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FreedomLab Insights

Harvest now, decrypt later

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
March 17, 2021

In the coming decade, quantum computers will likely break current modes of encryption. This is not necessarily a problem for future communication and data storage, as cryptography can be made (practically) quantum-proof, but it will retroactively expose data we store and send today. That is, intelligence agencies and hackers are harvesting encrypted data, in the hope that quantum computing will help them to uncover valuable information from it in the future.

Given the fact that quantum computers will be available to institutional users first, governmental agencies will be among the first to decrypt previously harvested data. They will be looking for sensitive or strategic data that could hurt or weaken adversaries. In the long run, as technology becomes available to a broader group of users, non-state actors may take an interest in decrypting data that they can use to blackmail their victims.

While this probably won’t affect the common man so much, as most of us are not of particular interest, high-value targets may have to start worrying about the consequences of having their data exposed.

Burning questions:

  • How much information is truly sensitive after being stored for many years?
  • To what extent does the responsibility to prevent such malign uses lie with developers of quantum computers (and algorithms) and future providers of quantum cloud computing?
  • What will society look like if all of our online data were decrypted and for everyone to see?

Non-fungible tokens are all the rage

Written by Arief Hühn
March 17, 2021

Do you remember CryptoKitties, the virtual cats that collectors spent thousands of dollars to buy on the blockchain? They seem to have been merely the forerunners of the currently faddish non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In essence, any digital asset that a creator wants to make unique can be turned into an NFT (digital works of art, music, sports moments, and even tweets) and monetized. The NFT acts as a non-duplicable digital certificate of ownership; it will be stored on the blockchain and can be bought and sold like any piece of property. While the digital asset itself will still exist on the Internet, only the buyer of the NFT can call himself the owner of the “original” asset. As such, NFTs can be a financial investment, a sentimental purchase, or a collector’s item. NFTs can even contain smart contracts that, for instance, give the creator a cut of any future sale of the token. Although opinions on NFTs vary, once the hype around the space settles down, the idea of tradable digital assets will be here to stay.

Burning questions:

  • Which industries are next in line to make use of NFTs?
  • How will the tokenization of art and music influence the production and experience of these cultural items?
  • What will be the consequences of the introduction of digital scarcity for digital economies?
  • Will we be able to reliably connect NFTs to physical items?

The unique strength of Chinese business alliances

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
March 9, 2021

Geely, one of China’s biggest automakers, has announced strategic partnerships with Tencent, Baidu and Faraday Future. Li Shufu, founder of Geely, argues that these partnerships are inspired by the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, a school of thought from ancient China’s Warring States period that urges weaker organizations to cooperate in order to compete with incumbent powers. It may be difficult to determine whether Li’s vision is markedly different from regular strategic cooperation between companies. However, there seems to be a unique quality to the cooperation of Chinese tech firms. Geely, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba create collective business models to an extent that U.S. tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple do not. Besides the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, the idea of guanxi capitalism, which assigns high importance to interpersonal relationships, further adds to the importance of such cooperation within the Chinese economy. Furthermore, the developmental state tradition of China places the Chinese state at the center of facilitating such cooperation. In the coming years, Chinese business alliances will likely gain importance and could increasingly come to create a global competitive advantage for Chinese tech firms.

Burning questions:

  • To what extent do Chinese business alliances create a competitive advantage over the U.S. and Europe?
  • Does Li’s reference to the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances reflect the growing tensions between the Chinese state and Chinese tech firms?

Will a post-corona era arrive in the coming years?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
March 9, 2021

The phases a society experiences in a crisis are predictable, according to disaster psychology. First, we enter the honeymoon phase: people don’t quite feel the scope of the crisis, nor of its implications and are willing to work together. Then, a period of distrust and depression dawns, in which the gap between community needs and available resources widens. It can get grim: the disillusionment phase follows. In the final phase of reintegration, we adapt to a new reality. We are presently in the phase of disillusionment. According to experts, the pandemic will eventually become endemic, circulating the global population for years to come. However, there are strong indicators (e.g. new variants outsmarting vaccines, the coronavirus being zoonotic) that several more years of social distancing measures will be required before we reach that stage. The call for politicians to stop referring to the current situation as temporary and instead consider it permanent is therefore growing louder. This would allow the phase of reintegration to begin, in which new light can be shed on the costs and benefits of mitigating the impact of the coronavirus.

Burning questions:

  • Will societies reach consensus on ethical issues such as the price each generation must pay for mitigating the impact of the virus or the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated?
  • Will financial aid for certain businesses like airlines, physical stores, etc. continue even if it takes years for their services to be enjoyed again as they could in the pre-coronavirus world?
  • Will people be able to adapt to the reduction of freedom and physical contact that comes with mitigation, or will this result in endless unrest?

Crowdsourcing morality for autonomous systems

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
February 25, 2021

With the advent of autonomous machines, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and even weapons, comes a need to embed some kind of morality into these machines. By definition, autonomous systems have to make choices of their own accord, to go left or right, to kill or not to kill, and we want these choices to reflect our own values and norms. One way of achieving this is for developers to translate explicit normative rules into code. Another way, arguably more democratic, is to crowdsource morality. For instance, by asking the public to “vote” on all sorts of moral dilemmas (e.g. the well-known trolley problem) or to let autonomous systems learn from our actual behavior (e.g. from observing how we drive). Interestingly, such forms of crowdsourcing could actually result in autonomous systems whose behavior aligns with local values and norms, instead of some kind of desired universal morality. The downside, however, would be that those systems, especially those that mimic our behavior, would not be able to make “better” decisions than we humans can.

Burning questions:

  • Would these forms of crowdsourcing morality lead to increased public trust in autonomous systems and allow for greater societal acceptance?
  • Is the end-goal of moral AI systems to have them align with our norms and values, or is there potential for robots to behave better than we do?
  • Could machines ever become morally superior to humans and what would this mean for the future of humanity?

Democratization of finance

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
February 25, 2021

A lot has been written recently to explain and clarify the GameStop rally. The important reasons are clear: a bunch of new retail investors and young traders were welcomed on financial markets last year. Furthermore, the pandemic breeds boredom and the lockdown forced savers to stockpile money. An already famous revolt against financial elites is what followed. But more important is that these events should be seen in the context of an underlying long-term trend: the democratization of finance. As a consequence of financial innovations (since the 80s), securities have become increasingly easy to access and tradeable with (almost) zero transaction costs.

This has upsides and downsides. More inclusion, liquid stocks and a power shift away from intermediaries have some clear benefits. However, those who think the defeat and big losses of some hedge funds are a prefiguration of the New Financial World, may be in for a disappointment. In the long run, financially illiterate persons will most likely bear the most risk and collect the most losses. Furthermore, if the product is free (trading), you are the product. If there is one important lesson to be drawn from recent events, it would be that the democratization of finance should comprise more than easy access, low fees, and playful interfaces. The challenge ahead will be to create new forms of protection and regulation without being paternalistic.

Burning questions:

  • Is the GameStop Rally ultimately a consequence of animal spirits, mass hysteria, market manipulation or imperfect market structure?
  • Where are we to look for protection of retail investors and regulation of democratized markets: central or decentral governance?
  • At which point do the downsides of extreme liquid markets and zero commission trading (e.g. order flow, investor sentiment, speculation, etc.) outweigh the clear benefits?
  • How can finance be responsibly and durably democratized?