Beyond the Classroom: The Rise of University Blockchain Labs
As the cryptocurrency industry matures and public interest heightens, blockchain research and educational efforts have made their way into the halls of some of the world’s leading universities. Courses on cryptocurrency finance, blockchain development and related law are developing into serious avenues of study. They’re academia’s response to a formerly stigmatized space’s debut into mainstream culture, a formal and accredited extension to the work of innovators and leaders who propelled the space forward when it was still relatively underground.
Complementing classroom offerings, university-led blockchain research and development initiatives are on the rise, as teams of professors, blockchain developers and students work to take the industry from market speculation to mainstream application.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) features the oldest and perhaps best-known university-sponsored blockchain development lab in the world. Since 2015, the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative has brought together some of the space’s leading independent developers with MIT faculty to extend the development of such applications as the Lightning Network.
Halfway into 2018, some of the world’s top universities are joining MIT and vetting initiatives of their own. New in structure but by no means new to the field, Stanford’s month-old blockchain R&D lab was launched with a bit of a jumpstart. Co-directors Dan Boneh and David Mazières have three years of blockchain-focused research and academic papers to set the lab into motion. Both directors are computer science professors at Stanford and have taught courses on blockchain technology since 2015.
As these labs begin operating in the background of academia, these professors can take the work they’ve done in the classroom and work toward tangible developments. At the intersection of education and innovation, these R&D efforts show the potential and need for industry growth — and the plethora of talent that can nourish it.
They also show us that market cap and investor returns alone may be poor indicators for whether a fledgling industry is growing. These labs aren’t paying the way themselves; they’ve tapped into the pocketbooks of some of the space’s most notable entities, including the Ethereum Foundation and Ripple. Disregarding the market’s steady decline from all-time high prices this year, these big players are investing heavily in research and development for the future growth and health of the space.
Together, these funds and the labs they support are creating the infrastructure to push blockchain development through a new era of mainstream exposure to mainstream adoption.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has had its hand in blockchain and cryptocurrency research and development longer than most. Founded in 2015, the MIT Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) is an offshoot of the university’s Media Lab. Working alongside other universities and research centers, the lab is a collective of tech industry veterans, crypto programmers, faculty, students and research scientists. Its main R&D focuses include platform/pilot testing, research publication and open-source development for blockchain technology.
The initiative has pulled both from within MIT faculty and from without to cultivate an accomplished team. Led by Director Neha Narula, a 2016-2017 member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Blockchain, and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, the team features a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund in Simon Johnson and Gary Gensler, an Obama-era Commodity and Futures Trade Commission chairman.
As one of the oldest R&D labs in the space, it also employs Bitcoin Core developers Wladimir van der Laan and Cory Fields, as well as Tadge Dryja, co-author of the Lightning Network white paper.
Dryja in particular has used his time at DCI to continue the work he and Joseph Poon started with the Lightning Network. This summer, the lab has been piloting a prototype to test the Lightning Network’s smart contract functionality. Contrary to common misconceptions, Bitcoin does house a scripting language, though it’s less flexible and more limited than those of platforms like Ethereum.
“It’s not as developer friendly because bitcoin didn’t go in that direction, but you can use it. You have to be a little creative,” said Alin Dragos, Head of Strategic Partnerships at DCI.
Working their way around Bitcoin’s scripting limitations, Dryja and Dragos have brought smart contracts to the Lightning Network. Broadcasting data for the smart contracts to the second layer, off-chain network that Lightning provides, these smart contracts can be both private and scalable, their information being stored off-chain. Only the transaction, whenever the service’s users decide to close their payment channel, will be sent to Bitcoin’s network.
This Lightning Network application is just one of the many contributions the lab has facilitated to enrich Bitcoin’s network. It has also overseen or assisted with much of Wladimir van der Lann’s work on Bitcoin Core.
In addition to its efforts with such key contributions, the initiative publishes academic papers, thought pieces and informative articles on topics from anonymity algorithms to blockchain use cases for legacy sectors, and it provides free cryptocurrency and blockchain courses on its website.
The team also attracts mainstream media and news coverage to provide input on industry-related topics. In the past, Gary Gensler has discussed token security status with the New York Times, and PBS has invited Neha Narula on to its NewsHour for a feature on Bitcoin.
