Since the launch of bitcoin in 2009, this cryptocurrency went from a geek phenomenon to a widely accepted solution for digital transactions. Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin, and industry experts believe that blockchain will not only transform payment transactions but also provide solutions for many industries.
So what is blockchain?
Blockchain is a distributed database that grows with the record formed by each new transaction, which are called “blocks.” The series of blocks within the database form the “chain.” Hence, the name “blockchain.’’
Each block contains a timestamp and a link to a previous block. Once recorded, the data in a block cannot be altered retroactively. Through the use of a peer-to-peer networks and a distributed timestamping server, a blockchain database is managed autonomously.
In simple terms, blockchain removes the “middle man” from many types of transactions while making such transactions more secure. It allows people who may not know, or trust, each other to conclude a secure verifiable transaction.
How can blockchain be used?
Blockchain technology can be used in the realm of stocks, bonds, tickets, reward points, student records, smart contracts, property records, and anything else that needs to be exchanged securely and verified by a third party. In Honduras, for example, an American company Factom will be helping the country build a land title record system using blockchain.
“In the past, Honduras has struggled with land title fraud,” Peter Kirby, president of Factom, told Reuters. “The country’s database was basically hacked. So bureaucrats could get in there and they could get themselves beachfront properties.”
Blockchain will transform many industries by making them more secure and efficient, while removing costs associated with third party verification. Analysts estimate that the system could save investment banks up to $12 billion in fees alone. Virtually every industry will experience similar efficiencies through blockchain implementation.
So why are universities getting involved in blockchain research?
Imagine having a time machine to go back to 1995 to take advantage of all the opportunities that the Internet would bring. Well, that is kind of where we are today with blockchain. Many universities understand this, and are now ramping up their technology departments to become leaders in the space.
The blockchain space is moving rapidly with universities, businesses and governments vying for dominance.
In this article, we highlight some of the recent blockchain movements in the university sphere.
1) Massachusetts Institute of Technology
While many universities have been jumping on the blockchain bandwagon recently, MIT has been at the forefront of blockchain, even before there was blockchain.
The university formed the Trust Data Consortium in 2007 as an open source initiative, so MIT researchers and businesses could work together to develop “open-source software that enables better data security and privacy, while also allowing for easier data sharing, and more robust digital identity.”
The Consortium is headed by founding faculty director Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland and involves Accenture, Intuit and UBS.
Current major Trust Data code projects involving blockchain include:
- OPAL (open algorithms that make a broad array of data available for inspection and analysis without violating personal data privacy, which can be used in such areas as health care);
- MIT ENIGMA (open source platform that focuses on more resilient and secure data systems using secure multiparty computation and secret sharing over blockchain); and
- CoreID (robust digital identity that resolves some of the unsolved challenges with regards to digital identities for the Internet and for blockchain systems).
In April 2015, MIT’s Media Lab created the Digital Currency Initiative (DCI).
The DCI has many projects in its pipeline, including those involving health care and medical records, global rights management database, and user-controlled credit identities. For example, DCI has developed MedRec, a unique, “decentralized record management system” for managing patients’ Electronic Health Records, using blockchain technology. MIT has partnered with Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston for MedRec’s pilot project.
In April 2016, MIT Connection Science teamed up with Ripple to run a validator for the Ripple Consensus Ledger, a distributed ledger that settles global transactions in real-time. Ripple validators are servers that confirm transactions on the network.
“In this new experiment with Ripple, we are taking MIT’s experiential research approach to the blockchain, and we anticipate this collaboration will provide us new opportunities to test and deploy data applications and research,” Pentland said in a statement.
MIT has many other blockchain research projects across the university, including:
- Bayesian Regression and Bitcoin (predicting the price of bitcoin; run by MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science);
- Digital Certificates Project (open source education credentials; incubation project by MIT Media Lab Learning Initiative and Learning Machine);
- Blockchain Border Bank (prototype new credit union; run by MIT Computational Law Research and Development);
- SpaceMint (cryptocurrency based on proofs of space; collaborative work of Sunoo Park, Albert Kwon, Jo¨el Alwen (IST Austria), Georg Fuchsbauer, Peter Gaˇzi, Krzysztof Pietrzak, MIT & the Institute of Science and Technology Austria);
- Zerocash (privacy-preserving version of bitcoin or similar currency; collaborative work of Madars Virza (MIT), Eli Ben-Sasson (Technion), Alessandro Chiesa (UC Berkeley), Christina Garman (Johns Hopkins University), Matthew Green (Johns Hopkins University), Ian Miers (Johns Hopkins University), Eran Tromer (Tel Aviv University)); and
- Solarcoin (solar mining for dust; collaborative work of Andrew Lippman and Ariel Ekblaw).
