Showing posts with label Stanford University. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stanford University. Show all posts

November 08, 2017

Scaling Bitcoin 2017 - Science is central in Stanford (and the politics ignored). Fourth edition of the Scaling Bitcoin Conference.

By Aaron van Wirdum, Staff Writer - November 08, 2017 (

Stanford University hosted the fourth edition of the Scaling Bitcoin conference over the weekend of November 4–5: “Scaling Bitcoin 2017: Scaling the Edge.”

The annual conference, sometimes referred to as a “workshop,” has in its short history grown into somewhat of an institute within the Bitcoin space. It aims to be the main stage for Bitcoin’s technical and academic communities, with little room for commercial interests — and perhaps even less for the “scaling drama” that has grown to be the norm online.

“This is the place where we want to focus on engineering, not politics,” said Anton Yemelyanov, this year’s planning committee chair, as he introduced the event on Saturday morning. “We want everyone to have objective discussions from an engineering standpoint.”

Scaling Bitcoin Within the Scaling Debate

Scaling Bitcoin has a short but potent history.

The first two conferences were hastily organized one after the other in the second half of 2015, both in direct response to the new-at-the-time block size limit dispute and a looming hard fork through Bitcoin XT. The Montreal edition, the first of the two conferences, was instrumental in bringing together Bitcoin’s technical community, which had up until that point mostly communicated through chat channels and mailing lists. And the second edition in Hong Kong introduced Bitcoin’s mostly Chinese mining community onto the stage for the first time, quite literally. Faced with a contentious hard fork, the events were instrumental in building community among developers and across continents.

And the conferences proved pivotal in averting the crisis — at least temporarily. Hong Kong saw the introduction of Segregated Witness, presented by Blockstream engineer and major Bitcoin Core contributor Dr. Pieter Wuille. This innovation was included as a centerpiece in Bitcoin’s scaling roadmap, proposed by Blockstream CTO and Bitcoin Core maintainer Gregory Maxwell right after the conference, and was endorsed by large parts of the Bitcoin ecosystem. It finally activated on the Bitcoin network this summer.

Now, two years and three Scaling Bitcoin conferences after the Montreal edition, another controversial hard fork looms. BTC1 — maintained by former Bitcoin Core contributor and Bloq CEO Jeff Garzik — is scheduled to hard fork next week as per the New York Agreement in order to double Bitcoin’s block weight limit — an effort dubbed “SegWit2x.”

Yet, this upcoming hard fork did not demand much attention in Stanford. Apart from subtle remarks buried throughout some of the talks, the topic of SegWit2x was almost completely absent from the Scaling Bitcoin program. Illustratively, Bobby Lee, CEO of BTCC and one of the few outspoken SegWit2x proponents on stage, even refused to take any questions on the hard fork after his invited talk — instead focusing on Bitcoin’s meteoric price rise over the past years.

The Talks and the Science

Scaling Bitcoin instead continued on the path set out last year at the third event, hosted in Milan. With a broader scope than scaling alone, privacy and fungibility were prominent topics, while smart contracts, fees, mining and more were part of the program as well.

Perhaps the biggest innovations presented throughout the weekend, at least within the realm of features that could feasibly be implemented on Bitcoin without rigorous protocol changes, were presented by some of the veterans (by now) in the space.

Tadge Dryja, co-author of the lightning network white paper and currently employed by the MIT Digital Currency Initiative, presented “Discreet Log Contracts.” If the math checks out like he thinks it does, these could effectively realize trustless oracle systems, arguably offering a superior (being simpler) alternative to the bulk of advanced smart contracts. Put bluntly, some think these kinds of solutions could make resource-intensive systems like Ethereum obsolete.

Along similar conceptual lines, Blockstream mathematician Andrew Poelstra presented “scriptless scripts.” Utilizing clever cryptography — specifically, signature aggregation — smart contracts could be anchored into a basic blockchain without needing to embed the entire smart contract code itself. Originally designed for the Mimblewimble protocol, the concept could be leveraged by Bitcoin, too.

And speaking of veterans in the space, Nick Szabo — partnered with (among others) Bloomberg contributor Elaine Ou — presented his proposal to broadcast Bitcoin transactions over radio waves. Not so subtly referencing China’s recent crackdown on Bitcoin, the two detailed how Bitcoin could travel around the globe (and over the great firewall of China) without so much as needing an internet connection.

When the topic of Bitcoin’s block size limit — the “original” scaling issue that spawned the conferences — came up at all, it was mostly in the context of propagation speed. Perhaps no coincidence, the two most relevant presentations on this topic were based on work by some of the people involved with previous hard fork attempts. The Bitcoin Unlimited team presented their test results on the “Gigablock” network, which they believe safely supports blocks that exceed current limits by several orders of magnitude. And UMass Amherst professor Brian Levine presented the “Graphene” block propagation protocol, co-designed by Bitcoin’s former lead developer Gavin Andresen.

To the extent that next week’s hard fork was discussed, Anthony Towns’s presentation probably came closest. Towns detailed how support for future protocol changes could be cleverly determined through market dynamics. Though, while interesting, this type of solution will not be ready in time for the SegWit2x hard fork.

The Hard Forks and the Politics

Indeed, in contrast to some of the previous events, a sense of urgency was mostly absent in Stanford.

This could be in part because most of Bitcoin’s technical community has by now roughly settled on a path forward — and SegWit2x is no part of it. Similarly, the question is not so much whether Bitcoin will scale predominantly through second layers; for them, at least, it will. Rather, topics of research now focus on how these second-layer technologies can be optimized for performance, privacy and more.

