Frank Yiannas has spent years looking for a better way to track lettuce, steaks and snack cakes from farm and factory to the shelves of Wal-Mart, where he is the vice president for food safety.
Then, last year, IBM executives flew to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Arkansas to propose a solution—the blockchain.
The blockchain—the buzzy, bewildering technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—is starting to be applied to real-world problems like tracking pork chops, shipping containers and footwear with a speed and security not currently possible. The IBM-Wal-Mart partnership is one of the biggest practical tests to date.
At its heart, blockchain simply refers to a bookkeeping method that “chains” together entries, so that they are very difficult to modify later. It provides a way for large groups of unrelated companies to jointly keep a secure and reliable record of their transactions.
IBM is trying to position itself at the forefront of the heated competition for practical uses of this arcane idea. Wal-Mart is just one of 400 IBM clients testing it out, and IBM now has around 650 employees dedicated to the technology.