products/services

Currently most of the companies understand buying behavior from the information provided by consumers via interaction between them and application linked to the company. Information collected from interaction via smart devices such as smart phones and its interconnection with other smart devices such as cameras and voice assistance has the power to understand consumer’s likes/dislikes, spending, and so on.

It is aiding organizations to optimize their data from sources such as social media, geolocation, facial recognition, and government agencies citizen data. This data is eventually added and utilized to influence consumer buying behavior.

IoB is using data processing to another level, by connecting collected data from human behavior to analytics and behavioral science. This behavioral data will play a fundamental role in planning and developing strategies for organizations particularly in sales and marketing.

It has the ability to analyse data collected from consumers (such as consumers food choices, how they shop, their preferred travel destination, people with whom and how they interact) and use it to advertise products more effectively and improvise a product’s or service’s overall user experience, thus fulfilling their ultimate goal of selling product. With such capabilities, it aims to generate a substantial enhancement in the development of the sales industry. 

For Instance, a health app that can track sleeping patterns, heart rate or blood sugar levels, can alert users before adverse health situations and suggest them with behavior changes for the positive result. Such information could prove significantly important to companies by providing them with deeper insight into how they should be channelizing their marketing efforts.  

As per Gartner, “The same wearables that health insurance companies use to track physical activities to reduce premiums could also be used to monitor grocery purchases; too many unhealthy items could increase premiums.”

GBKSOFT, a software company has helped golfers to improve their playing skills by correcting their existing ball striking technique and learning new techniques with its app and wearable device. The golfers can connect their handheld device and connect it with their mobile phone, every time the golfer hits the ball the app records and analyses its impact. Thus golfer can not only improvise by analyzing their mistake but also track for any trajectory or stroke force.

Tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon are continuously tracking and working on algorithms to configure and anticipate consumer desires and behaviors

Covid has brought a wider acceptance of IoB for human behavioral surveillance. IoB can prove to be an extremely effective method to avoid spread of virus. For instance, computer vision or facial recognition can be used to determine if employees are complying with mask protocols or not. While, electronic devices such as RFID tags and sensors on employee or in the environment can be used to check if they are washing or sanitizing their hands regularly or not. Speakers can be used to warn people violating such protocols.

Test and Trace app on smart devices can be used by government agencies to monitor and curtail people’s location and activities to ensure their chances of contacting virus, while effectively enhancing overall public welfare.

While IoB has a great potential to improve our lives it has some negative aspects as well, cyber security being the prime concern. It can give access to cyber criminals with not just behavioral data such as consumer buying patterns or their likes/dislikes but also give access to their banking code, by which they can create advance scams, and take phishing to another level.

Moreover, data generated from social media platform such as Facebook and Instagram is changing the dynamics of value chain, and companies are using this opportunity to modify human behaviors. This goes well with the saying “If you are not paying for it, you are no longer the customer, you are the product being sold”

Some people might find surveillance of behavior as an Invasion of their privacy. “China’s Social Credit System” a Chinese government based surveillance programme is one such example, which includes all characteristics of judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. With this system the government is supporting good human behaviour and discouraging bad behavior. This is not going well with people who value their civil rights.

Moreover, laws regarding IoT vary widely, and considering IoB has much more sensitive data, both government and private organizations need to establish robust privacy laws to bring legal consistency.

As per Gartner, “Much of the scope and execution of an IoB will depend on local privacy laws, which may affect how data can be used and in what way”.

Regardless of the apprehensions expressed above, IoB has the ability to make our lives effortless, be it improving business, encouraging us to live a healthy life or ensure our safety during pandemic situations. Any government of private organization who implement IoB needs to make sure of strong cyber security and data protection laws.

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160 million degrees Celsius reached in China: The artificial Sun

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Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) /VCG Photo

Another important step has been taken by Chinese researchers in developing the ultimate energy source for nuclear fusion.

On May 28, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), known as the “artificial sun”, operating at the Institute of Materials Science in Hefei (Chinese Academy of Sciences), achieved the new limit of the planet reaching the highest temperature ever recorded.

It reached one hundred and twenty million degrees Celsius, for one minute and 51 seconds. EAST also managed to maintain a temperature of 160 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds. This is a higher peak than that of the sun’s core, which can reach a limit of 15 million degrees Celsius.

A tokamak (Russian: toroidal’naja kamera s magnitnymi katushkami: Russian acronym for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”) is a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. Torus is a ring-shaped device in which a hot, rarefied gas (usually hydrogen, in the plasma state) is kept cohesive and away from inner walls by a magnetic field created by electromagnets outside the chamber. It was originally conceptualized and invented in the 1950s by Soviet professor Sadyk Azimovič Azimov (1914-88) and others at the Kurčatov Institute in Moscow.

China’s experimental nuclear fusion device was created in 1998 and was called HT-7U at the time. With a view to making it easier to pronounce and remember, as well as having a precise scientific meaning for national and foreign experts, HT-7U was officially renamed EAST in October 2003.

In 2006, the EAST project was completed in a definitive and higher quality manner. In September-October 2006 and in January-February 2007, the EAST device performed two discharge debugs and successfully achieved stable, repetitive and controllable high-temperature plasmas with various magnetic configurations.

