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The Blockchain Elite of IIITM-K

Thiruvananthapuram: The services and utilities surrounding Information Technology are flourishing in Kerala, especially in the capital city, contributing to making it a prospective ‘go-to’ place for global market leaders, innovators and investors. The State government has also been making all efforts at aiding, subsidizing and facilitating development of IT. Here’s how an IIITM-K professor and

Thiruvananthapuram: The services and utilities surrounding Information Technology are flourishing in Kerala, especially in the capital city, contributing to making it a prospective ‘go-to’ place for global market leaders, innovators and investors. The State government has also been making all efforts at aiding, subsidizing and facilitating development of IT.

Here’s how an IIITM-K professor and acolytes placed Kerala on the global blockchain map

However, while computation technology is closing in on feats like one million encrypted digital transactions per second, shying away from actionable change happening in the global IT sector could prove to be a zero-sum game for Kerala’s IT sector. Even though immigrant and indigenous technology firms are benchmarking on worldwide tech disruptions, a conscious effort by the State’s policy and decision-making circles to set new standards of R&D in IT could ensure a level playing field for the talent pool in Kerala.

And just in the right direction is Dr. Asharaf S, Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management – Kerala (IIITM-K) who is leading a geek squad dexterous in Blockchain technology, the new rage in global financial and technology markets. It was under his skillful leadership that Kerala Blockchain Academy (KBA), India’s first Blockchain Academy, was founded in March 2017.

At the outset, the Blockchain R&D facility trained 20 students from IIITM-K in Ethereum and developed several Proofs-of-Concept (PoC). KBA came into the limelight after its Agrochain – a blockchain-based marketplace for farmers – won the hackathon organized by Niti Aayog and Profer, a London-based Blockchain startup. The KBA was founded as a chapter of the Blockchain Education Network (BEN), an internationally acclaimed academic body. Following persistent efforts to draw the attention of movers and shakers in the field, Asharaf and team succeeded in bringing high-profile visitors like Michael Gord – Founder and CEO of MLG Blockchain Consulting and Sathya Peri of the reputed MIT Bitcoin Club, to Kerala.

“We worked on multiple prototypes, demonstrated them to multiple entities, including the State government. What followed was very surprising. Corporates, including UST Global and Ernst & Young, started coming down to our KBA garage and hired almost all our students. TCS Blockchain Group in Thiruvananthapuram started off operations with our students,” says Asharaf.

He has also co-authored a book on ‘Decentralized Computing Based on Blockchain’ with Adarsh S, a Junior Research Fellow at IIITM-K.“M Sivasankar IAS, Secretary, Department of Electronics and IT, Government of Kerala and Madhavan Nambiar IAS (Rtd.), Board Chairman, IIITM-K, have been great sources of inspiration and have actively been involved in the success of Kerala Blockchain Academy,” Asharaf adds.

‘First Mover’ Advantage for Kerala

According to Asharaf, Kerala is currently being watched closely by all global stakeholders and beneficiaries of a technology which is disrupting markets and marketplaces on ginormous scales. The reason for that is Asharaf and team in the KBA fold have made significant contributions in developing and masterminding secure and transparent digital frameworks which could replace existing network hosting technologies by giving unprecedented levels of accountability and security.

States like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and service sectors like FinTech, banking and insurance are already drifting towards Blockchain technology to solve issues and address problems. But what makes Kerala different in this context, says Asharaf, “is that we have the capacity and are working on capacity building. We are the providers of technology and not adopters or consumers.” According to him, Bengaluru, which is known as the Silicon Valley of India, is one of the largest consumers of KBA-trained resources.

“We have a huge pool of people who have a background in computer science and if we can reposition, at least say ‘X’ percentage of it into this domain, it can be a potential opportunity as it is an upcoming technology. More importantly, there is a scarcity of such kind of talent around the globe,” he adds.

The two underlying principal goals of Asharaf’s efforts are; one – project Kerala as the next technology destination; two – build KBA as a brand in the technology spectrum of the world.

“We are engaged in dialogue with most of the Blockchain-based corporate and non-corporate entities around the globe. We tell them that our aim is to build capacity and that we can attempt to solve problems, mostly with social relevance. There are problems to be addressed and we have to have the capacity to solve those problems here. We will build the knowledge here, solve it and hopefully scale it up. And that is the model we want to set and that is why we want the brand to grow,” he says. As an initial step towards that end, KBA got its trademark registered recently.

KBA has connected with over 200 volunteers from across the world who continuously serve as resources and work with the academy in developing PoCs through its SIGs or Special Interest Groups hosted in encoded platforms. KBA operates two SIGs – SIG ETH for Ethereum and SIG HLD for Hyperledger. Asharaf notes that at least 50 of the volunteers are working IT professionals and students from Thiruvananthapuram. The community as a whole has helped to plug in KBA to open source Blockchain-based computing platforms and tools like Hyperledger and Ethereum.

