Ben Beckmann works as the lead scientist in the complex systems engineering lab at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York. In 2012, he made a seemingly inconsequential wager: He bet one of his colleagues that the electronic currency bitcoin would fail.
Bitcoins started trading for pennies after the currency launched in 2009. Today, you can buy one bitcoin for $2,200. Beckmann lost the bet and took his colleague for a nice meal. “If we had taken the $100 we spent on dinner and invested it in bitcoins at the start, we would be millionaires,” Beckmann laughs.
Losing the bet pushed Beckman to take a closer look at the code behind bitcoin. He and others at GE discovered that the real magic that made it work was a public digital ledger called blockchain that keeps a chronological record of all bitcoin transactions. But the currency is just one blockchain application. The technology could be used for tracking trade, contracts, and even renewable energy.
Maja Vujinovic, technical product manager at GE Digital, is leading a push to explore and develop blockchain across the company. She’s looking at everything from purchase orders and budget reconciliation and parts tracking. “The bank receives a fee for every transaction,” Vujinovic says. “If we can remove the bank and establish a trust mechanism instead, that will save us a lot of money.”
Vujinovic is also exploring applications in additive manufacturing. Maintenance workers, for example, could use blockchain to make sure that a 3D printed turbine blade has the same geometry as the part it is replacing. In the energy space, it could allow an owner of solar panels to sell extra energy at the best price instantaneously. Factory owners could use it to track inventory and reduce costs.
Like the Internet, the blockchain is potentially unlimited in size. It’s also secure because it doesn’t need a central clearinghouse that could be hacked. Instead, the record of all transactions is distributed and duplicated across computers in the particular blockchain network. “Today, blockchain is where the internet was in the 1990s,” Beckmann says. “I believe it has the same potential.”
GE forecasted that connected machines and the Industrial Internet can add $10 to $15 trillion to the global economy over the next two decades. Bitcoin could help speed up the process, but Vujinovic cautions that a lot still needs to be done.