EAST has a nuclear fusion reaction mechanism similar to that of the sun. Its operating principle is to add a small amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium or tritium to the device’s vacuum chamber and generate plasma through a transformer-like principle, then increase its density and temperature to cause a fusion reaction – a process that generates enormous energy.

Over the ten years since its construction, EAST has continually made progress in the search for controllable nuclear fusion.

In 2009, the first round of EAST tests was successful, thus putting China at the forefront of nuclear fusion research. In February 2016, EAST’s physics tests made another major breakthrough, achieving the longest temperature duration reaching 50 million degrees. In 2018, EAST reached a number of important milestones including 100 million degrees.

This means that mankind has made another major advance in its efforts to turn nuclear fusion into new, clean and inexhaustible energy.

Energy is the fundamental driving force behind the functioning of every aspect of life. The energy used today has many shortcomings and cannot fully meet human needs, while nuclear fusion energy is considered the ideal energy par excellence.

According to calculations, the deuterium contained in one litre of seawater can produce the equivalent of the energy of 300 litres of petrol, released after the nuclear fusion reaction, besides the fact that the product is not harmful. Although it is not a “perpetual motion machine”, nuclear fusion can provide energy for a long time. Not only can Marvel’s hero Iron Man rely on the small reactor in his chest, but also raw materials can be obtained from seawater at an extremely low cost.

The first condition for nuclear fusion is to keep fuel in the fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid and gas – i.e. the plasma state.

When the plasma temperature reaches tens of millions of degrees Celsius or even hundreds of millions of degrees, the atomic nucleus can overcome the repulsive force to carry out the polymerisation reaction. Coupled with sufficient density and a sufficiently long thermal energy confinement time, the nuclear fusion reaction is able to continue steadily.

Nevertheless, it is particularly difficult to achieve both the temperature of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius and the long-term confinement control of plasma stability.

While recognising that nuclear fusion is the ultimate goal for solving the problem of mankind’s future energy, there is both cooperation and competition in international research.

A sign of cooperation is that on July 28, 2020, a ceremony was held in France to launch the major project to install the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The ITER project is jointly implemented by China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan, India, Russia, the European Union and the United States.

On December 28, 2020, Seoul’s Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) set a new world limit at the  time and its ionomer maintained a temperature of over 100 million degrees for 20 seconds.

In early 2018, the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had begun designing and building a Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact fusion reactor more advanced than ITER, with a volume tens of times smaller and significantly reduced in cost. But it remains to be seen whether this goal can be achieved.

Chinese researchers have now achieved significant progress in this field and taken another important step towards obtaining energy from nuclear fusion.

In the future, if the production capacity and energy supply of the “artificial sun” is achieved, it will be another technological revolution that can promote social progress even more than the industrial revolution which, in fact, meant the beginning of pollution for the planet and exploitation by capital.

Although there is still a long way to go before the construction of the naval port on Jupiter described by the Chinese writer, Liu Cixin, in his novel The Three-Body Problem (San Ti), mankind is indeed advancing on the road to controllable nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion energy has exceptional advantages in producing rich resources, as well as no carbon emissions, so it is clean and safe. It is one of the ideal energy sources for mankind in the future, and can contribute significantly to achieve the goal of eliminating said carbon.

The two greatest difficulties in generating energy from nuclear fusion lie in regularly reaching hundreds of millions of degrees, and in stable ignition and control of long-term confinement.

For the time being, multiple extreme conditions are highly integrated and organically combined at the same time, but this is very difficult and challenging.

In hitting the record, it is the first time that the EAST device has adopted key technologies such as the first water-cooled all-metal active wall, as well as the high-performance tungsten deflector and high-power wave heating states.

At present, there are over 200 core technologies and nearly 2,000 patents on EAST, bringing together cutting-edge technologies such as ‘ultra-high temperature’, ‘ultra-low temperature’, ‘ultra-high vacuum’, ‘ultra-strong magnetic field’ and ‘ultra-high current’.

The total power is 34 megawatts, which is equivalent to about 68,000 domestic microwave ovens heating up together. For 100 million degrees Celsius and -269 °C to coexist, it is necessary to use “ultra-high vacuum” with an intensity of about one hundredth of a billionth of the surface atmospheric pressure suitable for insulation. With a view to supporting this complex extreme system, almost a million parts and components work together on EAST.

The new EAST record further demonstrates the feasibility of nuclear fusion energy and also lays the physical and engineering foundations for marketing.

Energy on earth, stored in the form of fossil fuels, wind, water or animals and plants, originally comes from the sun. For example, fossil fuels evolved from animals and plants millions of years ago, and their energy ultimately comes from solar energy stored by the photosynthesis of plants at the base of the food chain. Therefore, regardless of the type of energy used by humans, they ultimately use the sun energy that comes from nuclear fusion.

If mankind could master the method for releasing the nuclear fusion energy in an orderly manner, it would be equivalent to controlling the sun energy source. Therefore, this is the reason why the controllable nuclear fusion reactor is called the “artificial sun”.

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