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Interview with experts who lead the project ONTOCHAIN

They are building something new and useful for the future generations of users of the Internet

On 9 November E Hacking News conducted an interesting interview with experts from different parts of the world that lead the project ONTOCHAIN. It is a new European funded project, with the goal to empower internet innovators with a novel software ecosystem for trusted, traceable and transparent ontological blockchain-based knowledge management. This three years innovation project will distribute a total amount of 4.2 million euros via three open calls in order to build the ONTOCHAIN software ecosystem.

  • Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Caroline Barelle: I’m Docteur Caroline Barelle, the Coordinator of the European project ONTOCHAIN. I am working for European Dynamics (Luxembourg), one of the partners of the ONTOCHAIN project among seven partners from six countries with complementary expertise that form the core of the ONTOCHAIN vibrant ecosystem: University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), IntelliSemantic (Italy), iExec Blockchain Tech (France), Athens University of Economics and Business (Greece), the German Hellenic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Greece) and F6S (Ireland). ONTOCHAIN is also part of the Next Generation Internet initiative that is developed actually in Europe with the ambition to ensure that the development and progressive adoption of advanced technologies, concepts and methodologies contributes to make the future Internet more human-centric, particularly in these times of crisis.

Vlado Stankovski: I’m the scientific and technical coordinator of ONTOCHAIN. I work as a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Actually, our earlier initiative was the Human Centered Cloud, which we developed under the IFIP organization, established in 1960 under the auspices of UNESCO. The idea here is that the Internet in the past couple of decades has been governed by pretty strong software companies around the world. And now what we want to achieve with the Next Generation Internet initiative is to include in the core protocols of the Internet mechanisms so that people can rely and build on their historical and cultural achievements gained in the past couple of thousand years of European history. for example, the Internet backbone should support pluralism, diversity, democracy, human-rights and other aspects like this. So, we are very much engaged in this type of activity.

Miguel Gonçalves: I’m EU projects manager at F6S (Ireland), a company that has become the largest tech founder community. We are supporting the ONTOCHAIN project making sure that we deliver all the money that comes from taxpayers to the best applicants who will participate in the open calls, this is very important. So we will make sure that we found the best innovators to join us to build this novel software ecosystem called ONTOCHAIN. 

  • How Would You Describe Your Project?

Caroline Barelle: So from a general point of view, this project is funded by the European Commission and under the program, ICT-54-2020, blockchain for the next generation internet. The idea is to empower Internet innovators to co-develop with us a novel software ecosystem that will provide trustworthy and transparent applications for knowledge and information management as well as for knowledge, information and service exchange. We will do this via three Open Calls implemented successively over a period of 3 years and a total budget of equity free funds to be distributed to third parties of 4,2M€. The first Open Call is dedicated to the conceptualisation of the ONTOCHAIN ecosystem around 6 axis: Applications,Semantic Interopearbility, On-Chain Data Management, Off-Chain Data Management,Ecosystem Economy and Ecosystem Scalability and Integration . It is actually is actually open for Innovators. The second Open Call  is about from the concept, to transfer the relevant specifications and to develop appropriate applications for vital sector of the economy (eScience, eEducation, eHealth, eGovernment, eCommerce, eTourism, eInfrastructures) that will be tested and validated then during the third Open Call.

Vlado Stankovski: From my viewpoint, we have funding to build a software ecosystem that will be built and used by stakeholders that share our common goal, which means to improve the Internet protocols in a way that people can trust the knowledge and information that is being generated, stored and shared among individuals and organizations on the Internet. And by doing so to enable many dynamic, semantically complex and heterogeneous ecosystems of resources and actors that would underpin our future smart and sustainable society. 

This project follows the general idea of the Semantic Web, which is to deliver trust by delivering a Semantic Web technologies stack which is now part of the World Wide Web. You probably all know about the initiatives of the World Wide Web consortium, such as the Web Ontology Language (OWL), and other initiatives like this. And the ultimate goal of this technological stack is the trust between the different parties that share knowledge and information on the Internet.

