The technology powering the cyber currency Bitcoin is attracting serious attention from mainstream financial service providers, as they aim to lead the next technology revolution and avoid falling victim to it.

Commonwealth Bank researcher Sophie Gilder carries the unusual title of "head of Blockchain" at the bank's 200-strong Global Innovation Lab in Sydney.

Gilder told the Infinz conference in Auckland last week that the best way to think about Blockchain - a core element of Bitcoin - was as a distributed database that managed the transfer of value, rather than the transfer of data.

Blockchain was a form of "distributed trust", she said. Instead of a centralised system with security around the perimeter, as we have now, transactions and information are updated through a distributed ledger via a computerised consensus of network participants.


Each connected computer has its own copy of the ledger, creating what Gilder described as a highly secure "immutable record".

"There's no need, if you want to transfer digital currency from one person to another, to have a bank as an intermediary'" she said. "Instead, you do it directly."

Crucially, it's also not necessarily digital currency being transferred, but a digital asset of any type. It could, for example, be a land title, a bond or a share.

Also, instead of separate systems managing asset transfer and payment, these are combined using Blockchain and happen simultaneously, reducing settlement risk.

The implications for business are potentially immense. At CBA, Gilder is experimenting with the technology on private networks, unlike the Bitcoin Blockchain which operates on public networks.

"That's not the area the banks are interested in," she said. "We need to know who we are dealing with so we are interested in private networks where the existing compliance and regulation still applies."

So what services could Blockchain deliver?

First, it could replace current trusted intermediaries such as registers, including share registers, car registers and land title registers - anything that records the ownership of assets.

Blockchain's ability to create a single transaction - payment asset transfer - was very powerful, Gilder said.

Blockchain also allows information to be attached to a purchase - such as a guarantee.

It can also enable "smart contracts", small pieces of code which self-execute if conditions are met.

That could lead to high levels of automation, lower costs and greater transaction accuracy. It could also lead to smart money - money with conditions attached so it can only be spent on certain things. The implications of that really are mind-boggling.