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IBM's big bet on blockchain

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Trust in tech firms (or lack of it) is a big topic of conversation these days. IBM’s Bridget van Kralingen thinks blockchain technology could be a way to rebuild that trust.

What they're saying: Blockchain is best known for making cryptocurrencies like bitcoin possible, but IBM is experimenting with other uses for the distributed ledger technology. It has more than 400 initiatives underway — including tracking food, managing personal data, and determining the origin of prescription drugs.

“I see it as an operating system for trust,” van Kralingen, SVP of IBM Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain, told Axios last week before speaking at the International Monetary Fund’s spring meeting in D.C. “It’s not a winner-takes-all model. For it to work and stay vibrant, many different players all have to get value.”

For example: The recent E.coli outbreak led to mass disposal of lettuce. Using a blockchain-based system to track the supply chain of food would allow vendors to pinpoint the farm it came from, locate the stores where it's sold, and throw away only the lettuce that's tainted.

  • Likewise, enterprise-level blockchain could be used to store, track and authenticate other types of digital records, like mortgages, payments, food, or health records.
  • IBM launched a joint venture with shipping giant Maersk to digitize and track every element in the supply chain, replacing paperwork with tamper-resistant digital records.
  • IBM announced a pilot project with Twiga Foods to process microloans to food kiosk owners in Kenya.

The privacy factor: As people become more wary of the data practices of some big online platforms, blockchain could allow individuals to store personal data and decide who gets permission to access it, giving them more control of their digital identity, van Kralingen said. It's also part of the company's focus on promoting responsible use of technology.

The catch: Blockchain is still not widely understood by governments and businesses, let alone the general public. In order for it to help restore trust in technology more broadly, people will first have to learn to trust it with their data.

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