Gender Equality

I was reading this report from IBM Institute for Business value titled ‘Women, Leadership and the Priority Paradox‘ and it just came to my mind : how obvious and commonsensical this actually is.

Everybody should agree that intelligence is equally distributed among two genders. At least all of us could see that in the primary and secondary schools, where boys and girls are both able to understand math, learn languages, science and arts. Still, later in life, in the western and most of modern societies, men have more power and money and women less of it. Maybe you would say : “Men earn money to bring home and women decide how to spend it”. But who decides within these companies and governments how to spend money ? Following the same logic, then shouldn’t it be the women ?

I think not. I think that the power of decision needs to be balanced. And here I would come back to my argument that the intelligences are equally distributed among two genders. If this is so, we need to find a way how to use these intelligences in a balanced manner on the smaller, household level and the broader – corporate and national levels. In other words, the current situation where we have mostly men deciding on corporate and national strategies, and implementing these strategies is wrong and unsustainable.

In old times of early human history when humans lived as hunters and gatherers, genders were equal. This has been proven by the way how men and women were burried – no difference in the positions, sizes or the decorative objects that were found with their bodies. In the agricultural societies, at least in the early stage, women seem to be privileged. The evidence is female figurines of goddesses. Look at the art objects of ancient Vinca.

But later, all this changed. Gods became male, and with that, man became a kind of god. In the later history and through middle ages, kings and rulers were men, solders were men, priests were men, scholars were men, artists were men. What did they achieve? Definitely a lot. But also single-mindedness, which leads to conflicts and lack of tolerance and understanding. Conflicts that plague even the modern society. Shortsightedness and lack of broader perspective. It is like using only one eye. Even though you have two.

Many things changed in the meanwhile, but there is still a problem. Go now to any corporate or government office, and you will see that majority of managers are men. Think a moment about that.

Sustainability means long-term survival of the humans. If we want to achieve it, we need to change and broaden the current perspective. We need to open both eyes. We no longer live in the world where physical strength is so necessary to produce value. Machines and technology do all the heavy lifting. We control and manage them. There is no reason why most of the professional roles can’t be performed by women. And managerial too.

The benefit is very obvious when you look at Scandinavian countries, which managed to develop this balance. They are the cleanest, most modern, and most innovative countries with highest quality of life. Why ? Because they deploy the human intelligence where it fits the best. And both parents take responsibility of the childcare.

How to change the current  situation in most of other countries ?

I’m thinking here of few practical steps.

First, governments should adopt legislation so that publicly listed companies must have gender balanced senior leadership and middle-level management. Private companies especially the smaller ones are simply private. But public companies have responsibility not only to the shareholders, but also to the society. So, they need to behave in a more responsible way.

Next, within companies, women need to get the chance to gain experience. They need exposure and this has to be formalized in the corporate policies. Similar like we all have to give up our combustion cars and either ride bicycles or get electric ones, we all have to accept that women should go higher in the corporate hierarchies. Even if the electric cars don’t have such a radius like the combustion ones, we have to do it, for the sake of our kids and our future. And even if these women are not as skilled as some senior male executives, they need to get this opportunity. If they don’t learn quickly enough to produce results, find other candidates. Collectively and in not so long-term , this will pay off.

On a personal and family level, I don’t have any particular advice as I’m confident that people who live together will help each other. It is beautiful to take care about children for both men and women. And it is also equally boring to clean the house to any of us.

I think it is the time for the situation to change. To get to the next level of our human development. To be more sustainable, and get in balance. To get in balance with the nature and among ourselves.

Disclosure: I have two daughters. And I want to see this world become a better place for them so they can be happy and successful in life. I can see in them so much strength, creativity and intelligence, and I’m teaching them that the sky is the limit, and not some glass ceilings on the way to it.

Sasha Lazarevic

May 30, 2019

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Blockchain for Trade Finance

I was invited recently to take part in Blockchain Finance conference in Singapore as a panelist in a panel discussion about the use of blockchain for trade finance applications. I find this subject very interesting for many reasons that I will try to elaborate in this post. First I will just explain the main purpose and challenges of trade finance, and then what the benefit of blockchain in this particular field can be.

