Computer science professors school their peers on the blockchain

As the price of Bitcoin hits exospheric heights, civilians who don’t talk in code want to better understand the cryptocurrency and the blockchain technology on which it is built.

That’s true even for tech-savvy engineering professors and their students – an inherently tough audience. What source is trustworthy? Where can I get facts without the hype? How did we get here?

A rapt crowd filled Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium to get answers from the experts – three of their peers.

Douglas C. Schmidt, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and professor of computer science; and Abhishek Dubey and Jules White, both assistant professors of computer science; delivered in an hour-long presentation on the history, theory, current use and potential applications for the blockchain.

Schmidt started off. Some fundamentals: Bitcoin and blockchain are not synonyms. Bitcoin, a digitally encrypted currency, uses blockchain, which is decentralized, peer-to-peer middleware.

Blockchain aims to more effectively manage digital assets and provide transactions as a service with no central authority at less cost as a public system.  In contrast, banks, health systems, and credit card companies use proprietary techniques and databases to process transactions.

Dubey explained the history and development of blockchain, a combination of cryptography, game theory, and distributed systems. More specifically, it is “Integration of incentives and game theory to reduce messaging overhead of practical Byzantine fault tolerance.”

In practice, that means for a blockchain platform to work, all parties must agree on the sequence of transactions and a protocol must be in place to “rule” when presented with competing blocks, or transactions. The longer chain wins.

Blockchain is software. People are great at writing software but are likewise great at writing software with bugs, White said.

Bugs present special problems for real-world use of the blockchain because the database and the transactions within it can’t be changed. Any fix involves drastic action, White said.

For commercial software, experts estimated 15 to 50 bugs per 1,000 lines of code; for blockchain, where development practices are less mature, he said.

“Even the most sophisticated people can still make mistakes,” White said.

The audience of more than 100 students and professors got no Bitcoin advice but did get an overview of blockchain theory, history, real-world uses and potential directions for the technology. The computer science trio also shared a few engineering jokes, a Dilbert cartoon, and a look at the hype cycle for blockchain, which suggests the technology is entering “the trough of disillusionment.”

The good news – the trough is where solid work on the problems usually happens.

But hear it from the experts.

Watch the video, “an overview of the blockchain, some motivating applications, the underlying technological foundations of the blockchain, and some challenges to overcome to use it effectively in various domains.”