IBM's blockchain chip in a pile of salt grains. Photo: IBM
IBM's blockchain chip in a pile of salt grains. Photo: IBM

Blockchain, we are repeatedly told, is going to be huge. But according to IBM, it’s also going to be tiny. Really tiny.

This week, IBM will use its annual Think conference to announce  2018’s “5-in-5” ideas. Since 2006, the American computing giant has used this flagship event to roll out the “five innovations that will help change our lives within five years” and this year’s list includes two based on artificial intelligence, one on quantum computing, one on anti-hacking crypto and one, not surprisingly, related to blockchain.

But the basis of this blockchain is different. It is microscopic.

IBM says that within the next five years, what it calls cryptographic anchors – such as ink dots or tiny computers smaller than a grain of salt – will be embedded in everyday objects and devices.

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. These technologies could be used to monitor food safety, the authenticity of manufactured components, pharmaceuticals or genetically modified products and with the identification of counterfeit objects and provenance of luxury goods.

The benefits are clear and potentially vast. But the downside to having microscopic blockchain-based tracking technology that can be embedded in anything or indeed, anyone? Only time will tell.