MIT Bitcoin Currency Experiment
In addition, MIT has also studied cryptocurrency roll-out strategies.
In fall 2014, MIT engaged 4,495 undergraduate students in a digital currency experiment. The university distributed $100 in bitcoin value to each selected student, but purposefully delayed distribution to the students who would have been the first adopters. Would these natural first adopters invest in the technology or quit?
MIT researchers found that these students were more likely to reject the technology. The rejection stems from: (i) the visibility of the delay in distribution vis a vis other students, and (ii) the standing of these early first adopters as tech savvy within a group.
They also found that once these natural first adopters rejected the technology, students who were not natural first adopters were more inclined to reject it as well.
The study sheds light on how the potential of a technology could be impacted by small changes in the way it was rolled out.
2) Georgetown University
The Center for Financial Markets and Policy at Georgetown University, together with the DC Chamber of Commerce, hosted the 2017 DC Blockchain Summit on March 15-16. The speakers included global leaders in finance, technology and government.
The Center also released a white paper titled “Blockchain and Financial Inclusion, The role blockchain technology can play in accelerating financial inclusion” at the summit.
The research was conducted by Charles Gallo, Anna Jumamil and Pak Aranyawat, MBA students at the McDonough School of Business at the university. The study focused on how companies have used blockchain to make it easier and cheaper for people to have access to financial services.
The Blockchain Research Institute
Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, who wrote the book Blockchain Revolution, were featured speakers at the 2017 DC Blockchain Summit. It was there that the Tapscotts announced the formation of the Blockchain Research Institute, a multi-million dollar institute that will be based in Toronto, Canada.
The institute will be funded by various governments and businesses. Its founding members come from governmental agencies, blockchain pioneers, and well-known companies from various industries.
The expectation from both government and private enterprise is high. Charles Sousa, Minister of Finance, Ontario believes that blockchain technology could “help Ontario build an innovation powerhouse” and make “significant” improvements to government services. In his opinion, the institute “will bring together the leading thinkers, researchers and entrepreneurs in the blockchain space.”
Ross Mauri, General Manager, z Systems at IBM, also feels that the technology and the institute have a lot to potential. In his words, “Blockchain has the potential to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges – from streamlining trade, to establishing trust in transactions, to tracing provenance for food safety. By working with top experts from around the world, we’ll be able to take full advantage of blockchain’s inherent strengths – an openly-governed, collaborative approach – to make global business more efficient and transparent for consumers.”
Researchers will be working on 30 projects spanning 8 industries: financial services, manufacturing, retail, energy and resources, technology/media, health care and government. The first project will commence on April 3, 2017, and is slated to be completed by December 20, 2017. The final Program Summit will take place in spring 2018.
1) Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands
Delft University of Technology established the Blockchain Lab in August 2007.
TU Delft prides itself on having one of the largest groups on blockchain technology. Students at undergraduate, graduate and doctorate levels work in the lab. Their research is “aimed at the development and evaluation of new generic blockchain concepts, and application-driven, motivated by important application areas, such as transaction processing, e-commerce, and logistics.”
TU Delft teamed up with Harvard University in 2007 to create Tribler, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system that treats bandwidth as a currency.
In a BBC News report, Dr. Johan Pouwelse, an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology and co-creator of Tribler, stated: “Using bandwidth as a kind of currency helps to encourage better habits[.]”
Associate professor David Parkes from Harvard University explained how it works: “In peer-to-peer, I can build up credit by offering upload capacity and then use the credit for download in the future[.]”
2) University College London, England
The University College London Research Center for Blockchain Technologies (UCL CBT) is located at the heart of London.
The stated goal of the UCL CBT is to become a leading research hub in Europe. It is supported by many departments in the university, including mathematics, computer science, statistical science, economics, law, psychology and language science.
The UCL CBT interdisciplinary research can be broadly divided into 3 categories: Science and Technology, Economics and Finance, and Regulation and Law. It will focus its research on the development of blockchain technology, the impact of the technology on society, and new opportunities and risks stemming from the technology.
The UCL CBT is collaborating with senior business executives, blockchain leaders, entrepreneurs, and policy makers on all forms of blockchain-based applications and activities.
3) University of Edinburgh, Scotland
On February 28, 2017, IOHK established a blockchain lab at The University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics. IOHK, based in Hong Kong, is a technology start-up that is spearheading further research on blockchain.
In its announcement, IOHK declared that the collaboration would be “Scotland’s first blockchain research partnership between academia and industry,” and IOHK is “proud to open it at the UK’s leading university for computer science research.”
