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RegTech, AI, and the Future of Digital Identity

My first introduction to Dave Birch, Director of Innovation and Global Ambassador at Consult Hyperion, was via his book Identity is the New Money, and a conversation we had at a Finovate event a few years ago. He is as synonymous with the issue of digital identity as any fintech analyst; his book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin, is a fascinating history of the relationship between money and identity.

Birch sees digital identity not just as a way to create a safer, more efficient interconnected world. Instead, he sees digital identity – powered by technologies like artificial intelligence – as capable of restoring the power of relationships at a time of digital and social atomization. “Before we had the kind of urban anonymity of the industrial revolution,” he said, “things were based on relationships: whether I trusted you, whether I wanted to lend you money.”

“And we’ve scaled away from that, and had institutions become intermediaries. But with the new technologies, because we are connected all the time, in a weird kind of way we’re going back to that. In a way, those new connections are taking us back,” Birch explained.

Here are some of the top takeaways from my conversation with Dave Birch this year at FinovateEurope in Berlin.

On whether financial services professionals and regulators are on the same page with regard to the importance of digital identity.

Birch: A long time ago it was the theorists who said we’re going to have to do something about identity. And then a few years ago it was technologists like me who ran into the buffers and said we can’t make any more progress until we do something about identity. But now it’s people like Mark Carney, who is the governor of the Bank of England, saying we can’t make any progress without doing something about digital identity. So it’s gone up the agenda. But my point was that it’s not just technologists who are saying it. It is people who understand the financial system that are saying it. It’s become a priority. And, of course, because of my heritage, I feel that banks have a role to play in fixing the problem.

On why regtech may be the most critical subset of financial technology.

Birch: In terms of the goal, which is to reduce the cost of financial intermediation, it’s getting asymptotic. We’re getting as far as we can get. We’ve already cut the cost of transactions, increased the speed of transactions. We can’t get any further with fintech. The costs that are out of control are the regtech costs. It’s compliance, it’s Know Your Customer (KYC), Anti-Money Laundering (AML) … If we really want to make an impact on costs, we’ve got to attack those costs … And if we really want to do something about that, then we have to start talking about artificial intelligence.

On how advances in digital identity will help build new communities of trust.

Birch: I like to look at what the social anthropologists say rather than what the technologists are saying. Those guys are very into this idea that we live in these clans with relationships. There’s something more human about that. I think that technology, basing identity on relationships, the reputations we establish in those relationships, that is more interconnected.

Nowadays we’re all in lots of overlapping communities of one kind or another. But the idea that our reputations can be forged in those communities, that the values that we share will lead us to form these communities, that the transactions we get involved in, the money that we use, will somehow reflect those values, to me that seems like a very positive vision of the future.

Watch the full, 12-minute interview on Finovate TV.