In short, the answer to ‘Why KBA is important to the Blockchain ecosystem?’ is that it is nothing but a repository of large volunteer groups, high-capacity trained resources, knowledge and ambitious PoCs.

Blockchain and Democracy

The possibilities of Blockchain technology are radical and it can bring about changes to the system through what is dubbed as ‘data democracy’. At present, data, public or private, is being held at a power centre which is controlled by only a handful of people or entities. The host server in the private/public domain being the power centre, data is more vulnerable to leaks, misappropriations and manipulations.

However, data-enabled services built on Blockchain are more or less decentralized and reins are in the hands of all who control the respective individual blocks in the network which are in turn interlinked through hash chains, making it more secure, says Asharaf. In simple words, the stakeholders of a particular Blockchain-enabled service decide ‘what goes in and what goes out’. The agreement mechanism of Blockchain mandates 51 per cent consensus of the stakeholders in ratifying a change in any of the associated blocks or the network itself, in a larger implication.

“If the people are empowered to participate in the consensus mechanism and if such a consensus mechanism is designed, it can bring about data democracy,” he opines. To put the concept in perspective, the banks collect money from a central bank and distribute it through various functions of the banking system. People have the right to know how transparent the current systems are, because, Asharaf says, “It is essentially a ledger management system.” He goes on to say that people can do without retail ledger management system provided, “there is a reliable technology infrastructure hosted by the government wherein they could see the flow of the money.”

The technology has the potential to disrupt all conventional mechanisms which to a certain extent expose data to vulnerabilities of all kinds. For example, under the hash chain built security, he says, “There is no need to expose the Aadhaar data to anybody. All you need to expose is a verification mechanism where there is no scope for reverse engineering for getting the actual data.”

Machines which store the data will only update hash in the publicly available domain. According to him, just the encrypted hash pertaining to the Aadhaar data is required for verifying the identity of a person, thus safeguarding privacy.

Technocrats in Kerala are betting big on disruptive technologies and key players like Asharaf believe that it is important to be consistent with the efforts to stay relevant.

‘In the Search for that Elusive Unicorn’

What makes Blockchain a revolution in Kerala is simply the fact that it is housed under IIITM-K, which again is led by a man who is ‘in the search for that elusive unicorn’, or that’s how Dr. Saji Gopinath, Director, IIITM-K and CEO of the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM), likes to put it across.

“Maybe for the first time in the recent past we are going ahead of the trend. In this process, we will ensure that we are moving towards future technologies,” says Dr. Saji Gopinath, who received his PhD from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

Having established a formidable Blockchain powerhouse in Kerala, KBA wanted to refine its potential, widening the prospect and making the State the single largest hub of Blockchain in the country. Dr. Saji facilitated a meeting between Dr. K M Abraham, former State Chief Secretary and Chairman of Kerala State Development and Innovation Strategic Council (K-DISC) and Asharaf and Michael Gord, which resulted in formulation of Accelerated Blockchain Competency Development (ABCD) – a scheme to scale up the operations of KBA.

“In order to survive, the State has to regain its ability to export and create manpower. The government has taken the Blockchain opportunity as a challenge and K-DISC is just an instrument in the process,” Abraham said during the launch of the scale-up initiative.
Saji Gopinath underscores the need to approach potential emerging technologies and intervene with a mindset to R&D.

The ‘ABCD’ of Scaling-up Blockchain

Kerala is gearing for a quantum leap in harnessing the available IT talent, readying a pool of full stack Blockchain developers, architects, trainers and researchers and carpe diem; going ahead of the curve this time. Kerala State Development and Innovation Strategic Council (K-DISC) is all set to launch one of its first initiatives – The Accelerated Blockchain Competency Development (ABCD). The main aim of ABCD is to impart training in Blockchain technology to students and professionals, giving them the ‘early bird’ advantage by intercepting the technology wave at the right time. Starting in August this year, ABCD will be held in association with IIITM-K and ICT Academy of Kerala (ICTAK) in Technopark. K-DISC has set an ambitious target of producing 25,000 purveyors of Blockchain in three years. ABCD programme with two-part certification will have Blockchain Associate programme, Blockchain Developer programme and Blockchain Architect programme. The programme is being developed and delivered by Kerala Blockchain Academy (KBA) which is an advanced R&D wing of IIITM-K. Students will have to certify certain grades for enrolling in the Blockchain Training Programme. Blockchain Developer programme delivery and certification will be conducted in partnership with Blockchain Education Network (BEN), the international body for Blockchain. Interested students, through an internship programme, can work with KBA and they will be provided with Blockchain Architect certification.

For more details on the training programme and entrance test, contact, ph: +91 471 2700813 or visit abcd.kdisc.kerala.gov.in


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