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What it’s like to do a PhD internship with Mastercard and ML-Labs

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We learn more about the PhD internship programme hosted by Mastercard’s Dublin Tech Hub and ML-Labs from some of its key collaborators.

Like the rest of the world, Ireland is preparing for a future driven by new technologies. A critical aspect of this is finding the people with the right skills to push boundaries and give businesses a competitive edge.

Mastercard’s Dublin Tech Hub is attracting these people through its partnership with ML-Labs, which is a collaboration between University College Dublin (UCD), Dublin City University and Technological University of Dublin funded by the Science Foundation Ireland Centres for Research Training programme.

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Together, the group is hosting a new PhD internship to help students from ML-Labs’ machine learning programme find their feet in industry. We spoke to Mastercard’s Dr Steve Flinter, UCD’s Dr Brian Mac Namee and PhD candidate Sagar Saxena to learn more.

The PhD internship is a unique and mutually beneficial programme for both Mastercard’s Dublin Tech Hub and ML-Labs. Flinter, who is vice-president of AI and machine learning at Mastercard Labs, explained: “This programme is going to give us access to top-grade PhD candidate students.

“Our aim for the programme is that we can support the training of those PhD students to help them get to a point where they can translate their training and their education into industry once they’ve graduated.”

Through the internship, PhD students work with one of the teams at Mastercard Labs for four months. Saxena is the first Mastercard intern on the programme. He’s interested in what Flinter described as a “very topical area”, but one that Mastercard hadn’t researched before Saxena joined the company – explainable AI for time series.

Speaking about his time on the PhD internship so far, Saxena said that the team had been supportive. He said: “All in all, working in Mastercard seems to be a game-changer and I think the experience that I’ve accrued here would help me shape my future for the better.”

For PhD candidates who want to move from academia into industry, Mac Namee explained how the internship programme can help. “It’s designed to be accessible to applicants from all kinds of different backgrounds,” he said.

“So whether you’re interested in working on new and exciting machine learning algorithms or bringing machine learning into a new area, or even looking at the societal impacts of machine learning, there’s a place for you.”

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W3C overrules Google, Mozilla’s objections to identifiers • The Register

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The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has rejected Google’s and Mozilla’s objections to the Decentralized Identifiers (DID) proposal, clearing the way for the DID specification to be published a W3C Recommendation next month.

The two tech companies worry that the open-ended nature of the spec will promote chaos through a namespace land rush that encourages a proliferation of non-interoperable method specifications. They also have concerns about the ethics of relying on proof-of-work blockchains to handle DIDs.

The DID specification describes a way to deploy a globally unique identifier without a centralized authority (eg, Apple for Sign in with Apple) as a verifying entity.

“They are designed to enable individuals and organizations to generate their own identifiers using systems they trust,” the specification explains. “These new identifiers enable entities to prove control over them by authenticating using cryptographic proofs such as digital signatures.”

The goal for DIDs is to have: no central issuing agency; an identifier that persists independent of any specific organization; the ability to cryptographically prove control of an identifier; and the ability to fetch metadata about the identifier.

These identifiers can refer to people, organizations, documents, or other data.

DIDs conform to the URI schema: did:example:123456789abcdefghi. Here “did” represents the scheme, “example” represents the DID method, and “123456789abcdefghi” represents the DID method-specific identifier.

“DID methods are the mechanism by which a particular type of DID and its associated DID document are created, resolved, updated, and deactivated,” the documentation explains.

This would be expressed in a DID document, which is just a JSON Object that contains other key-value data describing things like how to verify the DID controller (the entity able to change the DID document, typically through control of cryptographic keys) in order to have a trusted, pseudonymous interaction.

What Google and Mozilla object to is that the DID method is left undefined, so there’s no way to evaluate how DIDs will function nor determine how interoperation will be handled.

“DID-core is only useful with the use of ‘DID methods’, which need their own specifications,” Google argued. “… It’s impossible to review the impact of the core DID specification on the web without concurrently reviewing the methods it’s going to be used with.”

A DID method specification represents a novel URI scheme, like the http scheme [RFC7230] but each being different. For example, there’s the trx DID method specification, the web DID method specification, and the meme DID method specification.