I wish to express the gratitude to the Blockchainer, Shanghai-based blockchain startup incubator with presence in various countries, for their invitation to this great event. The conference attracted 300 participants, and it was pleasure to learn the state of the blockchain finance sector in South-East Asia and China. There were many talks about blockchain payments, blockchain insurance, distributed funding, custodian services, cryptoexchanges, innovations in investing in blockchain projects, regulatory situation etc Beta Feng was great organizer of this event. Now, back to my topic.

What is trade finance ?

Trade finance means simply financing trading activities. Lets say a manufacturer or agriculture producer is making, or has already made a product and would like to sell it. Lets say that there is also a buyer that would like to buy, or maybe import to its country this product. The seller can invest money itself in the whole process, sign the sales contract with the buyer, load the goods on a truck or a ship, and wait for the buyer to confirm the acceptance and pay for the goods upon reception. The buyer can also decide to buy, sign the sales contract, wait for the goods to arrive, and pay the products from its own funds on at the time of reception of the goods. But often, they would decide to approach financial intermediaries (banks) to cover with a loan for this period while the goods are being produced, shipped and verified. This loan is one of the instruments of trade financing. The benefit of this loan is to provide the liquidity to the seller to buy the machines so that she can focus on making the product, improving the manufacturing, to perform the R&D etc. Using this financial instrument, the seller doesn’t need to wait for the goods to be shipped and received by the buyer. On another hand, the buyer doesn’t need to pay immediately for the goods. He can use the money for some more time (30 – 90 days) for the marketing promotion, to cover for logistics and warehousing costs, retail distribution. Trade finance instruments hence have a very important role in providing the bridge between the moment when the seller starts producing the goods and the moment when these goods are being paid for by final consumers. These instruments represent also a guarantee of payment, as seller and buyer very often don’t have history of mutual interactions to be able to trust each other So, the trade finance instruments allow all trade participants to focus on those activities they can perform the best: seller on production, buyer on distribution. In this way during the last 20 years, trade finance has stimulated, accelerated and expanded the globalization process to such extend that we can say that without these financial instruments there would have been no globalization today.

What are these financial instruments? Some of them are simple, like open account trading, advance payment, documentary credits and similar. Some are complex and include several participants and multiple control points. But in all of them, the intermediaries who provide this bridge funding will carefully manage risks. There are many kinds of risks, like manufacturing, product, transport, payment, and currency risks Most often, the financing providers will require the backing of the loan with the collateral, which in a simplest case is the goods itself being sold.

So, this is (very simplified) theory behind trade finance. It applies to commodity trading, or to trading of finished goods (machinery, consumer products, etc).

It is important to mention that global trade has always been very much influenced by technological progress and several innovations have particularly contributed to accelerate trade. Money is one of them. Money was invented to facilitate the trade, as before money the trade was limited to exchanging the goods between two participants. Money enabled people to understand the value of their goods and easily negotiate the price. Next, the standard-sized shipping container was the second most important invention, because it became possible to densely pack different products into these containers, stack large number of them on the ships, unload them quickly onto the trucks, and transport the goods efficiently to the final destination. Invention of large ships and barges made it also possible to transport huge quantities of goods per sea, the cheapest way of freight transport.

So, trading companies have always looked into the opportunities offered by technology to optimize and accelerate the trade process, in both logistics and financing the operations. And since the computers were invented, the trading companies were working on using them to gain efficiency. The big dream has been to automate the interactions between participants, but as of now, the trade transactions among sellers, buyers are their financing providers are still manually entered into their internal accounting systems, in many cases based on paper documents sent by DHL from one party to another. Automation of their internal processes has been achieved to a high degree, but the processes involving multiple parties are still manual, taking long time and suffering from many inefficiencies. One of the reasons of the lack of overall automation is (again) the mistrust between participants. There were many initiatives to introduce various digital platforms, but they until now have not been successful.

