CRYPTOCURRENCY & BLOCKCHAIN: An adoption & regulation deep-dive in Facebook's new digital currency Libra

First came digital gold in the form of Bitcoin in 2009, then utility tokens led by Ether in 2014 and now, the global payments world could be turned upside-down by Facebook's stablecoin, Libra. It is very difficult not to be excited over this new digital currency, and without repeating the good work done by many great resources (referenced below), we wish to touch on two aspects that are important to get your head around, namely: (1) Adoption & Scale, and (2) Regulatory acceptance.

(1) Adoption & Scale

Let's get straight to the point here. According to its whitepaper: "Libra's core mission is to enable a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people". As with most digital goods and services, the issue of adoption and scale is directly correlated to the efficiencies of the onramps and off-ramps (taking deposits and making withdrawals) provided by the infrastructural layer supporting them e.g., exchanges like Coinbase or Binance for cryptocurrencies. Interestingly, Libra's whitepaper mentions the term "global currency" five times, meaning that Libra's ambitions are to skip the intermediate step of concurrently using cash and digital payments, and somehow become a primary currency used by most economies around the globe.

But, just how ambitious is Libra? In short, very! We know stablecoins are traditionally backed on a one-to-one basis by mainstream assets like the U.S. dollar e.g., USD Coin, while others are collateralized by baskets of cryptocurrencies e.g., Havven. Some of these use algorithms to maintain stable values e.g., CarbonUSD. Libra is a different beast that uses a basket of real assets -- currencies such the US Dollar, GB Pound, and Japanese Yen, as well as, government bonds -- to be backed by, in what it calls the Libra Reserve. This has profound implications on adoption in targeted unbanked-heavy economies as Libra will have to coexist with the local currency, and be supported by the existing financial on-ramps and off-ramps (Bank branches, ATMs, MPesa agents etc.). Local governments are thus likely to demand concessions before allowing Libra access to its market, such as: (1) The Libra reserve must contain assets denominated in the local currency, (2) access to facets of the transaction data to track possible money laundering cases, and/or (3) permitting the local central bank to retain control over the monetary supply necessary to implement monetary policies. Iran and North Korea are good examples of a countries whose imposed sanctions by the U.S. could hinder the adoption of the digital currency by its unbanked target market.

(2) Regulatory Acceptance

Facebook have been clever here. Firstly, the Libra Association is made up of regulated entity partners who will provide the front-end platforms (on-ramps and off-ramps). Facebook is not required to become a financial entity as a result. Secondly, Calibra is set to "have strong protections in place" to keep the reserves and private information of users safe. Bank-grade KYC / AML processes are said to form part of these protections, as well as, automated systems designed to proactively monitor activity and prevent fraudulent behaviour on user’s accounts. Lastly, Libra, supported by its Association members, could be the whipping boy of cryptocurrency – defending the ecosystem against regulators, politicians, institutions, and central banks that seek diminish its legitimacy.

Such regulatory question marks have led to the creation of a task force within the Group of Seven (G7) nations to address these. There is a major concern that Libra will severely threaten not only the economic structures of the global economy, but the political dynamics as well. France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, making this explicitly clear by stating that “It is out of question’’ that Libra be allowed “become a sovereign currency a sovereign currency, and thus. The G7 currently consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.

Keep a firm eye on the Libra scales over the coming months -- like our artwork for the week depicts -- these are exciting times.

For more detail see the following:
Basic breakdown
10 Takeaways from the announcement

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Source: Libra Association (via Techcrunch), Libra (via Financial Times), Facebook Libra (via Financial Times)

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Proof that we have been training AI fakes to stab us in the back

In the 1933 film Duck Soup, actor Chico Marx is famously known to have asked, "who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" Fairly meaningless in the 30s, but today, it's more relevant than ever. Let us explain. We know how the ever-expanding capacities of computing power and algorithm efficiency are leading to some pretty wacky technology in the realm of computer vision. Deepfakes are one of the more terrifying outcomes of this. A deepfake can be described as a fraudulent copy of an authentic image, video, or sound clip, which is manipulated to create an erroneous interpretation of the events captures by the authentic media format. The word 'deep' typically refers to the 'deep learning' capability of the artificially intelligent algorithm trained to manifest the most realistic version of the faked media. Real-world applications being: Former US president Barack Obama saying some outlandish things, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitting to the privacy failings of the social media platform and promoting an art installation, and Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi made to look incompetent and unfit for office.

