A deep look into how researchers in Brazil can create value out of biodiversity by connecting it to advanced technological innovation.
Engineering Professor Marcos Antônio Simplício Júnior, from the Polytechnic School of University of São Paulo, talks us through the concepts with a high level technical perspective of the applied research architecture. At the heart of this project, listeners learn about our opportunity to develop a green economy; how using this modern, smart blockchain technology leads to sustainable economic and social developments.
Lauren Weymouth (00:40):
So today we're talking about leveraging blockchain to create value out of biodiversity. That's a fancy technical way of saying, an effort to preserve the Amazon rainforest. And here with us is Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior, a professor at the Polytechnic School of University of San Paolo. Marcos is an engineer by trade and a data security expert. And when COVID-19 does not have us all sheltering in place, you can find him researching in the Laboratory of Architecture and Computer Networks. I've had the pleasure of meeting Marcos both on campus in Brazil and here in the States and he is the nicest man. So kind that he is joining us in the midst of being blessed with a 17 day old baby girl at home. Welcome, Marcos.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (01:20):
Thank you for having me.
Lauren Weymouth (01:21):
So Marcos, is building blockchain easier than navigating a newborn?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (01:25):
Well, I think they actually have a lot in common. Both are exciting subjects and sometimes quite hard to tame, especially her but I do have to say that using blockchains is a bit easier, I think. Because with blockchain at least I know, well, I think I know what I'm doing but with my daughter, really, I'm pretty confident I have no idea of what I'm doing. It's just grasping at straws and see what happens next.
Lauren Weymouth (01:48):
Yeah, they don't come with manuals.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (01:50):
Yeah, unfortunately. For an engineer that's really hard.
Lauren Weymouth (01:54):
I can imagine. Well, where should we start? How about maybe take us through the decade long national debate between economic development of the Amazon and conservation of the rainforest.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (02:04):
Sure. Well, the Amazon first is seen as great asset of Brazil for a few reasons, actually. One is that it works as a huge natural humidifier and air conditioner for the country and some say for the world even, creating the... it's fine rivers. It's some massive amounts of vaporized water that travel thousands of kilometers. it's essential for Brazilian agribusiness itself, which is one of the main sources of the GDP in the country. So it's kind of a Rainmaker, but from the real world. And given this importance, one could expect at least, that it will in the country's best interest to preserve the forest standing as is or even expanded a little. But that's not necessarily the case all the time. The federal government did put a lot of effort into reducing the early deforestation the last decades, in particular from 2005 to 2014. There was perceptible decline and Brazil kind of became a reference on preservation at that time. In the last years, however, in particular right now with our current government, things took a turn to the worse and we are going back to levels of deforestation
similar to those that we had 10 years ago. Some deny that this is happening but it's a bit hard to be in denial after seeing the satellite images. It's really sad to see.
Lauren Weymouth (03:34):
So deforestation is a major threat. What are other current threats?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (03:38):
Things like just destroying large areas and extracting the wood, and turning that region into farms or pastures. And they've had forest fires to clean the land, so people can go and raise crops there. Right now, the extraction of gold, it's getting bigger. Because for a long time Brazil did not extract gold from that region. It's hard to get there because of the forest, but when you deforest you can go there and extract gold in that region. So that's mostly the main threat right now.
Lauren Weymouth (04:15):
Okay. So there have been some attempts to reconcile the economic development by siloing off specific areas or not completely cutting down trees, just using the fruits or part of the resources and other methods that you discussed. What have we learned from them, and what else do we need to do?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (04:31):
Well, it's complicated actually to reconcile things. One of the approaches is just, let's destroy things, grow crops, put livestock in there. And the more destructive approach is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, simply short sighted. You cannot get much money in a sustainable way, just destroying everything you have there. And you cannot afterward produce as much rain as you could with the forest standing. So in the end, the two approaches just preserve or just destroy and extract everything you can is both bad ideas. Right now, I heard the vice president saying what we are doing is an interesting thing, that is, taking money out of what is one of the most important sources of value from the Amazon forest, that is biodiversity and that's what we are trying to do with blockchain.
