For a refugee in a new country, identity, at
least in the official sense, can be among
the hardest things to recover. And without an official ID it is nearly impossible
to advance in society.
Finland, which like many European
nations has recently seen a large influx of
asylum seekers, is using a cryptographic
ledger, or blockchain, to help them get on
their feet faster.
For two years the Finnish Immigration Service has been giving asylum seekers who don’t have bank accounts prepaid
MasterCards instead of the traditional
cash disbursements, and today the program has several thousand active cardholders. Developed by the Helsinki-based
startup Moni, the card is also linked to a
unique digital identity stored on a blockchain, the same technology that underpins
the digital currency Bitcoin.
Bitcoin has demonstrated how blockchain technology can be used to transmit
value between people, with no need for
corporate middlemen. Central to the technology is a software protocol that creates a
permanent record of every Bitcoin transaction. Anyone can access this record, called
the blockchain, by downloading the Bitcoin
software. Computers running the software
all over the world maintain the blockchain,
and use it to verify new transactions.
Blockchains are a promising avenue
for opening new financial opportunities
to people who don’t have access to modern
financial services. Besides eliminating the
need for a traditional financial institution
to mediate transactions, they provide a way
to create and securely store a digital form of
identification that can’t be corrupted and is
easily accessible from anywhere.
In Finland, a Moni card can help
address several challenges facing asylum
seekers, says Jouko Salonen, director of
the Finnish Immigration Service. A Moni
account functions like a bank account. People can use their accounts to buy things,
pay bills, and even receive direct deposits
from employers. Meanwhile, every transaction is recorded in a public, virtually
incorruptible database maintained by a
decentralized global network of computers.
The technology helps unbanked asylum seekers because what typically keeps
them from getting bank accounts and jobs
is that they’re missing a form of strongly
authenticated identity, says Salonen. He
adds, “We have found a way to solve that.”
Moni’s technology uses one of a number of public blockchains as the means of
transferring value—but in a way that to the
users seems like using a debit card. A cardholder can pay for things at MasterCard
terminals, or enter a number into a Web
form to make payments online.
Antti Pennanen, Moni’s founder and
CEO, likens blockchain to the early Internet, which was accessible only to a select
few with the technical wherewithal to use
it. His says Moni’s technology is somewhat
analogous to a modem, which made the
Internet usable for more people.
Pennanen says word of Moni has
spread to refugee camps throughout
Europe. He expects substantial demand
among those displaced communities once
the service is available in other countries.
The System Behind Bitcoin Is
Easing the Plight of Refugees
Finland’s digital money system for asylum seekers shows what blockchain
technology can offer the unbanked.
34 YEARS AGO
A debate centers on whether expert
systems enable computers to really
think. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon,
an AI pioneer, believes they do. “
Intelligence has to do with the ability to
respond appropriately to complex situations,” he says. “Every time we write
a computer program to do that, particularly if it’s a fairly general program,
I find it quite natural to speak of the
computer as exhibiting intelligence.”
Marvin Minsky of MIT thinks the present expert systems have gone as far
as they can go, and AI researchers are
going to have to go back to basics,
or “First Principles.” “These programs
are exciting but most of them are not
very deep,” he says. “You don’t see
researchers working on the problem of commonsense reasoning, for
instance. There is no program around
today that will tell the difference
between a dish and a cup.”
Excerpted from “The Practical Face of
Artificial Intelligence,” by Stanford professor Joel N. Shurkin in the November
1983 issue of Technology Review.
Exciting, but Not Very Deep