Ironically, with DCI, MIT boasts the oldest university-run blockchain R&D lab in the nation, but the university offers no official undergraduate courses on blockchain technology — only standalone online ones that don’t offer any university credit.
Stanford is in the opposite position. The West Coast University has offered cryptocurrency and blockchain classes for as long as DCI has been active, but it wasn’t until this year that the institution launched its own research initiative.
Supported with funding by the Ethereum Foundation, Protocol Labs and Polychain Capital, among others, Stanford’s Center for Blockchain Research is led by computer science professors Dan Boneh and David Mazières. The center is, in effect, the practical culmination of the academic work both professors have committed to the field since 2015.
“Our goal is to support the ecosystem,” professor Dan Boneh said in an interview with BitcoinLinux.
“[CBR] is a technically focused research center that is going to be developing technology to support the blockchain ecosystem. We’ve been doing that now for a while and, basically, this is giving more structure to that,” he added, emphasizing the role the center plays in building on the work the Stanford computer science department has already produced in the field.
After establishing three years’ worth of pedagogical groundwork, Boneh and Mazières spent the last year adding structure to the CBR. A physical hub for future innovation, the center solidifies the body of work the professors have published to date, and it will house more hands-on research and development going forward.
Fittingly, the vast majority of this research will be technically focused from the center’s onset.
“We’re focusing on a number of different areas, starting with cryptography, obviously. For me this has been really exciting because every time I talk to a project, I come away with new research problems to think about,” Boneh stated in the interview. “We’re also working on languages for smart contracts. We’re working on verification tools … consensus protocols.”
Like DCI, CBR is already taking the theoretical and making it functional. The lab’s smart contract brain child is already in testing, Boneh revealed in the interview, and the demo’s findings will be published in a forthcoming paper.
This paper will enrich the library of work that Boneh et al. have already produced. Keeping with Bitcoin’s ethos for open-source access, CBR and Stanford offer these articles free of charge, and they cover topics that range from consensus protocols to confidential transactions.
While research for these works comes from within Stanford, the inspiration for them — and the problems they look to solve — come from the industry’s myriad projects.
“The research work is primarily to the center, but the question is: where are the research questions coming from? The research questions are coming from the projects. So we publish papers to look for solutions.”
As these solutions and the papers positing them suggest, the center’s technical bent is obvious. Still, Boneh stressed that the center’s focus will widen as it builds out its team and resources. Joe Grundfest, a former SEC commissioner and Stanford Law professor, is CBR’s original anchor to fields outside of the realm of computer science, but he won’t be the only one down the road.
“The center is focused on computer science. The plan is actually to grow and include the broader aspects of blockchain — this is why it was important for me to have someone from the law school involved from day one. But we will have folks in economics, folks from the businesses school,” Boneh claimed.
Looking toward what’s to come, Boneh indicated that, for the near future, the center is focused on educational outreach. It’s holding an open series of summer seminars on topics like scaling and SNARKs, and it’ll be hosting the third annual Stanford Blockchain Conference from January 30 to February 1, 2019. The conference is calling for submissions until October 16, 2018.
University College London
University College London’s Centre for Blockchain Technology (CBT) is holistic in its R&D approach. In many regards, it casts its net wider than MIT or Stanford, both of which, for the time being, focus mainly on technical incubation and research.
CBT was founded in 2015 when “the crypto-space was in its early embryonic stage and not as mature as it is now,” when “no one was really aware of the real blockchain potentials,” Founder and Executive Director Paolo Tasca told BitcoinLinux in an interview. It was created as “an interdisciplinary group able to address at the highest levels the major technical, socio-economic and legal challenges posed by the advent of distributed ledger.”
The center’s research philosophy is built on three disciplinary tenets, namely science and technology, finance and business, and law and regulation. Spanning so many fields, it is “the largest centre on blockchain technologies in the world which counts more than one hundred research associates involved in several research projects,” according to Tasca.
Currently, the center has 60 applicants under consideration to add to its team of scholars and researchers from UCL’s mathematics, computer science, economics, science, statistics, law, psychology and energy departments.
