RCA Researcher of the Month: Fred Riggins

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RCA Researcher of the Month

The RCA Researcher of the Month recognizes and honors an individual who has expressed creativity, curiosity, and an honest and deliberate quest for excellence in their research activities. These individuals serve as leaders among their peers and they involve students directly in world-class research. The intellectual property their work generates creates new opportunities for NDSU and contributes to its reputation as a nationally-recognized research university.

April 2019: Fred Riggins, PhD

Before earning his doctorate in information systems at Carnegie Mellon University, Fred Riggins worked at Boeing as a cost analyst negotiating software procurement contracts with suppliers. In this role he learned firsthand the concept of network externalities. An externality is where each subsequent user of a system adds value to it. “Think of a telephone,” he says. “If you only have one, there’s no value, but every unit you add increases the overall value of the system.” Fred sees the same concept within one of his areas of interest and expertise: blockchains.

Fred is a professor of management information systems at NDSU and the director of the Center for Enterprise Business Analytics at the university. With a career that spans time at Georgia Tech, the University of Minnesota, and Arizona State University, Fred has been ranked as one of the top 10 IS researchers in the world. His research interests include blockchain technology, the economics of information systems, the Internet of Things, and Internet commerce technology and how these systems impact people. Fred feels that at NDSU he’s found the perfect place for both his teaching and research.

While IT research has not often considered the human element as a primary concern, Fred believes that today it should be fundamental to research. “Management and economics are both very social concepts. While I never thought of myself as a social scientist, today I consider myself one. It’s becoming more important to think how we can empower each individual to make choices that will make the world a better place.”

Gesturing out the window, Fred says, “Look out there and tell me what you see that’s moving. Everything moving is most likely controlled by humans, but will most likely become autonomous in the near future. How that will impact society is something that’s truly worth thinking about.”

Fred is thinking much deeper than merely self-driving vehicles. He shares an image of how technology will change the very basic structure of society. “Imagine a scenario that’s beyond the concept of companies like FedEx and Amazon using autonomous vehicles for deliveries. Say that after a snowstorm occurs, a robot moves through your neighborhood and negotiates with your house about snow removal. An agreement is reached between the two, a service is provided and a fee is collected. The transactions that occur in this manner will eventually automatically direct income back to the owners of the devices.” In order for this scenario to occur, there is a need for a consistent, secure, and trustworthy foundation. This is where blockchain comes in.

Fred describes a blockchain as a series of linked records with some data in the blockchain encrypted and some is available for everyone to see. When a new record is created, the link to the previous block ensures that it can’t be modified without changing the total chain. Fred likens a blockchain to the same general ledger shared among a large group of partners. He notes how using it removes the responsibility for transactions to go through a trusted centralized source (like a financial institution) and it allows transactions to occur widely across each individual using it. “The first blockchain was created in the late 2000s as bitcoin and was a product of the cypherpunk movement of that time. It was meant to serve as a method to trade cryptocurrency without the need to work through a centralized bank.” Building on this idea, Fred plans a research project for this fall that will look into the subject of what is money and what gives it value.

While the blockchain distributed model is the basis for cryptocurrency, Fred appreciates its other uses. “IBM and Walmart have been working on a food supply blockchain called the IBM Food Trust Solution,” says Fred. “By recording all the points our food takes from farm to our homes, we can immediately know where issues such as contaminations have been introduced. There is great potential for improving our food safety by utilizing blockchain technology in this way.” Looking further out, he adds how this system could provide consumers with additional power over their purchases. “Let’s say you get some orange juice that tastes really good to you,” he says. “You can scan the bottle and immediately know the original source thanks to the blockchain. Then, the next time you’re shopping, you’ll use an app on your smartphone to be able to find and buy the product from that very same source again.”

Beyond the value of blockchain, Fred sees a future changed by autonomous systems that are openly managed by everyone. The systems of Fred’s future will be self-managing microbusinesses that interact with each other independently to provide services on our behalf and efficiently transfer their profits back to their owners.

Fred’s vision is far from a dystopian one. In fact, he’s optimistic about the power of individuals and how they will navigate and explore this new world. He’s also fascinated by how technology can make the world better. Fred believes that when you put those two ideals together, everyone is in the position to change the world for better. “Like the organization Kiva,” he says, “which is a crowdsourcing non-profit that allows people to select and invest in global startups of all kinds, we need to develop tools that will help us create the world we want to live in.”

He shares these ideals with his students and hopes they adopt them. When talking about the future, he asks students, “Is this the world you want to live in?” Regardless of their answer, he knows he’s moved their thoughts and ideas to a new time and place where they can begin to have a positive impact.

For being both a researcher and proponent of a better future world, Fred Riggins is our April Researcher of the Month.

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