IBM Builds Tiny Computer to Fight Supply Chain Fraud

Image courtesy IBM

By The Maritime Executive 03-21-2018 07:11:00

On Tuesday, IBM unveiled a portfolio of "cryptographic anchors" that will serve as digital fingerprints to authenticate shipments. As a consignment makes its way from factory to ship to consumer, the anchor would create a verifiable blockchain record of the product's origins, contents and whereabouts. The company says that these technologies could cut the multi-billion-dollar problem of fraudulent goods in half. 

"Almost everything has been copied," says Andreas Kind, manager of industry platforms and blockchain at IBM Research. "The total value of counterfiet goods was estimated in 2015 to be $1.8 trillion dollars."

As a leading example, Kind says, in certain parts of the world, 40 percent of the parts on the automotive aftermarket are actually fake. The modern world's long, trans-border supply chains contribute to this problem, making it hard to verify the origin and authenticity of goods. 

In addition to online, secure cryptographic ledgers for business records and transactions, he said, "the trust has to reach into the physical world." Crypto anchors are designed to make this possible - to link cryptographic record systems with real objects in a manner that cannot be faked. The anchors (which could take many forms, from tiny computers to printed codes) would be embedded in the product and are designed to be un-clonable. 

IBM says that the first of these "fingerprint" systems could be made available to clients in the next 18 months. Within the next five years, it hopes that technological advances could take many more of them to commercialization. 

World's smallest computer

Among other "crypto anchor" products, IBM unveiled what might be the world's smallest computer, a chip tinier than a coarse grain of salt and and packing the power of a 1990s-era x86 processor. (The Verge notes that this would be just enough to run the vintage computer game Doom). It is powered by a tiny, integral solar panel and communicates with other devices by means of a single LED communications unit. 

The device is intended to be embedded in products or packaging to serve as a tracker during shipment. IBM expects that it will cost less than 10 cents to manufacture each chip. "They’ll be used in tandem with blockchain’s distributed ledger technology to ensure an object’s authenticity from its point of origin to when it reaches the hands of the customer," said IBM's SVP of hybrid cloud, Arvind Krishna.