Videos like these aren’t proof, of course, that deepfakes are going to destroy our notion of truth and evidence. But it does show that these concerns are not just theoretical, and that this technology — like any other — is slowly going to be adapted by malicious actors. Put another way, we usually tend to think that perception — the evidence of your senses (sight, smell, taste etc.) — provides pretty strong justification of reality. If something is seen with our own eyes, we normally tend to believe it i.e., a photograph. By comparison, third-party claims of senses — which philosophers call “testimony” — provide some justification, but sometimes not quite as much as perception i.e. a painting of a scene. In reality, we know your senses can be deceptive, but that’s less likely than other people (malicious actors) deceiving you.

What we saw last week took this to a whole new level. A potential spy has infiltrated some significant Washington-based political networks found on social network LinkedIn, using an AI-generated profile picture to fool existing members of these networks. Katie Jones was the alias used to connect with a number of policy experts, including a US senator’s aide, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and Paul Winfree, an economist currently being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve. Although there's evidence to suggest that LinkedIn has been a hotbed for large-scale low-risk espionage by the Chinese government, this instance is unique because a generative adversarial network (GAN) -- an AI method popularized by websites like -- was used to create the account's fake picture.

Here's the kicker, these GANs are trained by the mundane administrative tasks we all participate in when using the internet on a day-to-day basis. Don't believe us? Take Google’s human verification service “Captcha” – more often than not you’ve completed one of these at some point. The purpose of these go beyond proving you are not a piece of software that is unable to recognise all the shopfronts in 9 images. For instance: being asked to type out a blurry word could help Googlebooks’ search function with real text in uploaded books, or rewriting skewed numbers could help train Googlestreetview to know the numbers on houses for Googlemaps, or lastly, selecting all the images that have a car in them could train google’s self-driving car company Waymo improve its algorithm to prevent accidents.

The buck doesn't stop with Google either, human-assisted AI is explicitly the modus operandi at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform, which rewards humans for assisting with tasks beyond the capability of certain AI algorithms, such as highlighting key words in an email, or rewriting difficult to read numbers from photographs. The name Mechanical Turk stems from an 18th century "automaton" or self-playing master chess player, in fact it was a mechanical illusion using a human buried under the desk of the machine to operate the arms. Clever huh?!

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, all activity within a regulated financial institution must meet the strict compliance and ethics standards enforced by the regulator of that jurisdiction. To imagine that a tool like LinkedIn with over 500 million members can be used by malicious actors to solicit insider information, or be used as a tool for corporate espionage, should be of grave concern to all financial institutions big and small. What's worse is that neither the actors, nor the AI behind these LinkedIn profiles can be traced and prosecuted for such illicit activity, especially when private or government institutions are able to launch thousands at a time. 


Source: Nancy Pelosi video (via Youtube), Spy AI (via Associated Press), Google Captcha (via Aalto Blogs), Amazon MTurk

CRYPTO: GAFA doubles down on a crypto future, whilst regulators bite down on a crypto past

A few things here. Firstly, this week at its Worldwide Developer Conference Apple announced the launch of a mightily powerful computer deemed “the cheese grater”, a monitor stand costing as much as an iPhone X...just for the stand, and more importantly CryptoKit . Essentially, CryptoKit is a cryptographic developer tool that allows developers to build more security functionality into their apps with improved support and ease-of-use. Such functionality comes in the form of hashing, public and private key generation, and encryption needed to be integrated into iOS applications. Not to be confused with Samsung and HTC's phones that come with native crypto wallets. Yet, it goes without question that these companies (Apple now included) are reacting to the rising demand for crypto-focused products.

This is not the first time we are seeing the tech giant embrace crypto either. Last month it was announced that debit card and payment app ‘Spend’ -- which supports over 16 different cryptocurrencies -- now has integrated Apple Pay functionality. How this works is cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin or Dash that have been bought in / sent to the integrated wallet, will get converted at the point-of-sale for instant purchases through the ApplePay network. 

