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"Data Is Currency" And Other Lessons From TED@IBM


Minyang Jiang


Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a TED@IBM event in San Francisco. This one-day, annual event combines the power of TED’s mission and model with the depth of expertise from within IBM—and from IBM clients, partners, and friends — to explore bold ideas and insights about the relationship between technology and humanity, through unique and often personal stories.

I was fortunate to be among the attendees of this exciting day, and left inspired, captivated, and completely overwhelmed in thoughts. Since then, I have reflected back on many of the outstanding presentations I saw. However, of the fourteen TED Institute presentations I experienced, Dr. Maria Dubovitskaya‘s stood out the most to me. Her talk left a constant voice in my head that I have taken with me every day since. And that voice keeps reminding me of one very important point she made: “data is currency.”

Having spent my entire career in retail, I can absolutely relate to this idea. Companies collect consumer data to capture their attention and dollars again and again, while others sell this data to other businesses in exchange for actual currency. These practical details aside, what Dr. Dubovitskaya spoke about in her presentation took this concept beyond what I had considered or experienced in the past when it comes to understanding data as currency.

As a cybersecurity researcher at IBM Research in Zurich, Dr. Dubovitskaya designs cryptographic protocols for privacy protection. Her latest project is the zero-knowledge proof, which offers users a way to verify their identities online while withholding sensitive personal information.

Think about that for a minute: withholding information. In a world where we seem to give too much information away every day, this is a radical concept. Yet, consumers are asked to show their ID when making purchases, teenagers are asked to show their identification to get into R-rated movies, and even students in elementary school are often asked to reference ID’s to confirm their home address. All of these experiences reveal personal data to — let’s face it — strangers.

From your home address, to your birthday, to your height, weight, and other personal details, most identification nowadays reveals more data than most businesses need to know. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Dubovitskaya’s research is critical in reshaping personal data and privacy as we currently know it. Among the points she made, Dr. Dubovitskaya stated the following:

What does this mean for the future? Data leaks, hacks and identity theft that we read about regularly will no longer be headline news. With privacy preserving technology, we can get back the control and value our personal data properly.”

Controlling personal data is a strong takeaway that I will continue to ponder, research, and explore thanks to Dr. Dubovitskaya. Here are some other key thoughts shared at TED@IBM…

“What if food could talk? What if food is talking right now, and we just need to learn how to listen?” asked computational biologist Robert Prill, who looks at how the harmless microbes that live on food can tell us a lot about its quality and safety. He shares the story of how thousands of babies in China got kidney stones when a company watered down formula and added a chemical to cheat quality tests. He then walked us through how microbes could alert us to tampering, or to the presence of high levels of mercury or lead. Prill’s talk was also among my favorites — and I haven’t been able to eat the same since!

Additionally, IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa shared her experience in creating technology that can help blind individuals become more independent. Herself having become blind at 14, her voice and expertise brought many attendees to tears — including myself. Asakawa demoed her team’s latest project, a system which navigates her through walks and helps her to identify objects without touching them. This technology even recognizes people and their expressions before they speak. Absolutely fascinating!

Braille went digital many years before digital books existed — in the late 1980s, almost 30 years ago. The strong and specific needs of blind people made the opportunity way back then. This is not the first time this happened. History shows us: accessibility ignites innovation.”

Finally, one of my other favorite presenters was the opening speaker, Josh Luber, who is the founder of Campless, a “sneakerhead data” company which tracks the $6 billion secondary market for sneakers. Using Nike’s domination of the sneaker market space, Luber explained how the unregulated sneaker market represents a strong investment opportunity. As a retail enthusiast, this captured my attention and pushed me to think outside many boxes created within my own mind.

What if we could actually buy sneakers exactly the same way we buy stocks? And what if it wasn’t just sneakers that you could buy this way? What if there was an actual stock market for commerce, a stock market of things?”

A stock market of things, as Luber pondered, could actually be reality one day. And TED@IBM certainly is the place to help launch future inventions, innovations, ideas, and more.