Tasca indicated in our interview that “[every] department supporting the CBT is independent in managing its own research agenda.” Though it’s “very often,” he continued, that “blockchain-related issues can be addressed only by adopting an interdisciplinary approach. Thus, the CBT is the UCL body that provides a core team of leading blockchain scholars and facilitates these cross-departmental and often inter-university projects on blockchain-related areas.”
Such an extensive, interdisciplinary approach has given birth to a wide range of variegated research. On the CBT’s resources page are papers that span topics from network attacks to the failure of interdependent economic ecosystems, some of which appear to have only vague threads of association with blockchain technology.
Like Stanford, CBT also holds seminars and events to further foster education. In addition, the center offers its expertise by way of consulting services, a private counterpart to the public engagement the summits and seminars facilitate. It’s offered its advisory services to startups and private/public entities alike, including the Bank of Canada, Financial Conduct Authority, Banca D’Italia and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, to name a few.
The project is funded in part “from government public grants and international grants,” Tasca revealed, including “a recent funding award … the BARAC (Blockchain for Automatic Regulation and Compliance) project which was the largest 2017 EPSRC UK grant for a blockchain project” and “the PETRAS Internet of Energy Things (P2P-IoET) [grant] for supporting peer-to-peer energy trading and demand-side management through blockchains.”
The initiative also relies on funding from the CBT industry alliance and such third party companies as Ripple, Fidelity Investments, R3, State Street and Oracle, among others.
With a stack of resources both monetary and academic, the CBT contracts its expertise out to some of the world’s leading governmental entities. Notably, Tasca said that the center has consulted with the UN’s World Food Organization on how blockchains could be used to effect transparent quality control over international food supply chains. It has also worked closely with “the EU Parliament, the U.K. government, the U.K. parliament, the Bank of England and the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority].”
In addition to government organizations, the CBT also offers support for blockchain pilots and startups, and Tasca teased that the center will soon reveal “a specific program to promote entrepreneurial ventures to advance technology innovation in the areas of IOT, AI and blockchain.”
University of Edinburgh
With funding from Charles Hoskinson and Jeremy Wood’s IOHK, the Blockchain Technology Laboratory (BLT) is working with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics to advance blockchain research and innovation. BLT’s director Aggelos Kiayias and Hoskinson forged the alliance from a shared desire to address the industry’s pain points, such as the proof-of-stake consensus model, using what Kiayias calls “a first principles approach.”
In an interview, Kiayias continued to say that, while the lab’s “focus so far has been on the design of distributed ledgers protocols, their security, scalability, sustainability, performance, interoperability and economics,” it is “in the process of expanding with collaborations in the school of business, economics, math, architecture and political science.”
Other Centers of Research
The Imperial College of London has its own center dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrency research, as well. Like its peers, the Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering publishes academic articles on its findings and hosts educational events. Recently, two of its members, professors William Knottenbelt and Dr. Zeynep Gurguc, published a report entitled “Cryptocurrencies: Overcoming Barriers to Trust and Adoption.” It touts cryptocurrency as global finance’s next logical iteration, rationalizing the reasons why the financial tool has all the markings of a digital fiat equivalent and what it will take to see comprehensive adoption.
Outside of lab-directed research, other universities and their faculty have published research and reports that have been invaluable for the industry. At the University of Austin Texas, for example, professors of finance John Griffin and Amin Shams published a lengthy report correlating Tether’s issuance with bitcoin’s meteoric price rise in 2017. The report corroborates a long-held concern within the community, as it claims that Tether was used to artificially support bitcoin’s price during its most recent bull run.
For academia’s role in blockchain research and development, in the words of Professor Boneh, “There’s real science to be done here.” And as Tadge Dryja and Wladimir van der Laan’s collaboration with MIT suggests, these scientific pursuits are often paired with and strengthened by the contributions of independent developers and those visionaries whose work predate the advent of university research in the industry.
With universities and independent researchers chipping away at the space’s challenges and limitations, such contributions are a welcomed reminder that, even in times of market downturns, there’s more to the industry than investing. Innovation cares little for speculation, and the work being undertaken at these universities bodes well for the continued growth of the technology.
For part one of our series on blockchain education, read our earlier cover story, From Chatroom to Classroom: The Evolution of Blockchain Education.
This article originally appeared on BitcoinLinux.