Another GAFA giant we know is embracing crypto is none other than Facebook with their soon-to-be-launched cryptocurrency GlobalCoin. What’s interesting is that, over the past few months, the social media giant has been hard at work trying to win over financial institutions and tech companies -- such as the Bank of England and crypto-firm Gemini -- around formalizing an independent foundation -- much like the Ethereum Foundation -- to govern the digital asset. We know that the coin will most likely be a stablecoin i.e., pegged to a fiat currency / basket of currencies / or other, making it desirable and easily marketable in emerging markets where local fiat currencies are economically unstable -- such as in Venezuela. The required funding will come from the fees Facebook charges partnering firms to run a node on the network. Essentially, these firms will need to stake their interest and commitment, and tie them into supporting the network. Facebook aims to have 100 nodes at the launch of GlobalCoin, with each node costing partnering firms as much as $10 million. Based on their tarnished reputation to safeguard the privacy and security of the social network's users, we think this is ambitious to say the least.

Facebook is not the only tech firm embracing crypto with a suspect reputation. Just last week, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) took legal action against social messaging app Kik -- regarding its 2017 sale of one trillion “Kin” tokens to over 10,000 investors, raising around $100 million. The premise being that the sale was not registered with the SEC -- a requirement under US securities laws. As such, the sale is deemed an “illegal securities offering of digital tokens.” 

It is not only the SEC that are leading the fight against previous instances of cryptocurrency-powered crimes. The Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement or J5 - a team of five criminal intelligence communities from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States whose purpose is to fight against international and transnational tax crime and money laundering. Currently, J5 has opened 60 different investigations specifically related to cryptocurrency-powered crimes. One of these is a Netherlands-based cryptocurrency “mixing service” called whose primary function was to hide the ownership history of cryptocurrencies, raking in 27,000 bitcoins ($200 million) over one year alone.

As many would consider the institutionalization of crypto by GAFA and the clamp down by global regulatory bodies a negative, its important to note that if adoption is key to ensuring the prosperity of these mechanisms, then such action needs to be taken to safeguard those vulnerable to exploitation and those that consider the inherent illicit activity too great a barrier to enter.


Source: Apple Cryptokit (via Apple), Facebook Globalcoin (via The Information), (via Europol), J5 crime unit (via IRS)

CRYPTO: Are Stablecoins still poised to be crypto's saving grace?

With all the noise and hype around the recent large price movements of core cryptos like Bitcoin (BTC) and XRP, it's easy to forget the ones hard at work to minimise volatility risk in order to encourage crypto adoption among the skeptics. These are stablecoins of course. The core thesis behind them is that BTC was not used as a transactional currency because of its volatility, and therefore merchants and individuals would not rely on it as a unit of account or medium of exchange. This premise is not entirely true -- volatility is only partially explanatory of why BTC is not being used by consumers. In our view, the main barrier is not volatility but ease of use and form factor. It's just too hard to figure out how to actually pay with BTC or any other digital currency for real (i.e., non-digital) goods and services. And while there are attempts to put Bitcoin and other currencies into debit or credit cards, these are still early in market penetration. 

If you look at stablecoins themselves, there are two narratives to note. (1) Any floating currency needs to be collateralized, whether or not it is printing money algorithmically or has bots arbitrating itself against exchanges. Otherwise you cannot fund redemptions (and if you can't fund redemptions, then you are just printing specious moneys). Holding the peg to your desired currency basket, whether USD, yuan or Euro, requires being able to defend the currency with capital reserves. Any private capital reserve can be broken by a larger private capital reserve -- or even by a government actor. Consider Soros and the Bank of England. As a result, these coins are fragile and ripe honeypots for attack and manipulation. In the case where the reserve becomes so large as to be unbreakable, and where the currency is meaningfully used as a medium of exchange, it becomes a threat to the world's actual reserve currency, the USD. The US sovereign is unlikely to allow private parties to issue and own a digital dollar at scale -- though they may be catalyzed to do so publicly (i.e., central bank coins). These are not farfetched ideas either, with over 20 governments such as Brazil, Canada, Israel, and The Bahamas all considering the prospect of a Central Bank issued digital currency.

