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PAIRING artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain might be what you would expect from a scammer looking to make a quick buck in 2018.

The two concepts, after all, are two of the most buzzed about and least understood ideas in the tech universe.

The blockchain, the database design introduced by bitcoin, has lately been the most popular route for anyone looking to raise money for an idea that sounds too good to be true.

Despite how easy the combination is to mock, the idea of applying blockchain to AI is attracting a growing roster of serious entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, many of them with impressive academic credentials.

Dawn Song, a computer science professor at the University of California in the United States, and Ben Goertzel, the chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, have been among big names arguing that blockchain can be a crucial way to push back against some of the most worrying trends facing the field of AI.

Many AI experts are concerned that Facebook, Google and other big companies are hoarding talent in the field. The Internet giants also control the massive troves of online data that are necessary to train and refine the best machine learning programmes.

Song, Goertzel and other entrepreneurs believe blockchain can encourage a broader distribution of the data and algorithms that will determine the future development of AI.

The startups working towards this goal are applying blockchains in a number of ways. At the most basic level, just as blockchain allows money to be moved around without any bank or central authority in the middle, AI experts are hoping a blockchain can allow AI networks to access large stores of data without any big company in control of the data or the algorithms.

Ben Goertzel, the chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, with the humanoid robot Sophia, an alternative to Amazon’s Alexa, in his office in Hong Kong. He wants Sophia to reach out to other AI providers if she cannot find answers to users’ questions. NYT PIC

Several startups are setting up blockchain-based marketplaces, where people can buy and sell data. Ocean Protocol, a project based in Berlin, Germany, is building the infrastructure so that anyone can set up a marketplace for any kind of data, with the users of data paying the sources with digital tokens.

Unlike Google and Facebook, which store the data they get from users, the marketplaces built on Ocean Protocol will not have the data themselves — they will just be places for people with data to meet, ensuring that no central player can access or exploit the data.

“Blockchains are incentive machines — you can get people to do stuff by paying them,” said Trent McConaghy, one of the founders of Ocean Protocol, who has been working in AI since the 1990s.

Ocean Protocol is working with several automakers to collect data from cars to create the AI of autonomous cars. All the automakers are expected to share data so none of them have a monopoly over it.

Another startup, Revel, will pay people to collect the data that companies are looking for, like pictures of taxis or recordings of a particular language. Users can let their phones and computers be used to process and categorise the images and sounds — all in exchange for digital tokens. Over a thousand people have already put their computers to work.

These sorts of marketplaces are only the outer layer of the blockchain-based systems that are being built to handle AI data.

One of the biggest concerns that people have about the data being collected by Google and Facebook is the access it gives these companies to the most private details of our lives.

Song is working on a block-chain, known as Oasis, that will use advanced techniques to secure the data being bought and sold, so that no one — not even the company using the data — will get a copy of it.

In the Oasis network, all data moving through the system will be locked into encrypted bundles. Researchers will be able to run the data through their machine learning algorithms — and prove that the calculations were done correctly — without actually seeing the underlying data.

Other startups are using blockchains to open access to the AI models themselves. Goertzel has created SingularityNET, a blockchain that will serve as a link among AI services around the world. If one AI module is unable to come up with an answer, it can consult with others and provide compensation if one of the other modules is able to get it right.

Hanson Robotics is planning to use SingularityNET to feed information into its humanoid robot, Sophia. Unlike Amazon’s Alexa service, which answers questions using services approved by Amazon, Goertzel wants Sophia to reach out to other AI providers if she cannot find the right answer.

As with most blockchain applications, a lot of technical work must be done before these new systems can take off — and it is not clear that all the roadblocks are surmountable. — NYT

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