These get documented somewhere, such as GitHub, and recorded in a verifiable data registry, which in case you haven’t guessed by now is likely to be a blockchain – a distributed, decentralized public ledger.

However, there is a point of centralization: the W3C DID Working Group, which has been assigned to handle dispute resolution over DID method specs that violate any of the eight registration process policies.

Mozilla argues the specification is fundamentally broken and should not be advanced to a W3C Recommendation.

“The DID architectural approach appears to encourage divergence rather than convergence & interoperability,” wrote Tantek Çelik, web standards lead at Mozilla, in a mailing list post last year. “The presence of 50+ entries in the registry, without any actual interoperability, seems to imply that there are greater incentives to introduce a new method, than to attempt to interoperate with any one of a number of growing existing methods.”

Mozilla significantly undercounted. There are currently 135 entities listed by the W3C’s DID Working Group, up from 105 in June 2021 and 86 in February 2021 as the spec was being developed. If significant interest develops in creating DID methods, the W3C – which this week said it is pursuing public-interest non-profit status – may find itself unprepared to oversee things.

Google and Mozilla also raised other objections during debates about the spec last year. As recounted in a mailing list discussion by Manu Sporny, co-founder and CEO of Digital Bazaar, Google representatives felt the spec needed to address DID methods that violate ethical or privacy norms by, for example, allowing pervasive tracking.

Both companies also objected to the environmental harm of blockchains.

“We (W3C) can no longer take a wait-and-see or neutral position on technologies with egregious energy use,” Çelik said. “We must instead firmly oppose such proof-of-work technologies including to the best of our ability blocking them from being incorporated or enabled (even optionally) by any specifications we develop.”

Despite these concerns, as well as resistance from Apple and Microsoft, the W3C overruled the objections in a published decision, a requirement for advancing the spec’s status. ®

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Irish student wins $40,000 at global entrepreneurship competition

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Nick Cotter co-founded Cotter Agritech with his brother Jack. The Limerick-based start-up has been picking up prizes at home and abroad.

University College Cork student Nick Cotter has scooped the top prize at this year’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.

Cotter is the CEO and co-founder of Cotter Agritech, a Limerick-based business that specialises in targeted tech and treatment systems for sheep.

The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards are an annual competition for students around the world who own and operate a business while attending college or university.

The 22-year-old law and business student saw off competition from more than 1,000 applicants in 40 countries following a year-long nomination, application and pitch process.

His prize is $40,000 courtesy of the competition’s organisers, Entrepreneurs’ Organization, to invest in his business.

“It’s much more than I ever thought was possible, becoming global champion,” said Cotter, commenting on his win.

“Each stage of the competition is quite intense, and you hope. It’s an incredible achievement and pure joy for me,” he added, thanking his mentors and the judges.

This is not Cotter’s first time to be recognised for the business he started with his brother Jack.

The pair won the Engineers Ireland Student Innovator of The Year Award in 2019 and best agri-engineering start-up at the 2019 Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena Awards.

More recently, Cotter placed third in this year’s Ideate Ireland business competition, which rewards entrepreneurial skills and new ideas from undergraduate and postgraduate students. He shared his third-place prize of €5,000 with Dr Fiona McGillicuddy and Dr Rachel Byrne of MetHealth.

Earlier in the year, Cotter Agritech participated in the inaugural AgTechUCD Agccelerator Programme, which was dedicated to early-stage agritech and food-tech start-ups. At the end of the 12-week programme, Cotter Agritech was named the winner of the AIB and Yield Lab AgTech Start-up 2022 Award, winning €10,000.

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EU moves to rein in ‘wild west’ of crypto assets with new rules | Cryptocurrencies

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The EU has moved to rein in the “wild west” of crypto assets by agreeing a groundbreaking set of rules for the sector, adding to pressure on the UK and US to introduce their own curbs.

Representatives from the European parliament and EU states inked an agreement late on Thursday that contains measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, as well as requiring that crypto firms provide details of the environmental impact of their assets.