The second narrative is much more narrow -- private company networks that ride the blockchain rails need the equivalent of a Cash Sweep. Imagine opening up a Schwab brokerage account. Your free cash in a portfolio -- let's say 1.5% -- would get invested into a cash sweep vehicle, which could be a money market fund, or a trust company cash account, or something similar. For a crypto financial company, you are unlikely to want to hold a financial license for traditional banking or investment services. But you still need to manage the cash somehow. So efforts like UBS settlement coin, or any of the recent stablecoin projects, could fill in the gap of moving USD around within a limited sized network in order to reduce friction between going in and out of fiat. If the network gets so big as to include the entire economy, then it again pops up on the Treasury's radar. That's not to say it's a dead end. Banks print money by issuing credit all the time, they are just massively regulated to do so.

So where does this leave us? Non-financial companies such as Facebook and Samsung have admitted to considering their own blockchains for future native stablecoins. Facebook's reason for this is to provide its 2 billion user base with a centralised medium for international remittances, payment for premium content (e.g. games), and your attention (e.g., advertisements) across its website, Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram. Samsung, on the other hand, wants your mobile phone to be your crypto wallet. Such non-financial companies are likely to be less risk-averse than traditional financial companies, and have greater incentive to disrupt the payments industry, with the added ability to execute at a faster, scalable pace. As a result, these companies may help defining future key growth drivers for both the global payment and the digital asset industry. But this doesn't mean that this won't create a red ocean where other big banks, social media networks and consumer electronics companies issue their own stablecoins to compete, adding "about as much competitive advantage as having your own .com address" - Bernard Lunn of Daily Fintech.

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Source: Autonomous NEXT Analysis

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Amazon's new wearable edges us closer to a reality of emotionally manipulative financial institutions

In the past, we have touched on how a specific device that you use for conversational interface interactions will be locally better at understanding you -- rather than some giant squid-like monster AI hosted on Amazon Web Services. But, what if the conversational interface device is the friendly avatar to such a terrifying AI monster that possesses the ability to emotionally manipulate its user? Well, Isaac Asimov eat your heart out, Amazon are reportedly building an Alexa-enabled wearable that is capable of recognizing human emotions. Using an array of microphones, the wrist-worn device can collect data on the wearer's vocal patterns and use machine learning to build models discerning between states of joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, and stress. As we know, Amazon are not without their fair share of data privacy concerns, with Bloomberg recently disclosing that a global team of Amazon workers were reviewing audio clips from millions of Alexa devices in an effort to enhance the capability of the assistant. Given this, we can't help but think of this as means to use the knowledge of a wearer’s emotions to recommend products or otherwise tailor responses.

Let's step back for context. Edge computing is the concept that there are lots of unique distributed smart devices scattered throughout our physical world, each needing to communicate with other humans and devices. Two layers of this are very familiar to us: (1) the phone and (2) the home. Apple has become a laggard in artificial intelligence -- behind Google on the phone, and behind Amazon and Google at home -- over the last several years. Further, when looking at core machine learning research, Facebook and Google lead the way. Google's assistant is the smartest and most adaptable, leveraging the company's expertise in search intent to divine meaning. Amazon's Alexa has a lead in physical presence, and thus customer development, as well as its attachment to voice commerce. Facebook is expert in vision and speech, owning the content channels for both (e.g., Instagram, Messenger). We also see (3) the car as developing a warzone for tech companies' data-hungry gadgets.

Looking back at financial services, it's hard to find a large financial technology provider -- save for maybe IBM -- that can compete for human attention or precision of conversation with the big tech firms (not to mention the Chinese techs). We do see many interesting symptoms, like KAI - a conversational AI platform for the finance industry used by the likes of Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, and TD Bank; but barely any compete for a relationship with a human being in their regular life. The US is fertile ground for this stuff, because a regulated moat protects financial data from the tech companies. Which is likely to keep Big Tech away from diving head first into full service banking, but with the recent launch of Apple's AppleCard we are starting to see vulnerabilities in that analogy. So how long can we rely on the narrative so eloquently put by Chris Skinner"the reason Amazon won’t get into full service banking is because dealing with technology is very different to dealing with money; furthermore, dealing with money through technology is very different to dealing with technology through money"? Also, how would you feel about your bank knowing when you are at your most vulnerable?