Now, in our ONTOCHAIN project, what we want to achieve is to design and integrate an additional technology, which is coming from the area of blockchain. Blockchains are proven for people to trust them because they already do monetary transactions across the world by using different types of Ledgers. Blockchain is a shared database of transactions. In a way, this is resembles ontologies which are shared conceptualization of physical or abstract entities or shared organization of human knowledge. With these two database and knowledge base technologies put together what we hope about is to “marry" the Semantic Web with blockchains and by doing so, build a new software ecosystem that would improve the the trustworthiness of content and information on the Internet. 

Caroline Barelle:  What I would like to add, is that also one of our goals is to integrate ONTOCHAIN in a specific legal and regulatory and ethical framework that is currently thought over for blockchain and smart contracts. Standardisation and interoperability are also important aspects of what we are doing.

  • What do you mean by ontological knowledge?

Vlado Stankovski: Ontology is a shared conceptualization. We as humans have shared a lot of concepts together, for example, the concept of a car, is the same concept in Japan, in Europe,in the United States and in Latin America, all over the world. We know that carriages and later cars have existed for several thousand years. Carriages have been run using horses, but today we have battery run cars and so on. Yet, we have the concept of a car. So, having these concepts shared helps improve the interoperability of applications, the data which are stored by one application can be sent as input other applications, and easily understood by the other applications. An example of a computer language that helps solve such interoperability problems is the XML (eXtensible Markup Language) of the W3C, and is part of the already mentioned Semantic Web technologies stack. At a practical level, this helps applications communicate information among each other. Ontology languages may be used for more complex specifications of the knowledge that we have about different concepts, so that we can share the same understanding among applications and among each other. We can describe the concept of a car, but we can also describe concepts such as news items, elections, artificial intelligence methods in all their complexity.

  • Who will benefit from this project and how?

Caroline Barelle: We are, in fact, looking for innovators, developers and Internet experts. They will be our partners in co-developing the ONTOCHAIN ecosystem. A part from the equity free funding, they will also benefit from mentoring from worldwide recognised experts in the diverse fields related to ONTOCHAIN. The added value also for them would be a gain in visibility and community building with other innovators, industry and potential investors.

Vlado Stankovski: The inclusion of semantics into blockchains has the potential to open immense possibilities for new smart applications in practically all domains important for people, life and nature around the world.

Existing applications already use blockchains to record hashtags of documents in order to ensure the immutability of the information, which is stored off-chain. Now, imagine that more complex semantics, which means complex structures representing important concepts, such as trustworthy news, elections, automated doors and cars, are being recorded on the blockchains. This would make it possible, for example, to commit to the specific ontologies and consequently commit to the same democratic rules, for example, when distributing important news, going to elections, or sharing cars. Once the common rules are specified on blockchain, on ONTOCHAIN, as a matter of fact, that would enable that people follow the same rules that have been democratically agreed among each other. So, ONTOCHAIN enables organizations not only to establish the common concepts and facts that can be trusted but to rely on diversity, democratic and pluralistic means, when engaging in very dynamic, semantically complex ecosystems in practically all domains. Our goal is to support the smart specialization wave, which is in the heart of the European Horizon 2020 programme of research and innovation.

Miguel Gonçalves: So, there are three levels of beneficiaries. The applicants who take part in the open calls and receive funding, support and mentoring. A second line of beneficiaries will be all the innovators who will use this novel software ecosystem to build the new applications and software. And finally, the citizens who will benefit from trusted, traceable, and transparent based solutions. This will be the end goal of the project.

  • How might your project evolve over time?

Caroline Barelle: From our view point, even if ONTOCHAIN is a three-year project, we foresee sustainability for this ecosystem and we hope to make it last for ever as far as possible. This is the goal. 

  • You announced your project publicly 2 months ago. Did you get the expected response from the public?