Now we have Blockchain

Two blockchain features are the most important when considering trade finance. First is distributed ledger. This means that if, let’s say, we create a network of 100 participants, each of them will have a full copy of all transactions on their computer. In case of private blockchains, one participant will see only those transactions described in the network’s rulebook where they are authorized to have access to. In case of public blockchains, all transactions will actually be accessible (private information will be hidden behind public keys, of course). The second feature is immutability. Modifying the previously committed transactions in the blockchain is technically very difficult and in some cases would be possible only through a hard fork where all participants agree to redo all transactions following the one that they want to change. It is not the same like in a centralized database, where a hacker or someone authorized by the management can change all data if they decide to do so. In blockchains, all participants must agree to this change and make conscious efforts to implement it.

These two important blockchain features in fact provide an environment in which the participants feel more confident in the reliability of the information they exchange and transactions they perform.

Of course, blockchain is not an all-cure medicine. If the data which enters the system is fake, and other participants are not aware of its incorrectness, blockchain will keep its record. So, validation of the trade documents and trade-related information will remain an important task to be done “off-chain”.

We should add here also automation through smart contracts. These are programmable blockchain scripts, which can perform certain tasks if they are invoked by the participants, or which can trigger in case of a particular transaction. Example would be: bill of lading is accepted by the validation organization, which will automatically trigger the generation of the payment request. The level of automation is of course configurable. For repetitive and well-understood operations, it can be fully automated, but for those requiring care and due diligence, smart contracts could be organized in such a way to involve human control points. Currently in this new world of distributed blockchain applications, an application could consist of hundreds of smart contracts that are enchained in order to implement very complex scenarios. The beauty of these applications is that they can invoke internal procedures and applications of various participants, can lookup external data resources like latest currency rates, or can use machine learning algorithms to perform classifications or identify the best course of action. And the end result, a new transaction or a record is included in a new block and accepted by all nodes in the network. So, we can have all three : automation, decentralization and immutability.

So far so good. The question really is if all this is sufficient in order to persuade typical sellers, buyers, and financial intermediaries of the trade finance process to trust the technology and trust each other, and really go forward in integrating more seamlessly interactions among themselves, which until now has not been the case.

It is worth mentioning that there are other solutions based on blockchain, which can complement nicely with the new trade finance platforms and applications. For example, blockchain-based payment systems, which aim to reduce the cost and automate the cross-border payments among the banks or among the end consumers. IBM’s Blockchain World Wire is one example of it. Another example is Chinese startup everiToken. There is also a set of solutions for the global supply chain, where participants can follow the flow of the goods. IBM’s TradeLens is an example of this as well. Many of these auxiliary solutions can add value to the trading process.

Hope this explanation on how blockchain supports the trade finance is rather easy to understand. Now the questions I got during the blockchain trade finance panel discussion were quite interesting, so I will comment also on them.

One was : “Are the consortium-based platforms the right way to promote the use of blockchain for trade finance, and are these consortia going to become a new norm?”

Indeed, many trading companies have recently started forming networks based on blockchain platforms. These networks are organized as consortia. Examples are We.Trade, eTradeConnect, Voltron, Marco Polo, Komgo and many others. It is enough to google these names to find quite a lot of latest information about their approaches and participants. Most of them use one of three underlying blockchain technologies: IBM-supported Hyperledger Fabric, R3 Corda or JP Morgan’s Quorum (which is based on Ethereum). I think this way of self-organizing, as of 2018 and 2019, is a very interesting way of experimenting with the technologies, learning how to benefit from them and how to automate the existing business rulebooks. Some companies are actually members of several networks, which allows them to compare the different concepts.

These networks will necessarily evolve, eventually more participants will come, more complex instruments will get implemented. I expect that the solutions will scale and the adoption will grow. As of April 2019, only a small number of transactions is being done through blockchain, and many of these are done in a parallel-run basis, alongside the traditional systems. I expect that it will take few years before the adoption grows to such a level that participants decide to move completely to the new blockchain-based solutions. In this sense, having three different platforms to play with is actually an asset. It also allows the technology providers to learn from each other and improve the existing solutions.

