As one of the legions of fans of the brilliant BBC / British Museum radio series on “A History of the World in 100 Objects“, I was absolutely fascinated by the episode on 14th-century Chinese paper money: follow the link and have a look at the beautiful picture of the Chinese banknote from 1375.

The Chinese writing along the top of this note reads (from right to left): ‘Da Ming tong xing bao chao’ and translates as Great Ming Circulating Treasure Note’

[From Chinese Ming bank note › The British Museum]

I love that name: Bank of England notes really should be inscribed “Circulating Lack of Treasure Note”. These notes had pictures of the “cash” (copper coins with holes in the middle, threaded on to a string) that they represented: ours should have a picture of… what? What do they represent?

Things have moved on a little since mulberry bark. Some of you may remember Paul Makin’s super presentation about “E-ink and smart banknotes” at the 13th Digital Money Forum in London back in March 2010. The presentation was based on some work that Consult Hyperion had been doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Less than a year on, it’s fascinating to see how the smart banknote technologies have evolved. Display technology, in particular, is advancing apace.

Quantum dot light emitting diodes (QLEDs) are an advanced technology currently in development that will deliver the ultimate solution for displays and lighting applications… QLEDs are only a couple hundred nanometers thick making them virtually transparent and flexible, and highly suitable for integration onto plastic or metal foil substrates as well as other surfaces[From QLED Technology]

Displays aren’t the only technology of interest here. I think we can focus down and think of a smart banknote as comprising four main technological components:

  • The note itself, made out of a plastic polymer rather than paper. This makes it durable and waterproof, important if it is to contain electronics. Some countries (eg, Australia) have already switched from paper to plastic for their banknotes and others (eg, Canada) are planning to follow. Plastic banknotes last much longer than paper ones, so the additional cost of production doesn’t stop them from being cost-effective.
  • The electronic ink display on the note. Electronic ink, as you’ll recall, only uses power when it is changing, so once the banknote display has been written then it will stay displaying the same thing until it changed.
  • The chip inside the banknote. Why do we need a chip inside the banknote? Well, we want the banknote to be secure: we don’t want it to be counterfeited or altered. And we need the banknote to be able to communicate intelligently with terminals.
  • The antenna connected to the chip. We want our smart banknote to work like an Oyster card, so that you only need to tap it to some form of terminal for it to work.

How would such a note be used? Well, imagine that you have a banknote that says “£10” on it. You to the coffee shop and spend £1.50 on a coffee. You tap the note on the till to pay, and the display now changes to say “£8.50”. When you get to work, your friend reminds you that you owe him £8 from the pub. You give him the note and he gives you a 50p coin in change. Your friend can absolutely trust that the value represented by the note is indeed £8.50 because the tamper-resistant chip and the cryptography it deploys make it impossible to counterfeit.

It’s hard to imagine the implications so a technology combination so radical in everyday use. Take just one aspect: the expense and complexity of engraving plates, adding holograms, printing fine detail and everything else that is needed to make notes hard to counterfeit

Modern banknotes contain up to 50 anti-counterfeiting features, but adding electronic circuits programmed to confirm the note’s authenticity is perhaps the ultimate deterrent, and would also help to simplify banknote tracking.

[From Banknotes go electric to outwit counterfeiters – tech – 21 December 2010 – New Scientist]

A smart banknote needs none of these, because its security depends on cryptography and the chip tamper-resistance. The state-of-the-art here is already more than adequate for purpose. There are other differences too: since the smart banknote works using contactless communications, there’s no reason for it to be a rectangle. The best smart banknote might be a ball, or a strip or a disc.

What would a banknote look like without security printing, freed from the tyranny of form factor and with a display that changes? That’s an interesting question. Since it’s about technology, it’s easy for people like me to imagine how a smart banknote might work. It’s much harder to imagine what it might look like, and that’s why Consult Hyperion have a launched a competition for artists to design a smart banknote. It’s going to work like this: the competition will run for a month from 21st January 2011 to 21st February 2011. During that time, artists are invited to submit a picture, sketch, diagram, draft, model or any other means of communicating their vision to art (at) for consideration. All of the entries will be displayed at the Digital Money Forum website.

The artist Austin Houldsworth, who presented at the 12th Digital Money Forum in 2009, has been commissioned to review the entries and create a shortlist. The shortlisted candidates will be informed by 25th February 2011 and invited to come along to the Digital Money Forum on Thursday 3rd March to present their concept to our judging panel and you, the delegates. The panel will then select the winning entry and present them with a prize: in this case, an Apple iPad (although naturally the prestige associated with award outweighs the value of this base material prize).

As an aside, the Curator of Modern Money at the British Museum, Catherine Eagleton, will be speaking at the 14th annual Digital Money Forum in London in March, so if you would like to ask anything about the money objects featured in the radio series, don’t miss the opportunity to come along and meet a genuine expert.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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