Vlado Stankovski: Yes, it is fantastic. We have received really a lot of interest from people who work on different aspects, for example, from the viewpoint of ontologies and the Semantic Web. We know there are several tens of thousands of researchers in the world working only on the development of the Semantic Web technologies stack, such as the Protegé community and other innovators. Then, from the blockchain viewpoint, many hundreds of people already expressed their interest. Moreover, from the viewpoint of cryptography, experts of post-quantum cryptography have shown their interest, security in general. We have some interest from the United States, from people who lead blockchain projects for defense agencies and many other domains. I would say this technology has a lot of perspectives. That's why it has been recognized already for funding as one of the key blockchain projects for the Next Generation Internet. It is amazing that we received so much interest from different experts. And this is what we need in order to be able to build something new and useful for the future generations of users of the Internet.

Miguel Gonçalves: As mentioned the project just started two months ago. We already had the opportunity to promote five ONTOCHAIN TALKS now available on Youtube, and other events. In terms of applicants, the open call is not launched yet. It will be launched very soon, on the 16th of November and will be open for a period of two months. And we then expect to receive a lot of high-quality applications from all over Europe and 16 H2020 associated countries. 

  • Are you going to launch your own blockchain? 

Vlado Stankovski: On the baseline of our ONTOCHAIN architecture we have Interledger. Many smart applications would use private and public blockchains. For example, a smart car may move from Ljubljana to Vienna and would enter the transactions there. Some, but not all data generated in Ljubljana may be needed in Vienna. We need to convey the higher-level semantics of the Ljubljana transactions and to move that to another smart environment, such as Vienna. This is the key idea of how Interledger will support ONTOCHAIN’s semantic transactions. We have an architecture about this that is made of four or five layers. We have applications for trustworthy content handling and information exchange, we have application protocols, then we have ONTOCHAIN protocols and we have underneath this Interledger. In short, ONTOCHAIN is not a typical ledger one may think. 

  • As I understand, you'll work on Etherium and Hyperledger?

Vlado Stankovski: For the time being, but we have also some other people who have attended our meetings, for example, from Tezos and other ledgers. We are really not restricted to few particular ledgers. This project will deliver some showcase applications in the short term, but it intends to open an area of new research where the semantics is shared among blockchains, we would like to see the generation of new type of blocks that we call them ONTOBLOCKS.

  • Would you launch your own tokens or is it just purely application?

Vlado Stankovski: Our partner company iExec Blockchain Tech (France) has already tokens, which will be used in one area. However, the point is that what we want to support a variety of ecosystems. The idea is that by using our ONTOCHAIN software ecosystem, one can establish their own applications that include trusted knowledge management mechanisms. Instead of just recording hashtags, one can record more complex semantics on blockchains. One key challenge in the project is how do we make the interface between what is trusted and resides on the blocks and what is trustless, inherently I mean, which is the sensing environment, the data and information, and the decentralised oracles that reside outside the blockchains.

Any ONTOCHAIN stakeholder can, of course, launch their own tokens and make business. One topic of our first open call, topic number five, is devoted to the development of new economic mechanisms benefiting from trusted knowledge management. 

  • And how do you deal with the censorship of anything that might be required in any sort of network like this, or would it be totally trustless? 

Vlado Stankovski: Censorship in our context is rather a new ONTOCHAIN infrastructure supporting diversity, pluralism, democracy, human-rights, sustainability and other historical achievements of humankind. Imagine that the resulting infrastructure will be a forest of ONTOBLOCKS, or rather an ONTOBLOCKS graph. . This means that our key achievements as humanity can be built into this trusted knowledge management structure. This is the key technological idea of the project. It is not the same as the current World Wide Web that are currently governed by a few big players.

  • We've covered quite a bit in this conversation. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like to share about?"

Caroline Barelle:  Just that we are actually calling for all Internet researchers, innovators and developers whether from high tech companies, academia or natural person(s) to be part of this adventure with us!

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