In 2014, when it became clear that advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence were reshaping finance, executives at JPMorgan Chase & Co. pulled together their best engineers and told them, “Figure this out.” Among them was Amber Baldet, then a 31-year-old vice president for technology. “I started in machine learning, but I kept putting my hand up to say, ‘I know about blockchain,’ ” she says.
Blockchain—the novel combination of cryptography and distributed computing that gave life to bitcoin in 2009—holds great promise for industries such as banking that process immense amounts of data. Baldet, now a JPMorgan executive herself, helped organize the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), a group of businesses experimenting with ethereum, a more powerful blockchain than the one that supports bitcoin. The alliance, which also includes IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., among others, is developing Quorum, a modified version of ethereum with enhanced protections for client privacy.
Baldet’s enthusiasm for technology goes back to childhood. As a 13-year-old, she persuaded her parents to let her use a 9600-baud modem left behind by a deceased relative. The moment was life-changing. Baldet connected to university message boards, whose members “got me into playing MUDs, the first choose-your-own-adventure-style computer games, and reading books like Gödel, Escher, Bach,” she says. The students taught her to see the world as “a fascinating puzzle worth unraveling.”
Adam Ludwin, chief executive officer of blockchain startup Chain, whose clients include Nasdaq, Citigroup, and Visa, first met Baldet on a conference call. Even over the phone, he was impressed. “She’s really sharp and interested in getting things built,” he says. Baldet stands out because she’s “comfortable in the bank world as well as the cypherpunk or crypto community, and she seems equally authentic for both,” he says.
The promise of blockchain is to integrate all users of a market into a shared database; this in turn cuts costs and improves efficiency. There are still plenty of challenges for Baldet to get through with Quorum, including ensuring a level of data privacy and performance that will satisfy JPMorgan’s needs, she says. But she doesn’t want the bank driving every EEA project. Her team of five is working diligently alongside the alliance’s other members, creating their own secure version of an open source coding project. “What I hope is that other groups will solve their problems with Quorum,” Baldet says. “Actual adoption of projects is what we need.”