Lauren Weymouth (05:26):
We can hear that you're passionate about this subject. And in this podcast, we specifically talk about the use of blockchain technology to solve problems. So introduce us to what you've been working on that could possibly make this a better situation.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (05:39):
Okay. The idea is called actually Amazon 4.0. It's just a fancy way of saying, "Let's use technology to take some more value out of the forest and without destroying it, obviously." The idea is to turn the biodiversity of the forest and local knowledge, like the knowledge that some plants has some medicinal usefulness, and the people from that region only know that.
Lauren Weymouth (06:04):
So bio diverse features are medicinal properties?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (06:08):
Medicinal, also you can have foods, something as seen as a food supply something that can go for cosmetics, not exactly medicinal but more for the beauty of the world.
Lauren Weymouth (06:19):
So different human needs?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (06:21):
Exactly. Mostly those industries, it's pharmaceutical, it's food industry and the cosmetic industry. We have seen a lot of success in those areas so far with herbs, trees, fungi and whatever can be taken out of the forest without destroying it. For example, my personal experience, if you already had chocolates made out of cupuacu, or even just regular chocolate with cupuacu, it's really something to remember. And it's one of the examples of fruits that are very regional, that can be used for the food industry and are not very well known in the world. Why not make them more well know.
Lauren Weymouth (07:06):
Sounds like next time I smell Chanel No. 5 I should think about the Amazon.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (07:10):
Oh yeah. That's one of the also big use cases of using Amazon products. The origin actually is not necessarily from Amazon but the Amazon had the largest amount of those rosewoods trees in the 80s, I think, and those are used a lot for producing the Channel No. 5. Now we do not have much of those woods anymore so it was kind of too much extraction. But if you already heard about acai, which is a fruit that gives you a lot of energy and that's what we are going for here. Something that does not have to really cut the wood to extract something, just preserve it. And if you have to cut and you have also the... acai is a palm tree, so we can also eat its contents after you get it. It's really great.
Lauren Weymouth (08:07):
So how does blockchain come into Amazon 4.0?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (08:10):
Actually the the guy that came with the idea, they are the brothers nobre and Carlos. Actually Carlos came to me with other biologists and he just said, "We want to use blockchain to create value out of biodiversity in the Amazon forest." Well, I just looked at him and said, "What do you think that blockchain does? Because really, creating money out of biodiversity with blockchain that sounds really interesting, but not sure if that's going to fly." And then he explained to me the idea is basically to make a bio bank where you can extract DNA from plants, from trees, whatever in the area and register that into blockchain with traceability so we know who created that intellectual property, that is DNA. And if some product is made out of that DNA afterwards by some interested industry, we can just remunerate everyone in the chain that helped with creating that asset. But then combining blockchain with other technologies like torrent for the distribution of the data, and having the blockchain do what it does best that is, auditability, traceability, we were able to create kind of... It's a collaborative environment where people can enter the data, people can process the data. The raw DNA is kind of useless, you have to process it to make it more useful for the industry, and download it, share it and then create products out of it and pay for those who help the those products.
Lauren Weymouth (09:51):
So the blockchain is creating this open source database that's secure and that can share all this information on the properties of a Brazil net, or some of the other materials in the rain forest?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (10:03):
Yeah, that's the idea. We want to combine the biodiversity, the DNA itself, the raw data and processed data, but I mean, DNA data with knowledge from the people that live there. Because actually, humanity is pretty bad at creating new things out of the blue, I mean, new substance out of the blue. Usually we just mimic what we get from the environment. We did that for penicillin, for example, that we got from fungi that would kill bacteria. So that's the same idea.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (10:30):
If someone knows that, well, these fruits or this plant is good for fever, what we want to study that specific plant, extract from the DNA the information that says well, this is the substance that we are using to put the fever down and then create products out of it, even sometimes extracting from the plant itself or even if we go to the industry, we can manufacture it on our own. So the idea is to combine knowledge, DNA and biotechnology to create new products that are worth millions maybe.
Lauren Weymouth (11:10):
Who is gathering all the raw data now? Is it happening now or are there scientists or is it the local people that are gathering this information in the Amazon area?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (11:18):
So we are planning to collaborate with the NGOs and local communities, the natives that live there that have knowledge about what each plant does there, what's the value itself from a human perspective. And then we can use this combination of knowledge, DNA and biotechnology to create new products.
