*The names of the laboratories mentioned in the article may have changed since the time of writing/interview.
What tells you the trustworthiness of the people you meet over the Internet or the information online? This is an especially important issue in the present day as the amount of the circulating digital information is increasing and the trustworthiness of information is not so high; however, any effective stratagem is yet to be established. We interviewed Dr. Atsushi Nakadaira, NTT Service Evolution Laboratories, about a research focusing on "digitalization of social capital information" for addressing this issue as well as about its perspective.
This research started in this year (2020); the starting point was an examination, which was what information values produced with data we should focus on in the data-driven type society. In this process, we got an idea of leveraging the concept of "social capital," which has been researched in sociology, as the value of digital information. The research and development division of NTT has been working on various researches that are supposed to be necessary in the field of information in the future within a ten-year range based on the prospects for the changes in society.
Needless to say, today, the Internet has created an environment in which anyone can access people and information from around the world. However, as you communicate more online, you need to manage the risk of trusting someone you don't know or believing the wrong information. In other words, as the globalization of information distribution advances, measures to measure the trust of people and information are required.
There is also the question of whether we are really getting the information they want now. Take "ethical consumption" as an example. "Ethical consumption" refers to consumption that considers society and the environment. For example, you can buy products that contribute to curbing global warming, or you can choose fair trade products.
However, even if there are some products from a company that claims to contribute to curbing global warming, slight differences in the manufacturing process and the transportation process of materials and products will change the amount of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Without enough information to compare the differences between the products on the shelves, they can make few ethical choices in the strict sense. It is currently very difficult for consumers to track product information across all manufacturing and transport processes.
I believe that societal issues on a global scale will increasingly affect individual lifestyles and corporate activities. As noted earlier in the example of ethical consumption, the new concept such as CSV (Creating Shared Value) in which the solution of societal issues in corporate management creates both social and economic benefit, is attracting attention. From the perspective of realizing a sustainable and inclusive society, we believe this trend will accelerate even further.
In light of such social changes, we believe that the trustworthiness and fairness of transactions between information providers and receivers will be emphasized and will be required even more strongly. So we wondered if we could build value into the digital information world based on the concept of social capital.
Social capital is the concept that the trustworthiness, the norm of reciprocity, networking (social connection) are important in the society and economic activities as the stratagem to support the mutual relationship and linkage among the people in society or local community. In communities full of them, people act in harmony proactively without worries, enhancing the efficiency of various social activities and enabling themselves to realize further rich society.
We live and belong to various communities ranging from companies to schools, recreational gatherings, and neighborhood. There, we have, besides laws or regulations, the norms unique to the specific community. For instance, we have internal rules of companies, school regulations, club rules, and so forth or we have something that is not in the form of text such as local customs and rules. When the members of a certain community share the rules and act by following the rules, even if they are not so strict, then mutual trust will be formed. That is an image of the community that is supported by the social capital. The larger the accumulation of social capital, the deeper and more stable the bonds among the people will be; thus, wholesome organizations and societies are formed to make things go on smoothly. These activities accelerate the accumulation of social capital furthermore.
Imagine such communities existing on the Internet in a variety of forms. We can say that the current communities on the Internet are the connections among the people supported with the "empathy," in a sense, as shown by the "Likes" on the SNS. When "trust" is added there, safer and more secure digital communities will be embodied. We have been researching the digitalization of the social capital and how we use it for the information platform to add this trust.
We conceive that we will promote the digitalization of social capital as the values coming from the analyses of various data; such information, we figure, may make values out of human thoughts. Therefore, how such information will be and how we will take management of this are particularly important. For the management, we think it will be effective to apply the technology of the blockchain. Blockchain is something that was developed as the platform technology for crypto currencies such as the bitcoin; this is a stratagem to integrate and record the transaction data in a certain period into the units of block and, thus, to connect them as if they were chains. This is a decentralized network that connects multiple computers; this does not have a master system to process data like client-server systems. This is called an autonomous decentralized system as it is a stratagem that excludes data falsification, unjustifiable transactions, and the like with computers executing verification mutually. We think that the concept of this technology for the autonomous decentralized blockchain is suitable. This can be applied to the decentralized society, which will be needed in the future.
To sum up, we can control our information if we are able to construct the information platform to apply such technology that is used by the participants autonomously. We can control who are allowed to use and can confirm who has used.
We have been researching on the blockchain technology so far; the service for managing and using data that makes use of the achievements of the researches is about to be commercialized. We, based on such experiences, think that it is technically possible to construct the information platform by making use of the block chain technology.
We think that there is a possibility that the digitalization of social capital and its use will change the future of the Internet society considerably. For example, if you are a proprietor, you can use your business experiences, accumulated skills, and so forth to express your trustworthiness and you can build the trust on the Internet to make transactions more appropriate and smoother. We think that the trustworthiness of people or organizations can be also used for the evaluation of the trustworthiness of the information they provide. Enterprises can open the information on their supply chains or the like that leads to, for instance, the use of trustworthy ESG information. Under current circumstances, ESG information gathers attentions from the perspective of investment and corporate management; we can evaluate it as trustworthy information by tracing it through supply chains for each and every piece of goods, so we can also imagine that it should be some information essential for our consumption. This, we think, leads to a solution of societal problems.
Moreover, if we take it from a global and wide viewpoint, we can also think that the relationship of trust based on sharing the sense of value beyond the geographical distance and cultural difference may promote international and flexible collaboration among enterprises to make new business happen. Furthermore, an advantage of the Internet with trust is that it can build the linkage among people beyond the societal problems such as the antagonism among among nations or races by overcoming them. Also, we think there is a possibility that new norms and behaviors may result for the solution of such problems once the environment supported by the relationship of trust is arranged.
Our research project on the digitalization of social capital has just begun. As of present, under these circumstances, we have been repeating our discussions and verifications for what community places importance on what value and for how we should extract norms and express them. However, we predict that the global relationship will spread explosively in a certain phase once this is put into practice and recognized in the society.
In addition, I personally feel that this research is interesting as it involves the knowledge from the fields of humanities and social sciences into information engineering, which is among natural science. In the past, there were many examples of paradigm shifts produced from the fusion of different study areas; the content of the research I have been working on is an interdisciplinary one that involves the possibility of changing the world considerably. Having been following the paths in the fields of natural science, I feel refreshed when I learn the knowledge in the fields of social science, philosophy, and so on or when experts give me advice; I, as a researcher, feel excited over how I can change the world of ICT. We think that NTT is in a position that precedes the others in this research field; we think that we will be presenting our first achievement to the world hopefully in about two to three years.