Old MacDonald Had A Retinal Scanner
Well, here we are again. It’s 16th September and International Identity Day (IID) once more*, so I’m here to rejoice with you all. To celebrate this auspicious date, I used my strongly-authenticated virtual identity with the verifiable credential IS_OVER_18 (which is linked to the digital identity stored in my bank wallet) to log in to a French vineyard to pre-order a crate of Beaujolais nouveau. I gave them my Amazon address credential when they wanted a delivery address and my payment name to send their request-to-pay for Amex to digitally sign to confirm payment. My real name and my financial details were never part of this very efficient online purchase. I’m joking, of course.
Here in the UK we have no identity infrastructure and if we did I doubt it would be interoperable with anything a French vineyard might reasonably imagine a verifiable credential to look like. In fact after the failure of the government’s most recent identity initiative, we really are back at Square None.
It’s actually even worse than you think. Not only do we not have digital identities for people, we don’t have digital identities for anything else either. And that might be more important than you think. After all, we spend a lot of time talking about digital identity for people and speculating about whether Apple ID or federated Bank ID or centralised Government ID is the best implementation but in the new online world, there are a great many entities other than people that will need to have digital identities in order to participate in a functioning post-industrial economy. Things, for example. And artificial intelligences: Bots will need identities, too. In fact I’m writing a book about this at the moment. It’s going to be called “Will Robots Need Passports?” and it will be out next year sometime.
(And the answer, as I am sure you already know, is “yes”. Spoiler alert: robots will need passports because they will need to be authorised to access resources and they will need to be recognised in order to develop reputations that will be transaction enablers.)
What we don’t spend anything like enough time talking about, though, is the digital identity of animals. I read with great interest a report in the Times of India about a new smartphone app that farmers can use to check information about cattle. This was developed in response to an appeal from Prime Minister Modi for a means to reduce cattle theft. As you probably know, India already has a national identity number for people — Aadhar — and it has worked pretty well, providing a low-cost mechanism to establish the unique identities of citizens and thereby contribute to the goal financial of financial inclusion which (as everyone knows) is an identity problem. Therefore, it would seem logical to give animals a number too.
But how do you tell Napoleon from Snowball?
Well, in this case, specific information “unique to each animal” like the footprint, height, weight, colour and tail hair is recorded in the software and a unique ID is generated. As one of the designers of the software notes, this ID “is very useful when insuring cattle”, which is a good point. I am slightly surprised that, all other things being equal, they didn’t put the IDs on a quantum-resistant blockchain in the cloud, but that’s probably version 3.
Nevertheless, the animal Aadhar — the biometric identification of animals and the association of a digital identity — clearly has economic value. I don’t know how unique animal footprints are, so I cannot comment on adjusting the false accept and false reject rates for optimal barnyard efficiency, but I do know that (as the Wall Street Journal recently reported) face recognition for animals is actually pretty difficult. As they put it, “It’s not like you can tell a donkey to stand still“. Quite. Nevertheless it can be done.
IFGS Panel on AI Ethics 2019 (courtesy of Emma Wu).
I know this because I was privileged to have Dr. Jion Guong Shen from JD Digits, a subsidiary of JD (China’s largest e-commerce business) on my panel about AI ethics and governance at the Innovate Finance Global Summit (IFGS) last year. This was a great panel, by the way, largely because the well-informed panellists took the discussion in such interesting and unexpected directions. JD Digits, amongst other things, runs face recognition services for farmyard animals including cows and pigs. It turns out that pig face recognition, in particular, is a big business, There are 700m pigs in China, and the productivity gains that farmers can obtain from ensuring that each pig is fed optimally, that sick pigs are kept away from the herd (and so on) are very significant. Apparently the face recognition system also goes some way to reigning in wannabe Napoleons, as Dr. Shen explained that there are some “bully pigs” that try to obtain a disproportionate share of barnyard resources. The system can spot them chowing down when they shouldn’t be and flag for intervention. This is a pretty straightforward use case for biometric identification that might useful introduced into British fast food outlets in my opinion.
Let’s celebrate International Identity Day by remembering that not only are digital identities are not simply for people and that the future economy desperately needs digital identity infrastructure for everything but that we have a long, long way to go.
* In case you are wondering why IID is 16th September, the choice of the date is in recognition of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9 which calls for legal identity for all including birth registration by 2030.