On the long-term potential of blockchain technology, IBM’s Marie Wieck has heard it all. The solution to net neutrality. The foundation of Internet 3.0. The basis for an over-hyped cryptocurrency destined to crash.
“IBM got into blockchain believing that it would herald the next generation of transaction solutions,” said Wieck, general manager of IBM Blockchain. “In reality, blockchain is the answer to the process of digitization.”
A part of the Northwestern Engineering’s Dean’s Seminar Series, Wieck visited campus to discuss how IBM’s blockchain platform is empowering companies to digitize traditionally human-reliant processes. “Blockchain for the Enterprise: So Much More than Cryptocurrencies” took place Thursday, March 1 in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center.
Blockchain can be traced to the 2009 advent of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, where it has operated as a shared digital ledger that records and approves all Bitcoin activity. As a public source for all Bitcoin transactions, the platform provides transparency, prevents fraud, and preserves stability without the need of third-party oversight.
In her role at IBM Blockchain, Wieck has moved blockchain beyond digital currency ledgers to an integrated, secure platform that companies use to digitally streamline business workflows. Instead of using a blockchain to chronicle the movement of cryptocurrency, businesses can use it to approve and document the movement of goods among entities in its network.
“At the end of the day, a blockchain is nothing more than a database,” Wieck said. “But it is distributed and synchronized to maintain a consensus among many different parties in a network. That’s what got us interested.”
In 2015, Wieck and a group of 30 collaborators approached the Linux Foundation in hopes of expanding upon blockchain’s potential. Soon after, the Hyperledger project was born: an open source collaboration to jumpstart blockchain technologies across industries. Today, the project includes more than 200 participants from finance, healthcare, and technology.
One project emerging from Hyperledger has been IBM’s partnership with Walmart to build a blockchain platform to more efficiently manage the company’s supply chain for food. Currently, each aspect of Walmart’s produce supply chain — including farmers, processors, and distributors — maintains their own traceability protocols, with many relying on paper-based systems or independent computer programs to provide oversight.
This decentralized approach to traceability has hindered Walmart’s efforts to efficiently manage food scares. Often, the company is forced to remove questionable products from all of its 6,500 North American stores as a precaution while it pinpoints potential sources of contamination.
To test the impact of IBM’s blockchain platform on its supply chain, Frank Yiannis, Walmart’s vice president of food safety, challenged his team to trace a single package of mangoes purchased in a Walmart store back to its source grower and distributor in Mexico. It took them nearly a week.
“Walmart maintains some of the best food supply visibility in the world. It took them almost seven days to trace the exact farm that the exact package of mangoes came from,” Wieck said. “We placed the same query on our blockchain, and received data about the farm, packager, and distributer in two seconds.”
In addition to food safety, Wieck pointed out other industries benefitting from blockchain technology. IBM partnered with startup Everledger for the Diamond Time-Lapse initiative, a digital ledger that is documenting the origin and movement of millions of diamonds to provide accuracy and transparency to merchants and consumers. IBM is also incorporating blockchain into the global trade industry, digitizing the paper trail that accompanies the millions of shipping containers that drive 80 percent of trade worldwide.
“Whether it’s in banking, healthcare, finance, insurance, there are many blockchain projects happening right now,” Wieck said. “If there’s a lot of paper, a lot of players, and a need to share data, digitize it and put it on a blockchain.”