“Today, we put order in the wild west of crypto assets and set clear rules for a harmonised market,” said Stefan Berger, the German MEP who led negotiations on behalf of the parliament.

Referring to the recent slump in cryptocurrency prices – the total value of the market has fallen from $3tn (£2.5tn) last year to less than $900bn – Berger added: “The recent fall in the value of digital currencies shows us how highly risky and speculative they are and that it is fundamental to act.”

The markets in crypto assets (MiCA) law is expected to come into force at about the end of 2023. Globally, crypto assets are largely unregulated, with national operators in the EU required only to show controls for combating money laundering.

Cryptocurrency is the term for a group of digital assets that share the same underlying structure as bitcoin: a publicly available “blockchain” that records ownership without having any central authority in control.

The sector’s supporters have said it represents a good investment because, for instance, it carries low fees and, unlike conventional currencies, is not tied to governments. Nevertheless, its detractors say a lack of regulatory oversight or implicit government support, because of crypto and bitcoin’s independent origins, make it susceptible to scams and wild fluctuations in price.

MiCA will be the first comprehensive regime for crypto assets in the world and will contain strong measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, Ernest Urtasun, a Green party MEP, said.

The new law gives issuers of crypto assets and providers of related services a “passport” to serve clients across the EU from a single base, while meeting capital and consumer protection rules. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a $40bn market last year, are not covered by MiCA.

The EU negotiations on Thursday also focused on issues such as supervision and energy consumption of crypto assets. “We have agreed that crypto asset providers should in future disclose the energy consumption and environmental impact of assets,” Berger said.

The UK and US, two significant crypto centres, have yet to approve similar rules, although regulators in both countries have warned of the need for stronger safeguards in the sector.

The MiCA law is expected to set a benchmark for other regulatory regimes for crypto globally, although one expert said the all-encompassing nature of the EU regime might not be replicated.

Harry Eddis, the global co-head of fintech at Linklaters, a London-based law firm, said the EU had “nailed its crypto colours to the mast” with the law.

“Other jurisdictions have shown little appetite to date in following their lead in implementing such an all-encompassing regulation, although we can surely expect to see other financial services centres upping their game in regulating the crypto community, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion.”

Q&A

What is a stablecoin?

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A stablecoin, like the name suggests, is a type of cryptocurrency that is supposed to have a stable value, such as US$1 per token. How they achieve that varies: the largest, such as tether and USD Coin, are effectively banks. They hold large reserves in cash, liquid assets, and other investments, and simply use those reserves to maintain a stable price.

Others, known as “algorithmic stablecoins”, attempt to do the same thing but without any reserves. They have been criticised as effectively being backed by Ponzi schemes, since they require continuous inflows of cash to ensure they don’t collapse.

Stablecoins are an important part of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. They provide a safer place for investors to store capital without going through the hassle of cashing out entirely, and allow assets to be denominated in conventional currency, rather than other extremely volatile tokens.

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In the UK, the financial watchdog is weighing proposals on marketing crypto products to consumers that could lead to significant restrictions on crypto exchanges operating in the country.

In May, the Treasury declared it wants a regime in place for dealing the collapse of a stablecoin, a cryptocurrency that is backed by traditional assets such as short-term debt and therefore could pose a risk to the wider financial system.

Crypto assets came under pressure after the collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin project in May, with the major US cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network freezing withdrawals and transfers. However, the sector has also proven susceptible to wider economic factors.

These include stock market declines linked to rising inflation and ensuing increases in interest by central banks. Raising rates – a path taken by the US, UK and Swiss central banks last month – can make risky assets less attractive.

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For instance, certain tech stocks, whose price can be based on expectations of strong future earnings over many decades, can be less appealing than the fixed returns on offer immediately from investments such as bonds, which become more attractive in a higher lending rate environment.

The regulatory breakthrough came as India’s central bank said cryptocurrencies were based on “make believe”. The bank’s latest financial stability report said cryptocurrencies were no more than “sophisticated speculation”.

The bank’s governor, Shaktikanta Das, wrote: “Cryptocurrencies are a clear danger. Anything that derives value based on make believe, without any underlying [value], is just speculation under a sophisticated name.”

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