The second question was “what will be the role of the public chains in trade finance?” Very interesting question. Currently all trade finance is being done in B2B space, in particular among large companies. The problem is that smaller manufacturers and sellers from underdeveloped countries, even if they have capacity to produce and export interesting and good quality products, their funding applications are very often rejected by the banks who are not able to evaluate the risks, especially in the context of the still present consequences of the financial crisis from 2008. The current financing gap, as reported by WTO in their latest report, amounts to $1.5T. This is huge amount, which could in fact unlock the economic growth of many developing countries. The question for me is : can blockchain help to cover at least a part of this gap? I bet this is the role of public chains, with all financial instrumentation that they bring with them : tokens/ cryptocurrencies, cryptoexchanges, ICOs etc. Democratization of this process is a big promise, so I believe that there will be definitely a number of new solutions for this domain not covered by the existing intermediaries. I cannot comment on the details of the implementation of this kind of solutions, but there are many options and potential ideas.

At present, private and public blockchain platforms stimulate each other’s development much more than they compete, as they cover completely different market segments. As of now, trade finance participants (who are mostly large and regulated organizations) still view blockchain as an experimental platform which needs to prove itself, so they use it for a small proportion of their transactions. But as these participants gain experience and confidence, this will also stimulate the development of new solutions for smaller value loans, either by major platforms or by somebody completely new in this field. Optimistic scenario for me would be that in 3-5 years we see around 50% of the current world trade finance being performed on-chain with newly proposed B2B platforms, and that first solutions for the smaller value trade loans are being implemented on some kind of public chain.

Conclusion

The topic of blockchain for trade finance is very important, as trade finance is a pillar of the global world as we know it. Trade finance needs to be more efficient and more inclusive. As the shipping containers have indirectly enabled globalization, the world now needs a new set of solutions to further accelerate and expand the trading process.

There are many promising innovations : freight drones, hyperloop, unmanned ships, robotic container loading and unloading etc.But the most important innovations in trading and trade finance are expected to be in the domain of trust. And if blockchain can help achieve the needed trust among market participants from different parts of the world, in the situation of increasing complexities and difficult-to-understand risks, this will unlock the tremendous opportunities and a new phase of the human development. The impact is enormous. But it still needs to be seen if and how blockchain will actually make it possible to get there.

Sasha Lazarevic, April 2019

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Think 2019

February 12 – 15 was the week for Think 2019, according to some analysis the most important tech event of the year. IBM assembled together all major individual exhibitions and this was the second edition of Think, now the main annual IBM conference. This time the event took place in San Francisco. I attended the event as one of the speakers on the subject of Watson Machine Learning and Watson Studio, and in my session I also had as guest Anyline, AI company from Austria.

The conference was successful and it was huge. Not only based on the number of participants (around 30’000), or sessions (more than 3’000), but also on the quality of discussions and topics. IBM events are not so much about announcements, but I will list and describe the most important ones in this post, along with highlights of the most recent and interesting technologies.  Continue reading

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Quantum Computing Master Class

On January 31, I was instructor at the Quantum Master Class at IBM Studio in Zürich.

I coded in Qiskit (IBM’s Python SDK for quantum information science) and demonstrated how different Bell states can be implemented in jupyter notebook, how one can code the entanglement of three qubits, how to develop of the quantum circuit for bit addition, and the logic behind Deutsch’s algorithm with its implementation in Qiskit. Continue reading

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AI Conference in Serbia

“Serbian AI Valley”

On November 9 this year, I gave a speech at the first international AI conference in Serbia. The venue took place in the beautiful city of Novi Sad, in participation of around 300 AI developers and enthusiasts, data scientists, businessmen and representatives of academia. A first thing that you realize when going to Eastern Europe for a tech conference, is a high level of technical interests and expertise of the local people. This was the case also in Serbia. When you talk to them, you realize they are serious developers. It is estimated that there are around 50’000 people in total working in different IT jobs in Serbia, and this region around Novi Sad has actually the highest concentration of skilled IT professionals. Continue reading

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Introduction to Deep Learning

As I have done this presentation already several times and got a good feedback, I’m posting here the slides and some useful links that allowed me to learn and understand DL better.

