Castles in the Air

by Markus Spiske via Stocksnap
by Markus Spiske via Stocksnap

Reuters reported today that Fidelity Investments Inc has joined IC3. This is intriguing, on many levels.

IC3 (Initiative for CryptoCurrencies & Contracts) was set up by faculty members of Cornell University, Cornell Tech, UC Berkeley, UIUC and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and is based at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York. It has a “partners program” to encourage interaction with the business community, through which enterprises can pay an annual fee and participate in the development of new ideas and prototypes.

According to IC3’s website, partners can participate in monthly webinars, receive regular updates on and early previews of IC3 projects, access faculty and students (which could be used for recruiting purposes), and send up to two visiting researchers or embedded developers. The cost is $150,000 a year (or $450,000 for a higher-level partnership with even more access), a lot more expensive than Hyperledger’s $50,000 (or $250,000 for premium).

Fidelity joins Chain, Intel, IBM and Digital Asset, making it the first non-tech partner. According to Reuters, Fidelity wants to study how blockchain technology could make financial systems more secure and efficient.

So why not join a finance consortium? Why not sign up with Ripple, R3, Hyperledger or the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance?

While even academics acknowledge that a technology with no practical applications is not exactly useful, IC3’s approach seems to be blatantly “science first”. On its website it claims to “meets the blockchain community’s urgent need for world-class expertise in computer science” – notice that business models are not mentioned. Hyperledger, on the other hand, is also based on computer science, but seems to place the business applications front and center.

The motivation behind the choice of a consortium that takes a more scientific approach raises questions about Fidelity’s goals and strategy.

It’s important to note that Fidelity Labs will join as partner, not Fidelity Investments. Fidelity Labs was created in 1998 as the innovation arm of the financial corporation, and currently has over 100 patents to its name. This is just one indication that the multinational conglomerate has been investing heavily in technology for decades. Back in 1965 Fidelity Investments was one of the first investment firms to install a mainframe, and Fidelity Labs currently owns two of the first NVIDIA DGX-1 “artificial intelligence” computers.

But that doesn’t deter from the bigger question of “why IC3?”.

Perhaps Fidelity is looking to escape what they see as an overcrowded space in “mainstream” consortiums. Perhaps it feels that the higher fees and focus on research give IC3 a certain cachet. Perhaps it has a specific idea that aligns with a project already underway in IC3.

Or perhaps it is the beginning of a shift in priorities: business cases are interesting, but without academic proofs, you’re building castles in the air.

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