"Originally, this class was intended to be a quiet graduate seminar with about ten people," says Professor Maurice Herlihy of Brown University's Department of Computer Science (Brown CS). He's talking about a class of his own design (CSCI 2952-A Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies) that's one of a very few courses dealing with the subject nationwide, particularly from a scientific perspective. It had to be capped at 60 students this semester. "I was impressed," he says, "by how eager students were to look past the sensationalism and approach this from the scientist's point of view, finding the substance underneath the hype."
A blockchain is a cryptographically-secured series of records usually managed by a peer-to-peer network that allows transactions between parties to be verified and permanently recorded. At present, Bitcoin is easily the most well-known. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, which is a type of digital currency that uses cryptography to secure transactions. Cryptocurrencies and the other forms that blockchains take are a natural fit for Maurice's expertise in distributed systems.
"In a certain sense, blockchains are the ultimate distributed systems," he explains. "They're a very productive approach, and I think it's fair to say that blockchain creators are helping reinvent distributed computing. But they don't always get it right."
"Because blockchains are a new area," Maurice says, "we're seeing many promises that can't be kept. People are being led, naively or sometimes fraudulently, to invest money or effort in projects that can't possibly work." What will work, he thinks, is a revolution of how trust operates in distributed systems, producing results not in the cryptocurrency realm but in areas such as financial trading transparency, anti-corruption efforts, or even verifying the origins of seafood.
"I believe that's the future of blockchains, and my students have really enjoyed getting a new perspective and depth on them. Instead of being a get-rich-quick scheme, I think they'll be turned to purposes that are increasingly challenging, important, and technically sophisticated, and Brown's interdisciplinary strengths are a perfect fit to organize something lasting on the subject."
To see the slides (PPTX format) for Maurice's keynote ("Blockchains and the Future of Distributed Computing") from the 2017 ACM Symposium on Principles of Distributed Computing (PODC), click here.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.