IBM Developing Blockchain Without Bitcoin for Record-Keeping and Smart Contracts

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IBM is developing its own version of the blockchain technology and plans to release open-source software within the next few months, The Wall Street Journal reports. The new platform would operate without a native currency like bitcoin and be used to keep track of B2B – business to business, bank to bank, and bank to business – transactions and enforce smart contracts.

The new IBM software platform will permit creating digital contracts that – like bitcoin transactions – would be recorded publicly and securely on a worldwide computer network.

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“Blockchain, as a technology, is extremely interesting and intriguing,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. ““I want to extend banking to the 3.2 billion people who are going to come into the middle class over the next 15 years. So I need a much lower cost of keeping a ledger. Blockchain offers some intriguing possibilities there.”

Krishna, who previously was general manager of IBM Systems and Technology Group’s Development and Manufacturing organization, leads IBM’s overall technical strategy, overseeing a global organization of approximately 3,000 scientists and technologists located at 12 labs on six continents.

Over the past year, dozens of IBM researchers have been developing their own blockchain-based technology for secure online smart contracts. Krishna said that the project – which is still considered as an experimental project by IBM – could log transactions between banks or international businesses, or even let banks and businesses share the same system of record.

For example, once a Chinese supplier and a U.S. buyer agree that a product had been delivered, a U.S. bank could pay the supplier instantly over the Internet.

The IBM researchers are modifying the original bitcoin ideas to build a blockchain that operates without currency, ensures that contract details remain private and makes it easier for companies to embed business rules into their smart contracts – for example, automatically paying for a package upon delivery.

ExtremeTech notes that this is the first time the concept of blockchain-based smart contracts is backed by a company as large and powerful as IBM. With a track record of successful open-source software solutions, and with its name and reputation behind their blockchain idea, IBM could convince major companies to get on board.

Smart contracts are computer programs that can automatically execute the terms of a contract. In 2001, legendary cryptographer Nick Szabo spoke of smart contracts that solved the problem of trust by being self-executing, and having property embedded with information about who owns it. For example, the key to a car might operate only if the car has been paid for according to the terms of a contract.

Now, Szabo expects emerging “Bitcoin 2.0” smart contracts platforms like Ethereum to have a disruptive impact on financial and legal systems, comparable to that of Bitcoin itself. “[E]ventually more so, since Ethereum’s more flexible and general language can facilitate a much wider variety of commercial and other formal relationships,” said Szabo.

However, according to the scarce information about the IBM project that has been released so far, there seems to be an important difference between Ethereum and the upcoming IBM platform: the concept of “miners” – end users who contribute computing to validate transactions and receive a financial reward in the native crypto-currency carried by the blockchain – would be absent in IBM’s implementation.

Therefore, it appears that IBM wants to go one step beyond the now fashionable concept of permissioned blockchains, where only approved financial operators and governments are allowed to validate transactions, and implement a blockchain without a native crypto-currency, to be used only for record-keeping and smart contracts.

IBM has been doing research on blockchain technology for some time – at CES 2015 it unveiled ADEPT, a system developed in partnership with Samsung that leverages elements of blockchain technology to coordinate a decentralized Internet of Things.  In March, Bitcoin Magazine reported that, according to solid rumors, IBM was developing a digital cash and payment system for major currencies, “sort of a Bitcoin but without the bitcoin,” and discussing the project with a number of central banks, including the Federal Reserve, in view of possible adoption by governments.

The new project described by Krishna is unrelated to ADEPT, but it could be related to the rumors reported in March. It’s evident that, if IBM were to become the preferred partner of governments for next-generation fintech based on blockchain technology, the payoff could be huge. It’s unclear, however, how IMB plans to achieve operational robustness and scalability without crowd-sourcing the operations of the blockchain to properly incentivized miners.

Photo Mr Seb / Flickr (CC)

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