Source: Bloomberg Article, KAI Platform (via Kasisto)

BIG TECH: Subscribing to Unownable Assets with Google Stadia, Apple News, and Taxes

Microsoft, PlayStation and Nintendo split the console gaming market today, with a strong focus on devices and online services. Those companies make money either by selling a piece of proprietary hardware (i.e., the console), exclusive software (i.e., the video game around which they may have IP rights), or through a store that takes a cut of third party developer revenue. Google announced that they are entering the market with a disruptive and orthogonal strategy. The firm plans to use its massive cloud infrastructure and AI advantage to deliver streaming gaming services through a subscription model.

What does this mean? Machines far more powerful than a local console or PC will run sophisticated 3D rendering engines on cloud servers optimized for visual graphics. AIs that optimize data center use and compression will package information transfer in ways that other video game streaming start-ups were simply unable to deliver. On sufficiently fast broadband, millisecond responses between a controller in a living room and a cloud service become possible. While such infrastructure is not ubiquitous, you can see the projected growth of 5G and LTE networks below -- suggesting that Google's vision can be meaningful across a large part of the world. Engaging with a high-end virtual world on a mass-produced cheap tablet becomes a reality. 

Let's talk about subscription. Subscription is the solution for monetizing unownable assets. Such assets may be prohibitively expensive in the aggregate and worthless on the margin. Take for example Spotify, which manages to sell you all the music in the world for $10 per month. An individual cannot afford all the music in the world, and yet the marginal song is worth absolutely nothing. Or take the upcoming Apple News subscription service, which gets around the paywalls of sources like the WSJ for $10 per month as well. A reader can't afford the paywalls for every premier newspaper in the world, even though the value of the marginal article is a donut.

We think similarly about citizenship -- taxes are the subscription cost to membership in a sovereign body, with its social protections, foreign policy, and monetary base. An individual cannot afford those on the margin, nor could those "products" be financed in a case-by-case manner. Or look at the developments in wealth management and roboadvisors, where Assets under Management based pricing (% of total) is beating commission based models (per transaction). AUM fees are a subscription to unlimited rebalancing across thousands of companies, packaged in free-to-trade ETFs on custodian platforms. We go down this road to highlight the right path to follow: all financial services in the aggregate are an unownable asset, but worthless at the marginal product. Price accordingly.

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Source: Polygon (Google Stadia), 9to5Mac (WSJ and Apple), NY Times (Apple News)

INSURTECH: Rage Against the Machine and $500MM telematics Softbank investment

Let's start off with the ridiculous, and get more ridiculous. SoftBank has a lot of money to invest in category killing fintech businesses, and one of the latest such players is Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which just received $500 million from the investor. What is it? A widget attached to a car windshield, and then used to collect data about the quality of a particular driver -- from speeding to breaking. This data is then tied to the purchasing of insurance, where "good" drivers have access to lower cost financial products. This is an interesting, and pioneeing, example of how edge computing will create orders of magnitudes more digital data that then feeds the manufacturing of finance. 

A sneaking suspicion in the back of our minds is that driving data is really good for training robots how to drive. Meaning, Google and the rest of the big tech companies are all running experiments with self-driving cars on the road to collect driving data. Something simple from a telematics device certainly is not equivalent to major machine vision and radar data. But it does paint a straight line towards how self-driving car insurance should be priced. Let's repeat that. If a widget in a car tells you insurance prices based on driving performance and you combine that with an AI car, you could compare humans and machines on an apples to apples basis.

The ridiculous part is the human response to tech-first transportation companies. In London, Chinese bike-sharing company Ofo is pulling out of the city because people steal and destroy their untethered bikes. In California, aspiring freedom fighters keep throwing scooters from Bird and Lime into oceans, lakes and rivers. Public service employees are straining to fish out these venture capital funded wonders out of the water. In Phoenix, self-driving Waymo cars are getting their tires slashed and assaulted by gun-wielding road-ragers (Mad Max style, we assume). All that to say that the human element in this story is allergic to being entirely prodded, measured, and automated away. Can politics catch up with SoftBank's Vision Fund, which could build Trump's wall 20 times over? We hope so.


Source: DigIn (Softbank), Gizmodo (Ofo), Slate (Bird), Business Insider (Waymo)