Next month, ExsulCoin plans to conduct its initial coin offering. The company mixes blockchain technology and social consciousness, connecting the Rohingya and other refugee groups to educational and work resources, and supporting projects that benefit these downtrodden communities.

ExsulCoin will be able to deliver education even to areas without internet access, and at times that make participation easier. Students will earn the cryptocurrency for completed course work, and can access work opportunities. “We would like to provide free, basic education to everyone who wants it, irrespective of social or economic background,” Song said.

The Harvard-educated Song is a former Fulbright scholar and co-founder of Faircap Partners, a five-year-old Myanmar private equity firm, where he remains a senior adviser. Song says that blockchain addresses one of the key challenges for refugees: namely, lack of access to documentation of their educational and work experience. “Blockchain is good at verifying and recording things in a way that’s tamper proof,” he says.

ThirtyK: What are the origins of ExsulCoin?

Song: I had been working in Myanmar for five years, mostly as a private investor. I had run a private equity fund there, also Myanmar’s first angel investment group. Over the last couple of years, my focus shifted, and I started looking at more angel investment deals. I knew what Myanmar needed was education investment. I went to an accelerator at the World Economic Forum about building education technology that could accelerate learning. That led to predictive analytics, both AI- based and psychology-based. We built a few predictive models that were effective in training people in computer skills in Myanmar. Our first project was to see whether people who had never been educated before could learn to run a globally scalable business in a short time, and then we went from what kind of education we could deliver, and on the back of that education infrastructure, whether we could deliver other things like work opportunities. Then the problem was how do people trust these people to do good work.

ThirtyK: What did blockchain offer as a solution?

Song: Blockchain is good at verifying and recording things in a way that’s tamper proof. That verification is important when you come across corruption or lying or misrepresentation.

ThirtyK: So it was the technology, not the token potential, that you thought was most powerful?

Song: Absolutely, It wasn’t until we started talking with economists who started shaping our token model, who said “Since you’re working with blockchain and issuing tokens, why don’t you pay people to learn?” That was a breakthrough moment for us because a lot of poor people send their children to work to support the family instead of going to school, which does not support the family. If you could align those two, where they went to school while they earned money, that made sense.

ThirtyK: Do you think there’s a misconception about blockchain’s strengths?

Song: Eighty percent of the chatter out there is nonsensical from people who don’t understand blockchain technology. But the use cases for blockchain can be revolutionary, if people build on it things that they’re talking about instead of marketing them and creating ICO hype.

Government Objections?

ThirtyK: What were your concerns about your project, and how did you overcome them?

Song: I was a afraid of being targeted by governments because we’re working to deliver education to refugees. Refugees are unliked by a lot of governments. We were afraid of hacking attacks, and there have been attacks on my character online. But what really worried us was having a government shut down our project. That’s why we built on the Ethereum blockchain. We did our analysis early and it’s distributed enough so that it’s difficult to take down.

ThirtyK: What is your model with the Rohingya and beyond?

Song: We would like to provide free, basic education to everyone who wants it, irrespective of social or economic background. In terms of everything else, a lot of aid agencies are ineffective. Blockchain allows peer-to-peer transfers of aid, and it allows us to build a reputation system on chain, where you could verify someone’s identity, like their transaction history and a kind of trustworthiness rating, which can be recorded and verified, which allows you to give directly to one person in need because there’s no third-party agency like the U.N. to say this person needs money more than this other person.

Compensation and AI

ThirtyK: How does the compensation work?

Song: Through the educational coursework, we give skills assessments, and those skills assessments are rewarded in fractions of exsulcoin. Instead of getting an A or B grade, you get an A or B coin. Those transactions are recorded on blockchain. It’s like a tamper-proof report card. We attach that to identity verification and some health records, like “Are you allergic to anything, what’s your blood type?” Then we link that to biometric data so that you can access that information just using a fingerprint scan, so you don’t have to do all this memorizing of public and private keys to access your data. Then we use that data because you’re transacting through taking educational coursework to build a credit or trustworthiness rating. We take that to offer micro-metered work opportunities. For instance, if someone needs help translating a form into Arabic, they could find someone who speaks Arabic.

ThirtyK: What is the role of artificial intelligence in your project?

Song: One of the things we use artificial intelligence is for understanding you as a student — how you learn, what times of the day you learn best. We have i-tracking technology which uses the forward-facing camera of your smartphone to follow your eyes to tracking engagement so there is certain kinds of content and screen brightness which increase engagement, increase more eye time on the screen. We try to optimize to for each individual. For instance, if you went to college today, and you took physics, you might sit through a two-hour physics lecture every day, and that might be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day, and that might not be optimal for you. You might be better off doing 12 10-minute sessions throughout the day, starting from the afternoon.

ThirtyK: Isn’t this concept at odds with the nature of blockchain technology, which provides anonymity for the participant?

Song: Traditionally, the culture is focused on anonymity and privacy. However, we don’t take that approach. Refugees have the opposite problem. They feel like their voice hasn’t been heard. So the first thing we worked on was not only showing off educational ability or skill level of individual people but creating identity verification around those things. We want to make these people visible but in a way where their information is protected.


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James Rubin
James Rubin has covered a range of business topics for such publications as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Forbes Insights and Adweek. His papers have been presented at World Economic Forum events. He was an associate editor at TheStreet and is the author of the "Urban Cyclist's Survival Guide."