Why blockchain has caught the fancy of IIT-B

  • Blockchain is no longer just about cryptocurrencies. It is being used by healthcare, electricity firms, and others 
  • IIT-B is already piloting a blockchain solution christened

On 4 June 2018, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B), signed an agreement with US-based Ripple Labs Inc., to create a centre of excellence to support academic research, technical development and innovation in blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital payments.

IIT-B, thus, became one of the 17 universities across the world to benefit from the $50-million Ripple fund for its global University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI). “The idea is to create the next generation of students and entrepreneurs," says Navin Gupta, managing director, South Asia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Ripple.

The partnership is expected to enable IIT-B’s faculty and students with opportunities for research and technology development in blockchain and cryptocurrency, which could add value to the global blockchain ecosystem, as well as industries such as fintech, professor Devang V. Khakhar, director, IIT-B, had said after signing the agreement.

While Ripple will provide a grant, strategic guidance and technical resources, IIT-B already has a centre of excellence on blockchain that aims to understand prevalent blockchain platforms and exploring their potential in terms of improved automation, efficiency, transparency, security and privacy in payments, healthcare, agriculture and in smart cities—steps that are expected to give a boost to Digital India initiatives.

IIT-B, according to an unidentified person in a 6 February report in Factor Daily (bit.ly/2E4PRec), is already piloting a blockchain solution christened “IndiaChain", with some Delhi University colleges, under the aegis of NITI Aayog.

Further, joint research with IIT-B on using blockchain to reduce the cost of remittance coming into India, for instance, “can save the country billions of dollars", notes Gupta. Moreover, since as part of UBRI, Ripple has tied up with other global universities too, Gupta believes all these universities could ideally collaborate with each other on blockchain and, eventually, “solve problems in other countries too". Blockchain is no longer a technology that is just about powering cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether. A distributed digital ledger technology (DLT), it is being used by manufacturing companies to improve their supply chains; by healthcare and electricity companies; and by the financial sector to make transactions more transparent.

Blockchain is “pulling us into a new era of openness, decentralization and global inclusion", states a June 2017 paper by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Large banking, financial services and insurance firms, manufacturing firms and governments across the world are already testing blockchain proofs of concept.

For instance, NITI Aayog and Oracle plan to start a drug supply-chain blockchain ledger, which is meant to help fight counterfeit drugs in the country. The Telangana state Information Technology, Electronics and Communication department have partnered with IT services provider Tech Mahindra to launch India’s first Blockchain District in Telangana.

“BankChain", launched in India in February 2017, to explore and build blockchain-based solutions, has 37 members with representations from 28 Indian banks, including the State Bank of India, ICICI Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, HDFC Bank and Yes Bank. Globally, for instance, the World Bank mandated the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to arrange the world’s first blockchain bond—the Kangaroo bond.

But public blockchains still lack the transaction speed of, say, a Mastercard or Visa. Hence, most pilots are being done with private (permissioned as opposed to open ones like bitcoin) blockchains to speed up transactions. That said, the decentralized “Lightning Network", which is in its infancy, is expected to match the transaction speeds of debit and credit cards. “Blockchain is good for specific use cases," acknowledges Gupta. He concludes, though, that “even as scale and transaction speeds will be achieved soon, building an ecosystem is far more important".

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