Opinion | The absurdity of clubbing AI with blockchain

India is yet to see a business that has shoehorned AI and blockchain into a product

One cannot help but be utterly bewildered by the question: “Do you employ electrical engineering + screwdriver at work?" for the simple reason that the two terms are incommensurable—the former is a category that covers many disciplines and the latter is a specific instrument.

The two cannot be objectively compared, and nor does anyone do it in the real world. Then why is it that artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, two terms that are semantically and conceptually mutually exclusive, have become prevalent as a pair, and touted as the antidote to all business problems? This mindless recycling of technical buzzwords, whether out of ignorance or otherwise, hints at a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty. Come to think of it, electrical engineering and a screwdriver may have more in common than AI and blockchain.

AI is a contentious term whose mainstream interpretation refers to not one particular thing, but to a broad category encompassing a wide variety of concepts, techniques, and technologies—all eventually working towards the common goal of eliciting “intelligent" behaviour in computers.

Blockchain, on the other hand, is a very specific technology. In simple terms, it is a distributed database made of chained blocks of data, secured cryptographically to resist tampering.

Nowhere do these two meaningfully overlap or intersect yet. It’s possible to use some AI technologies to engineer blockchains, just as they can be used to engineer many other things. However, this is not the interpretation implied by the mainstream portrayals of the AI + Blockchain pair.

Instead, the implication is that these disparate constructs can be naturally combined into solutions to solve hypothetical problems—the kind where they are solutions looking for problems. This translates to the omnipresent and irksome question: Has anyone employed AI + blockchain to solve a problem, any problem at all, regardless of relevance?

This phenomenon must be most visible in the fintech industry. The number of AI + blockchain conferences, the endless panel discussions where the two words are casually thrown around, the relentless unsolicited sales calls from AI + blockchain consultants, are all disproportionately large compared to the actual application of these technologies. In India, we are yet to see a business that has shoehorned AI and blockchain into a meaningful product.

That brings us to the rise of the AI + blockchain expert, the newest counterpart to the electrical engineering + screwdriver expert.

Fortunately, nobody claims to be the latter. It is an extraordinary feat to have gained expertise in the sprawling field of AI, mastered blockchain technology, and to have successfully fused these into a single portfolio ready to be deployed as paid consultations hawked over unsolicited e-mails, LinkedIn messages, and phone calls.

Like all other hype-cycles in technology, this must also pass, and AI + Blockchain must go their separate ways and continue to find mature applications in the real world. Those who disingenuously tout the pair as a singular golden hammer to be applied obsessively and obtusely to unrelated problems are wasting valuable time and money. That said, one hopes that AI and Blockchain intersect in exciting and meaningful ways in the future.

Kailash Nadh is the co- founder & chief of technology at Zerodha

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