Lauren Weymouth (11:42):
Does this create an efficiency for NGOs? Well, now that there's going to be this database, will this help NGOs collaborate with their own knowledge and manpower?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (11:51):
We certainly hope so. The point is that are many NGOs there, not necessarily integrated their initiatives from different perspectives. And if we are able to gather many NGOs from different places, because the Amazon forest itself is really huge, into a common goal that would be interesting for them to collaborate also in other initiatives. And that's why the Amazon 4.0 is kind of an umbrella because it also covers other initiatives like making people that raise Brazilian net more integrated so they know what each other are doing, maybe even create a product company out of it other than just selling small amounts and being underpaid for those amounts they sell. So the idea is really to create a collaboration using this platform as one of the starting point for this kind of collaborations to happen.
Lauren Weymouth (12:44):
Okay. So this distributed database containing all the assets, as you call it a bio bank, who can economically benefit from this?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (12:52):
Well, actually anyone that knows how to process DNA and make products out of it. The biotechnology industry is growing the world, I think. I saw some numbers, billions of dollars being invested in this kind of stuff. But mostly it's food industry, the pharmaceuticals industry and the cosmetics industry. There are even big ones in Brazil that are interested in this kind of stuff. I won't say names because I mean, it's not to go here. But we do hope that industries from those sectors are going to be interesting this initiative.
Lauren Weymouth (13:25):
So in addition to helping conserve the Amazon rainforest, it's potentially going to increase profits for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food production companies?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (13:35):
Yes. And that is actually the way to reconcile the destruction versus the preservation. The guys that promote destruction say mostly people who work with preservation do not get any money out of it. They survive, they do not live. So if we can make a lot of money out of it and remunerate those people, they will see the value of the forest. That's already happened with the acai itself. It's a good success case because usually it was cut for the palm that is inside, I mean, for the contents of the acai tree. And now people were exploring the fruits which is much better
Lauren Weymouth (14:15):
I love that it's making whole use of a plant. So you're not just using a part of it and then shedding the rest and creating waste but you're really utilizing the whole product.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (14:25):
So another example is the ucuhuba tree, until recently it was seen as a low value root. It was used mostly for broom sticks. So you see it's not really very valuable. But recently, some researchers found out that it's seeds could be turned into a highly valuable butter for cosmetics. So now the standing ucuhuba tree generates three times more in an year what could be generated with a single tree cut. So you see, you would have one time fee paid for you and now you can have three times that and every year, that's sustainability. That's what we want to promote.
Lauren Weymouth (15:07):
I love that. I love that the standing tree creates more value than taking it down and that keeps it harmonious in the cycle.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (15:18):
People are discovering new things, new ways to get money out of what the forest has to offer. Billions of years of evolution created these trees there, those products, why not to take advantage of it?
Lauren Weymouth (15:32):
Well, I know you have a lot of partners on this project and I give you a lot of credit because I know you're the real technical guy. You've kind of been keeping a really high level for us so that we can fully conceptualize the project. But maybe you can go through a little of your thinking on what was required architecturally to build such a thing as Amazon 4.0 on blockchain.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (15:50):
The architecture itself, it has two blockchains in it, I gather. The whole idea is that we have this first point, it's the entry point, how to get data into the system. So there are those kind of cheap PCR devices that can be used to extract DNA data out of anything you put into them. You just need the chemicals and some training, choose those pieces of equipment, give the local people this capability of using them. And that's the entry point to the system. People just need the internet and those PCR devices. Then comes the two technologies that go together to build the architecture blockchain for registering the data itself, but the data will not be the DNA data directly. It should be kind of a torrent or a magnetic link to the data that could be downloaded. So it can be stored in different places collaboratively, even at the NGO, at the universities, and to access that people should pay some kind of fee. So we are calling it bio coin. It's kind of a currency to buy the biodiversity products that are generated and are into this architecture. And people can also process it. So you can make money out of the processing of the DNA data, so you can download it, even maybe paying a fee for that. But after you process the DNA, you can register this DNA, processed DNA, the biologists call it, it's annotated DNA. And then we have a chain that saves everything there register on a blockchain every entrance point, not the date itself, but every action that's made over the data and pointers so people can download this data securely with access control. And when someone wants to buy it, it also should purchase some bio coins. And that would give access to the download of this data.