Additionally, as a somewhat loosely organized volunteer effort, the team overseeing the conferences consists of slightly varying people from one event to the next. And resulting from a difference in vision for the 2017 edition, some of the earlier organizers as well as a segment of Bitcoin’s technical community were absent for this round.

Perhaps as a result, the sense of community building typical for some of the previous events was not as prominent in Stanford. And the question of how to deal with a looming contentious hard fork was a more central topic at the similar but more informal Breaking Bitcoin conference in Paris several weeks ago. In little over two years, Scaling Bitcoin instead transformed from what is best described as an emergency summit to something perhaps more akin to a regular academic conference — even though an emergency summit would not have seemed entirely inappropriate at this point in time.

For a complete overview and videos of all presentations, visit (Or follow this link for transcripts.)

November 01, 2017

Over one million people enroll in online crypto class

By C. Edward Kelso - November 01, 2017 (

CNBC’s Senior Tech Reporter Ari Levy details how the world’s most popular cryptocurrency, bitcoin, with its acceptance explosion and staggering valuations, now seems to have opened an entire new educational universe.

Thanks to Bitcoin, Crypto Courses Aren’t Just for PhDs

Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford University Computer Security Lab discussed the attraction to his cryptography course, and how it is due to “the huge valuations in these currencies” such as bitcoin. Second only to machine learning, Computer Security and Cryptography is a wildly popular course. It’s also true bitcoin is “a wonderful way to teach cryptography” he told Mr. Levy of CNBC. The advent of cryptocurrencies means “there are a whole bunch of new applications for cryptography that didn’t exist before,” Professor Boneh added.

Getting to cryptography through bitcoin has meant a renewed interest in the mathematical language. Professor Boneh “said that more than 1 million people have signed up for an online cryptography class he teaches through the website Coursera,” CNBC reports.

Professor Dan Boneh.

Coursera boasts nearly thirty million registered users and two thousand different courses in a dozen languages. registered for Professor Boneh’s Cryptography I course, and found two immediate options: 79.00 USD would earn participants a certificate, along with educational feedback, while the free option allows auditors a chance to take such a course as a test drive or just for the sake of knowledge. Financial aid is available.

“Cryptography is an indispensable tool for protecting information in computer systems,” the introduction states. The class is broken into parts, including cryptographic systems, secret keys, public keys, programming projects, and zero-knowledge.”

Even a textbook authored by Professor Boneh and Vipul Goyal of Carnegie Mellon, A Graduate Course in Applied Cryptography, is freely available and frequently updated for anyone to self-learn.

Cryptocurrency is a DIY Project for Students

Professor Goyal “spent seven years at Microsoft Research in India, where he was working on new kinds of cloud encryption,” according to CNBC. “He recently helped start the CMU Crypto group,” Mr. Levy explains, “to take on research projects.” The group includes Turing Award winner Manuel Bloom.

Both professors explained how cryptocurrency prices, such as bitcoin reaching 6,000 USD recently, have encouraged students to attempt similar projects of their own. Professor Boneh stated, “There are many experiments underway and just like in the rest of the start-up ecosystem, some will do well and some will fail.”

With such an explosion in market valuations, it’s inevitable students will leave formal academia. Professor Goyal notes how if they “want to start a mobile app, you probably need some investor funding. For cryptocurrencies, if you start your own, and if people are interested, you automatically get funded by the value of what you created.”

With valuations continuing to skyrocket, rest assured more crypto courses are on the way. Both UC Berkeley and MIT have offered their versions.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay, The Ether Review, CMU. 

C. Edward Kelso

C. Edward Kelso is a long-time fintech journalist, passionately covering the cryptocurrency space since 2014.

October 31, 2017

Next generation of tech geniuses signing up to study cryptocurrencies

By Darryn Pollock - October 31, 2017 (

In a nod towards the direction cryptocurrencies are heading, the youth of the globe are surging towards university courses that offer teaching in cryptography, as well as cryptocurrency.

The value of Bitcoin is soaring, and students are identifying a new market that is emerging that they are trying to ready themselves for with university accredited courses.

Hugely popular

Dan Boneh, co-director of the Stanford Computer Security Lab and a professor of cryptography has noted that security and cryptography represent the second-most popular subject in the university's computer science department, behind only machine learning.

He added: "A lot of people are attracted to the huge valuations in these currencies. Cryptocurrencies are a wonderful way to teach cryptography. There are a whole bunch of new applications for cryptography that didn't exist before."

The rise in popularity has been comparable to the growth of the digital currency which is making all the noise, Bitcoin. It has hit the mainstream in a big way, and now there is a second wave of those who are looking to be more than just investors in the potentially revolutionary technology.

In 2015, Boneh began teaching a class on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and was quickly attracting over 100 students. Boneh said that more than one mln people have signed up for an online cryptography class he teaches through the website Coursera.

Spreading across the campuses

In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon's Vipul Goyal is using Boneh's interactive online textbook for a class called Special Topics in Cryptography that the school is offering for the first time this year.

About 20 students, mostly PhD candidates, are taking the class which focuses on Blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

The trend is not just limited to these two universities: the University of California at Berkeley launched a class last year called the Cryptocurrency Decal, and in 2015 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab established the Digital Currency Initiative.

Bitcoin, its underlying technology Blockchain, and the theory behind it, Cryptography, is big business as there has already been evidence of growth in the job market for the associated disciplines.

It is understandable thus that University students would want to align themselves with a burgeoning technology that is desperate for growth and can only benefit from additional human capital.