Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

April 6, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Passionate About Machines, Professor Explains Online Currency Bitcoin

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Ever since he was introduced to his father’s ‘adding machine,’ Associate Professor Emin Sirer Gün Sirer, computer science, said he has been fascinated by the inner workings of computing machines and systems.

“Every time I teach, there have been certain revelations about basic things that people have seen all their lives about how computers work that they took for granted, and they never really quite understood,” Sirer said. “[At times during lecture,] I say, ‘Okay, this is how it’s actually done,’ and I love looking up at the crowd and I love seeing that moment — that revelation.”

One of the major areas of Sirer’s study is digital currencies, including Bitcoin and market transactions within the Bitcoin ecosystem.
Sirer explained that Bitcoin is essentially “the virtual equivalent of gold.”

“There is a finite supply of it, it’s controlled — the rate at which you can extract it is limited,” Sirer said. “[It cannot] be manipulated by politicians. This is appealing to a lot of people.”

Bitcoin was previously thought to be an incentive-compatible system, where following the protocols of the Bitcoin marketplace would provide Bitcoin miners with the most profit, according to Sirer. However, two years ago Sirer jointly published a study describing an alternative method he found to mine Bitcoins that yields higher profits but goes against market protocols.

By withholding certain information about the market, certain miners can engage in “selfish mining” and profit at the expense of the other miners, according to Sirer. He added that these selfish miners grow bigger within the system by manipulating the system for their own profit.

“We should not have miners that are too big [in a Bitcoin system],” Sirer said. “They then become able to violate protocol on their own. Once we’ve discovered [selfish mining], it’s actually pretty useful because now you can [monitor] the health of a Bitcoin system by looking at how big the miners are.”

Despite this flaw, Sirer said he is still optimistic about the potential of Bitcoin for online transactions.

He added that one of his favorite features of Bitcoin is that it allows users to create self-enforcing monetary contracts where money is not dispersed until the conditions of the contract are fulfilled.

“There are a lot of aspects of human interaction where I think it would be nice to make programmatic, where money can change hands under automatically set conditions,” he said.

Sirer also emphasized his love for teaching — especially on the topic of operating systems — and demystifying the processes that operate under the hood of a computer.

“There are things that if you know how they work, they’re fairly straightforward,” Sirer said. “But most people don’t know how they work, and when we actually discuss these things, people go ‘ah, so that’s how it works.’”

Sirer said these “tricks” exist inside every operating system.

“This is what makes my machine tick, this is how it decides what to do, this is how it creates the illusion of concurrency,” he explained.

Sirer said he also encourages his students and anybody interested in computers to “get their hands dirty” and try things out, to build their own machines and write their own programs. He also stresses that it’s never too late to start in the field of computer science.

“I see a lot of people in our [computer science] program who worry that they come to Cornell and they’ve been exposed to computers for ‘only a few years’ or ‘much later than their friends,’” Sirer said. “And I have to break it down for them that it just doesn’t matter. You could pick this material up at age 18 [or] 20 and still be competitive.”