So this is basically the architecture. It's completely distributed. Data is all over different computers. Blockchains maintains by the Federation and universities, NGOs, government, whoever wants to participate, but federated so it has access control on it. And there's a second blockchain separated so those bio points, they can be exchanged between people. So it could even talk with regular blockchains or fiat currency. And people can exchange products using this bio coin as a product there. So we hope the bio coin will be some actual coin for people to exchange products in the Amazon region, for example.
Lauren Weymouth (18:43):
So you're combining blockchains and using smart contracts for incentivizing people to access?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (18:49):
Yes. The idea is that the people that enter the data, they can say, "Well, I want some share of the products that are going to be made out of it but I will not take a 100% of the shares if someone wants to process this data for me to make it into annotated DNA, you can also get a share out of it." So the idea is to regulate who gets how much for each DNA product that is inserted into the database. And when someone from the bio industry wants to use some data, they're fully aware of what are the conditions, what are the value of those products, right. What are the usage according to the locals, and then we have intellectual property built-in using those smart contracts to say how the intellectual property is handled in the blockchain self and in the real world when products come out of it.
Lauren Weymouth (19:49):
Well, it sounds like a fair system. So will the NGOs or the traditional community that lives in the Amazon that will be collecting the data, will they in other words be paid for their work through this?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (20:00):
Yes. The idea is to remunerate everyone, those who gathered the raw data, those who process the data. So it's like mining, right? But it's used for mining, you are using your processing power to create DNA, annotated DNA to create more information out of data, other than just looking for hashes, if you think of proof of work. For those also who distribute the data, so you're going to store and you're going to use your bandwidth to distribute this data to others, why not getting paid for that? And so anyone that contributes with the system should get some bio coins at some point, and how many bio points that's going to be handled by these smart contracts?
There should be umbrella smart contract that says the limits for everyone and when you enter your own data, you can, within those limits say how much you wants, how much you are going to share with others that are going to help your raw DNA become real useful DNA data to be used by the industry.
Lauren Weymouth (21:07):
Well, Amazon 4.0 sounds like the perfect project because not only you promising to save the rainforest, increase profits for companies, but you're also giving people jobs.
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (21:28):
Yes. Actually, that happens. For example, there are people that come to the Amazon forest, extract plants, insects, fungi and they create products out of it. And they don't give any credits to the people that live there that showed them the plants that was used for that product that was created. So there is a lot of piracy actually.
And one of the goals of this project is also to help people from those regions, the natives, to see the value out of what they have, and not just give the information for free and not getting anything out of it.
Lauren Weymouth (22:08):
When it's open source it creates awareness and allows people to see what they have. So who else is involved in this project?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (22:17):
The main partners right now are in universities from the Amazon forest region. And what we're trying to do actually and Carlos, the brothers are trying to do is to get money out of the Amazon fund. It's an open fund where any one with mostly nations can donate to preserve the rainforest. We need the equipment to create the idea, to create a proof of concept, at least a structure where we can show and tell what the best form can be used for.
Lauren Weymouth (22:55):
So you mentioned proof of concept. How long will it take you to create that proof of concept? How do you see this project evolving over the next five years?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (23:04):
Well, my hope is to have a better version of the system online within the next two years or so. Running at first with some research groups from universities mostly, maybe a few NGOs that are more engaged. After that, if everything goes well, and we are able to show the system's ability to actually create value within its first year of existence probably, then should go quite fast. So with other partners and also from the local communities engaging into creating the data right, without them the project cannot fly. People from that region should be aware of the interests and be interested in participating into the project.
Lauren Weymouth (23:49):
So where do you want to send people to find out more information about Amazon 4.0?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (23:52):
if I can give you a place it would be Google. Just look for Amazon 4.0. There are many initiatives that are discussed there, like the Brazilian nets, acai, even this bio bank is also mentioned in a few places, and should be mentioned more in the next few months. So Amazon 4.0 is a good starting point to find out more.
Lauren Weymouth (24:17):
Got it. So you can google Amazon 4.0?
Marcos Antonio Simplicio Junior (24:19):
Yeah, it's the best way to do it.
Lauren Weymouth (24:19):
Thank you listeners for tuning in to all about blockchain. If you have any questions about this episode, or have any feedback for new episodes, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to our next session.