The partnership will be recruiting immediately, and plans on having a fully operational lab from summer 2017.
Professor Aggelos Kiayias, who serves as Chair in Cyber Security and Privacy at the university as well as Chief Scientist at IOHK, will lead the research team.
“We are very excited regarding this collaboration on blockchain technology between the School of Informatics and IOHK,” he said in a statement. “Distributed ledgers is an upcoming disruptive technology that can scale information services to a global level. The academic and industry connection forged by this collaboration puts the Blockchain Technology Lab at Edinburgh at the forefront of innovation in blockchain systems.”
The Edinburgh research lab will also serve as the headquarters for all of IOHK’s university partnerships. IOHK has already invested in a research lab at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and plans on many more in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
1) Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan
On February 15, 2017, Tokyo Institute of Technology and IOHK announced the creation of the Input Output Cryptocurrency Collaborative Research Chair within the Tokyo Tech School of Computing.
Researchers from IOHK will work with professors and graduate students from Tokyo Tech to research cryptocurrencies and blockchain-related technologies. The Tokyo Tech research team will be managed by Keisuke Tanaka, Professor of School of Computing at Tokyo Tech. Two IOHK researchers, Bernardo David and Dr. Mario Larangeira, will join the research.
The collaboration serves two goals, according to Charles Hoskinson, CEO and founder of IOHK. The first goal, Hoskinson explained, “is to develop our business area, which is cryptocurrencies and blockchain related technologies.” The second goal “is to nurture and develop global talent in these areas in Japan.”
2) Tsinghua University, China
In October 2016, Tsinghua University, IBM and Walmart announced that they would work together to improve the way food is tracked, transported and sold to consumers across China.
Blockchain can help track food products from farm to stores, and from stores to consumers. All the details associated with a product, such as farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures, and shipping information, would be entered into the blockchain. These details can be extracted easily to resolve food safety issues, prove the authenticity of the product, and manage shelf-life in stores more efficiently. In cases of food poisoning, for instance, the details would help relevant authorities quickly trace the product back to its origin and pinpoint the cause.
“China’s rapid economic growth has led to massive opportunities for innovation, but it has also presented quality of life challenges, including helping to assure that food sold in the country is safe to eat,” Chai Yueting from the National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce Technologies, Tsinghua University, said in a statement. “We believe the work with IBM and Walmart can serve as a global model for others to follow and replicate.”
3) Asia University, Taiwan
The Research Center of FinTech and Blockchain Technology at Asia University is actively involved in blockchain research.
Details are not available online, but the university has identified the following blockchain projects:
- Conversion of physical legal contracts into smart contracts;
- Blockchain innovative applications (e.g., music chain);
- Privacy and security;
- Blockchain IoT integration;
- Blockchain for health care;
- Physical to digital asset conversion and certification;
- Interledger; and
- Building a blockchain lab.
4) GITAM University, India
GITAM University in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh just established the GITAM FinTech Academy.
The new FinTech Incubation Center will be led by Professor Leben Johnson.
5) Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, India
The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala and the Blockchain Education Network recently announced the creation of a blockchain academy in Kerala.
The academy will focus its research on the use of blockchain in banking, health care and governance.
In addition to these research initiatives, universities everywhere are beginning to offer a variety of education programs that cover blockchain as part of their computer science or business degrees. For example, Stanford University recently offered a lab class called Bitcoin Engineering where students learn how to build Bitcoin-enabled applications like micropayment systems for social media.
There are also a host of online courses, including:
- Princeton University: Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies (online through Coursera);
- MIT Fintech Certificate Course: Future Commerce (online and part-time); and
- The University of Nicosia, Cyprus: MSc in Digital Currency, The World’s First Postgraduate Degree in Digital Currency (online).
Students can even attend a blockchain summer school like the ones below:
- IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark: Blockchain Summer School; and
- BitFinance and Blockchain Academy, Harare, Zimbabwe: Blockchain Summer School.
We may not ever know the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto (the name used by the anonymous creator of bitcoin and the first blockchain database), but we do know that blockchain will transform industries and help people around the world.
Interest in blockchain research will also give rise to new technologies and advancements, and universities around the world will continue to play a key role in making that happen. It’s an exciting time for students with an interest in blockchain, as more and more opportunities will open up for them to be the next generation’s cryptographers and computer scientists.
While we tried to be as comprehensive as possible in this article, there is so much happening in the blockchain research space, and more universities are diving into it every day. Let us know of any university involved with blockchain research that we may have missed.
Samuel O’Brient contributed to this article.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.