And some of the great resources I’d like to share
Continue reading

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Deep Learning and Watson Studio

It was fun to play with Watson Studio and create my own convolutional neural network. Watson Studio is complex but easy and graphically intuitive tool, and integrates well with Watson Machine Learning engine. I used standard MNIST data set (with images of hand-written digits), created three layers deep CNN, exported the algorithm in TensorFlow / Keras, trained the model both using GPUs on Watson and locally on my Jupyter Python Macbook environment and got nice results. To data scientists and AI developers : go and use it. And for all other enthusiasts, the best way to learn AI is to create it yourself 🙂 ! Continue reading

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From Deep Blue to AlphaZero

Twenty years ago, IBM impressed the world with its specialized chess-playing system that won the match against the best chess player of all times, Garry Kasparov. Last year, Google repeated the same achievement with its Go-winning solutions AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero and most recently AlphaZero. How did this evolution happen and what are the key success factors of these remarkable events in the history of AI ?

Deep Blue

First, a little bit of history and background theory. The history of chess-playing AI solution goes back to 1957 when IBM research scientist Alex Bernstein wrote the first complete chess-playing program and ran it on IBM 704. But it was only 40 years later, in 1997 that computer-based solution reached such a level to surpass the best human performance. AI-based solutions for game-playing haven’t changed a lot during this period. The best practice was the use of opening books for the first dozen moves, and then use of Minimax algorithm for the search. Chess has up to 35 different moves, and can go to 50 moves deep, which makes it computationally impossible for any computer to identify all possibilities until the end of the game (35^50 is higher than the number of atoms in the universe). Due to the wide search, even nowadays this algorithm would go to the depth of maximum 10 levels within the allotted time for the move decision. Alpha-Beta pruning was developed to discard those subtrees that don’t contribute to the evaluation of the best moves for the Minimax algorithm. This helped to reach deeper levels (up to 18 levels from the current position). Once this depth is reached, an evaluation function must be defined to assess the strength of achieved positions and to grade the selected moves. Evaluation functions are very complex, and this is were humans typically excel. Garry Kasparov had for example extraordinary sophisticated evaluation capabilities, better than any other player. Continue reading

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Managing Stress and Emotions for Busy Professionals

The job of project managers is very stressful, often up to the point of being unbearable, and long term it can come with health hazards.

Frederic Kerautret, in a short 1.5 hour training session with >50 leaders in project management from Lausanne and all Switzerland, showed us that to manage it successfully, we need first of all to understand very well our emotions. Practical tools which are based on neuroscience, if exercised regularly and practiced the right way, can change our lives and significantly increase collaboration and productivity of the whole teams.

It reminds me of emotional intelligence, but specifically focused on how to cope with stress.

Especially important and not to be neglected in this era of digitalization !

Sasha Lazarevic

 

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The Amazing Human Brain Project

It was great pleasure to moderate a session with Cristoph Ebell at our PMI event on November 2 in Lausanne. Christoph is Executive Director of the Human Brain Project, European-wide initiative to provide the infrastructure and software tools necessary for decoding and understanding of the human brain. The interest was considerable, since this is one of the most important scientific projects in the world managed from Switzerland.

The Human Brain Project consists of 12 subprojects, driven concurrently in around 120 different institutions in more than 20 different countries. Christoph Ebell was talking about the project objectives, challenges and lessons learned, and how the collaboration stimulated by this project will create numerous innovation opportunities in neurorobotics, neuroinformatics and medicine.

The overall team consists of over 500 people from neuroscience, engineering and IT. The massive data and complexity of the mathematical models require ever-growing super-computing power. So, the day-to-day management, governance, technical and scientific leadership, and communication requirements are simply massive. We’ve learned how to deal with such challenges using some new concepts like science diplomacy, as a way of communicating with stakeholders, and co-design as a way to integrate the distributed engineering of innovative technologies.

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Excellent atmosphere and after-event networking with more than 60 participants !

Sasha Lazarevic, November 2016

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