IBM is currently attempting to merge artificial intelligence and the blockchain into a single, powerful prototype.
With blockchain tech's promise of near-frictionless value exchange and artificial intelligence’s ability to accelerate the analysis of massive amounts of data, the joining of the two could mark the beginning of an entirely new paradigm.
Over the past three months, IBM’s chief architect in charge of Internet of Things security Tim Hahn has focused specifically on introducing the blockchain to his company’s artificially intelligent computer named Watson.
Hahn told CoinDesk:
"What we’re doing with blockchain and devices is enabling the information those devices supply to effect the blockchain…You begin to approach the kind of things we see in movies."
Potential applications include using distributed ledgers to let devices perform tasks like running self-diagnoses at set times and more advanced services that may someday let regulators virtually go back in time to the point where a device failed and "to identify exactly what went wrong," Hahn said.
Watson meets IoT
While exciting, the work is still in its early days of development.
As recently as last March, IBM announced it planned to invest $3bn over four years to build an entire unit dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT), the term used to describe the connection of a wide range of hardware devices such as washing machines and thermostats to the Internet.
Such connections are predicted to generate $235bn in revenue by the end of the year, an increase of 22% from the year before, according to a 2015 report by Gartner. The report projects 6.4 billion connected devices could be in use globally by the end of this year, a number predicted to reach as high as 20.8 billion devices by 2020.
But, with all that opportunity comes security risks as well.
For Hahn's project, the Watson Internet of Things group — a merger of the IBM Internet of Things Foundation and IBM Watson — this means exploring how artificial intelligence might help make those "smart" things safer.
"We found that there’s this interesting convergence between IBM Watson capability and the Internet of Things Foundation and we decided it would be even better if we combined the two."
IBM breaks down Watson Internet of Things into four categories: how devices are connected; how information is managed, stored and transformed; how risks are managed; and how data is analyzed.
Hahn’s work focuses specifically on the third category and how blockchains might be used to make devices safer for their users, in part by reducing human involvement in their operation.
A Watson-powered blockchain
“Its early days,” Hahn said. “And we’re just playing around with prototypes now."
Still, one of the features of those early prototypes lets device-owners register on the blockchain, and with smart contracts, create different tiers of access, giving different users functionality in personalized ways.
Not only could user-specific registration help prevent corporate-owed devices from being misused, but it could help prevent the users themselves from being injured.
In the future, a device's registration will need to last its entire “lifespan”, according to Hahn, across different owners and including the state of its firmware, permanent software that might be used to help regulators identify the exact point a device breaks or begins to malfunction.
Using blockchain tech, artificially intelligent software solutions could then be implemented remotely.
"You better be ready to actively update your devices throughout the lifecycle of your devices," Hahn said. "As we know, vulnerabilities will be discovered long after the device is released."
Joint ownership of a device, where multiple companies have a vested interest in its current state of production and operational status, could also be improved by an artificially intelligent blockchain, Hahn suggested.
"The blockchain will let those parties collectively agree on the state of the device and make decisions on what to do based on language coded into a smart contract," he continued.
While IBM’s work integrating Watson with the blockchain is relatively new, the company has been experimenting with blockchain tech for some time.
As far back as 2014, IBM’s former vice president Paul Brody described to CoinDesk how blockchains could power the Internet of Things. In January 2015, IBM and Samsung jointly revealed a proof-of-concept called ADEPT that integrated BitTorrent, Ethereum and TeleHash at the CES in Las Vegas.
In February 2016, Hahn spoke at this year’s InterConnect conference on mobile and cloud technology about how the Watson Internet of Things platform could be implemented to help prevent risks for a wide range of different businesses.
As part of Hahn's work to improve security by integrating blockchain with Watson, he identified other potential areas of improvement including security analytics, data protection, auditing and logging.
Hahn told CoinDesk:
"I don’t think blockchain and security are synonymous. They might be related, but they’re certainly not synonymous functions. One does not beget the other. There’s plenty ways to insecurely use the blockchain."
Image courtesy of IBM