UC Berkeley blockchain research skyrockets alongside price of bitcoin

Aren Saunders-Gonzalez/Staff

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A single bitcoin’s worth as of press time is $11,498  — a stark increase from January 2017, when one bitcoin was valued at around $1,000.

The value of bitcoin, a decentralized digital currency proposed in 2008, jumped to $19,498 in December 2017 before dropping down to its current value. While the volatility of bitcoin has investors glued to market updates and stakeholders hoping for another boom, it’s the technology behind bitcoin — blockchain — that has UC Berkeley student groups and researchers excited for the future.

Blockchain at Berkeley, a campus student group with more than 100 members dedicated to blockchain solutions, has quickly become one of the leaders of blockchain-related education and real-world applications in the Bay Area, according to Blockchain at Berkeley president Max Fang.

“I think we’re definitively the world’s largest and most active university-based blockchain organization,” Fang said. “There’s nothing that quite matches us in terms of our scale or our reach or the pure number of things that we’re working on.”

Blockchain is a digital record-keeper that is available to the public. Information is stored on “blocks” that are constantly being updated by thousands of processors at the same time, resulting in a system where every party involved has the same information.

People can help confirm the data on the bitcoin blockchain by “mining bitcoin,” which is verifying transactions on their own systems and receiving an extremely small amount of bitcoin in compensation. Nowadays, most bitcoin mining occurs on specialized systems and not on personal computers.

The buzz about blockchain is reflected by a growing interest from campus faculty and students alike through the expansion of research pertaining to blockchain and the creation of the campus’ first blockchain lab.

Blockchain at Berkeley

“You can store basically any kind of data on blocks that are linked together in a chain,” said Andrew Tu, head of marketing for Blockchain at Berkeley. “This chain of data is immutable, meaning that you can’t change it unless you have more than 51 percent of the network.”

The student group held a conference last November for developers and investors, with a panel of speakers talking about investment and new regulations for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Tickets sold for as much as $900 each.

Blockchain at Berkeley mainly offers consulting services to companies interested in implementing blockchain technologies, but they also host two DeCals each semester where fellow students can learn the fundamentals of blockchain.

“These companies will come to us with (a) problem and we think blockchain might be applied to it, and we’ll do a lot of research … and give them a recommendation,” Fang said. “We kind of present some preliminary findings and, through the course of the semester, there’s a team of developers and consultants that go out and implement this blockchain proof of concept.”

Tu explained that some of the potential applications of blockchain in the future include tracking the supply and shipment products and shifting to the use of stable cryptocurrencies in everyday transactions.

Blockchain at Berkeley is partnering with Loopring, a company that is developing a protocol to improve cryptocurrency transactions, after having previously worked together on a project regarding smart contract auditing.

“Loopring is creating a network to connect crypto-wallet and crypto-exchange,” said Loopring Chief Marketing Officer Jay Zhou. “In the near future, people can start to trade and swap their own tokens on their own crypto-wallet.”

Campus blockchain research

Two other organizations with their own cryptocurrencies, NEO and EchoLink, have partnered with the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, or SCET, as a part of the Blockchain Lab. The Blockchain Lab, a new addition to the SCET since fall 2017, is composed of campus professors, researchers and industry professionals looking to establish new emerging sectors regarding blockchain development.

EchoLink also gave the Blockchain Lab the campus’s first ever bitcoin donation last fall, worth more than $50,000.

“We are working on new technologies for improving the scalability of blockchain as well as ensuring stronger security and privacy protection for smart contracts,” said Dawn Song, campus electrical engineering and computer science professor and member of the Blockchain Lab, in an email.

SCET is also sponsoring a course on blockchain this semester as part of their challenge course program, which is a class series where students are challenged to explore various professional fields.

The course includes guest lectures from professionals in the field and the opportunity for students to work on their own blockchain applications and present their own proof-of-concepts, according to Po Chi Wu, visiting professor for SCET and lecturer for the course

“The idea is always the cross-fertilization of academic work, academic learning, some research and development emphasis, plus some real-world application,” Wu said. “We think that this is particularly valuable for students to learn how it all works.”

A similar course — “Blockchain, Cryptoeconomics, and the Future Directions of Technology, Business, and Law” — is also being offered in collaboration between the Haas School of Business, Boalt School of Law and the College of Engineering, focusing on the economic impact of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as well as legal and technical aspects of blockchain development.

According to Adam Sterling, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business and one of the course’s lecturers, the class is the first instance of an interdisciplinary course among the three campus schools.

“We had a lecture on the history of money, currency, credit, which was served as an introduction to the development to bitcoin,” Sterling said. “(The College of Engineering) is going to lead a bit of a technical engineering to blockchain. … I’m going to talk about a few of the legal issues surrounding cryptocurrencies, ICOs, token sales.”

Along with Blockchain at Berkeley’s two DeCals, these courses have solidified blockchain’s presence on campus. Sterling said it is more than likely that classes on blockchain will continue to be taught because of the increase in student interest.

Regardless of the future of bitcoin, Berkeley has established itself as a hotspot for developers and investors.

“I think it’s especially a very popular topic at Berkeley because the students … are used to an online social trust environment and kind of anti-establishment,” said SCET communications director Keith McAleer. “Blockchain kind of meets all those requirements.”

Phil Zhang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @philzhangDC.