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The Big Interview

University DLT director sees Malta as a ‘launchpad’ for global innovation

Joshua Ellul, Chairman of the MDIA and Director of DLT at the University of Malta, wants his country to be front and centre of AI and blockchain development

Malta is getting pretty comfortable when it comes to its ‘world-first’ status. At its now bi-annual Blockchain and AI Summit last week, the Maltese government announced its first-ever national AI certification programme.

Why is that important? Because it will ensure that this emerging technology is developed in a responsible way, exactly as the Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA) is doing with DLT.

It will also allow Malta to become what Joshua Ellul, Chairman of the MDIA and Director of DLT at the University of Malta, calls a “launchpad” for AI and blockchain innovation throughout the world.

Ensuring responsible development of technology

Just before I sat down with the charismatic university director, he gave an interesting talk about the challenges that new technology presents. Co-presented by Professor Gordon Pace, they brought up a crucial point. If our future is defined by code in the form of smart contracts, who will be in charge of writing these legally binding smart contracts?

We’ve all heard the “horror stories” of smart contracts not acting upon the intent with which they were written. As these technologies evolve and touch the lives of more people around the world, their fate cannot be left in the hands of a programmer with little-to-no knowledge of the legal realm.

There’s currently a “disconnect” between the legal and IT fields. Lawyers are masters of their profession. They know how to draw up contracts that will stand up in a court of law. They usually don’t, however, know how to write computer code.

Becoming a master of both disciplines would be extraordinarily challenging. While it may be possible, there would probably be only a handful of people who may be able to study both law and code. So, at the University of Malta, they’re taking a different approach.

The world’s first Masters in Blockchain and DLT

Instead of trying to create professional “chimaeras” (mythical beasts with three heads), they argue that there is a “difference between mastery and literacy”. DLT and automation will be made possible by taking a multidisciplinary approach that takes in professionals from ICT, legal, business, and financial backgrounds and gives them literacy within the various disciplines and specialisation within their particular profession with respect to blockchain, smart contracts, and DLT.

To this end, the University of Malta has developed another world first: a Masters in Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies for professionals from traditional fields. This will ensure that lawyers can understand code and how to design a smart contract.

Ellul enthused: “It’s a multidisciplinary Masters in Blockchain and DLT, a world first, a broad introduction to the various areas of blockchain, and deep specialisation within a student’s particular background.”

The Masters programme began in October with 30 participants. However, Ellul says that the university has been “overwhelmed” with the response since then.

“We need to make sure we have the right quality and the right resources for the number of students that want to come in,” he continues.

The Masters covers the fundamentals of blockchain, but it is also designed to have close interaction with industry.

“Blockchain is all about the industry at this point in time. So, we also keep close interaction with the industry – as part of the Masters, students will spend 120 hours with an industry partner on a real-world applied task. A student’s academic project which is spread over three months can also be closely aligned with an industry partner (subject to having a suitable academic challenge).”

Further developments in education in Malta

Ellul says that the university is not stopping at the Masters programme. They want to design the institution as a research centre of excellence.

“We want to attract a number of students that want to continue extending the state of the art with respect to blockchain,” he says.

Indeed, as Maltese government minister Silvio Schembri announced, the MDIA will oversee the national AI certification programme.

“This is to provide higher levels of assurances on the underlying technology,” Ellul says.

“Consumers require some level of assurances. We started with blockchain, DLT, and smart contracts, and are now working on providing assurances to systems using artificial intelligence as well.

“We’re looking at other types of emerging technologies that may eventually be part of the MDIA’s remit. What we’re doing at the university mirrors what is being done on a national level in the aim of providing assurances.

“We need professionals skilled in the technical, legal, and business areas to be versed in this technology, legal frameworks, and business models.”

What about education at the grassroots level?

Ellul was talking about advanced education and further research. But, I wanted to know what (if anything) the country is doing at the grassroots level to encourage more people to go down this path in the first place.

“We’re also adapting our undergraduate programmes,” he says. “And we need to consider how to drive more individuals towards STEM subjects. We also have different initiatives on generating public awareness on what the technologies are and aim to try to drive students towards this direction…”

He pauses for a moment and furrows his brow.

“That being said, we have to be very careful not to drive the students towards an industry if it’s not in line with the direction they want to go in.”

There’s also the question of just how much the general public needs to know about the underlying technology.

He says: “Look at email, most people don’t know that there is SMTP or IMAP underneath it… I think technology really becomes successful when the technology is no longer the issue, when it’s no longer mentioned, when it’s in the background, and we’re just using it.”

Malta has ambitious plans, but limited space

Let’s be honest. Malta has ambitious plans, but it also has some glaring limitations. The island may do its best to attract foreign investment and talent to its shores, but that unearths other considerations. Malta is a small island with limited space and resources. Australia has cattle ranches that are bigger than Malta, in fact.

So, with all these initiatives, how sustainable are Malta’s plans in the long run? Ellul nods his head and replies with the most sensible answer I have heard yet to this very real question of size constraints and limited talent.

“Most definitely, we have these limitations… However, because of our small size, Malta is the perfect place for a testbed. Come to Malta, test your applications, use it as a first base to find out whether your project is feasible or not.

“That is going to be one of the main areas that Malta is going to be working on, so we’ll be a launchpad for blockchain and AI success. We’ll also continue with other public education initiatives to make sure that the public is aware of what AI means to them and will work on extending our expertise to become the global launchpad for AI.”

Wrapping it up

We finish the interview there as Ellul is called off to sit on another panel. Articulate, honest, polite, and intelligent, there couldn’t be a better person heading up an initiative for the responsible development of technology. With individuals such as him championing Malta’s digital strategy, you get the feeling the island will continue to see success.

Whether or not Malta will become a top-10 player in the AI space remains to be seen, but the foundations are certainly being laid.

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