Cryptocurrency. Bitcoin. Blockchain. Before the explosion of Bitcoin prices in late 2017, such terms lived in relative obscurity, but have now been adopted widely in academia and industry circles.
Now, according to a recent analysis by the Coinbase Blog, Cornell is among several other higher education institutions in actively meeting the rising academic interest in this field by offering a total of 28 relevant courses — the largest amount among the world’s top 50 universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, beating other Ivy League universities.
These courses, covering the topics of cryptocurrency, cryptography and blockchain, include CS 5094: Introduction to Blockchains, Cryptocurrencies, and Smart Contracts, CS 6466: Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts and CS 5830: Cryptography.
The first major cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, launched in 2009, introducing the world to the concept of blockchain, a means of distributing computing systems to a large number of actors in order to eliminate any central controlling authority like a bank or insurance company. Such systems seek to reduce power imbalances and thereby put more trust in its participants.
Cryptocurrencies have suffered a somewhat rocky public perception, due in part to the technical knowledge required of the general public and the widely reported volatility of Bitcoin prices. But according to Prof. Greg Morrisett, computer science and dean of the computing and information sciences, cryptocurrencies will heavily shape the business and economy of the future.
“I think everyone is a bit wary around all of the hype. But there really is interesting science and technology that underlies this field, and many folks believe that this will have a transformative effect on business and the economy,” Morrisett said.
According to Morrisett, blockchain technology has opened up new opportunities and potential applications in fields like insurance and supply-chain management.
“Imagine that you wanted to buy insurance in case a flight gets cancelled out of Ithaca. You could use blockchain-based contracts to set up a scheme with someone you don’t even know or trust, and regardless, you would get paid automatically if the flight was cancelled,” Morrisett said.
Prof. Ari Juels, computer science, Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, said that the topics around cryptocurrency were “very popular” among students, noting that both of his classes with cryptography and blockchain material had full enrollments.
One reason for Cornell’s preeminence in the field, according to Juels and Morrisett, is the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts, or IC3, launched in spring 2017 by researchers from Cornell University and Cornell Tech that focuses on studying and applying blockchain technologies.
According to the co-director of IC3, Prof. Emin Sirer, computer science, IC3 consists of approximately 15 faculty members and more than 50 Ph.D. students from multiple institutions around the world, including Cornell, University of California, Berkeley, University of Illinois, ETH Zurich, University College London and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Sirer said that many of IC3’s projects “stand poised to change [financial technology] as we know it,” such as Ava, a new system that is “seeking [to] unseat Bitcoin’s dominance in the field of cryptocurrencies.”
Since its founding, IC3 has spun off three startups: bloXroute, Ava Labs and Thunder Token. Its other research has also been adopted by outside groups to aid projects like Bitcoin Cash, the No. 3 cryptocurrency in the world, according to Sirer.
Prof. Elaine Shi, computer science, is co-director of IC3 and has been working on bitcoin since long before it became a household name, co-authoring one of the earliest peer reviewed papers on the cryptocurrency in 2011.
According to IC3’s website, Shi works to create “platforms and tools that aids non-expert programmers in creating systems that are ‘secure by design’ and ‘secure by default,’” like her current company ThunderCore, a blockchain network with its own cryptocurrency.
When asked about the drivers behind Cornell’s establishment as a leader in the blockchain sector, Morrisett attributed the success to Cornell’s faculty like Juels, Sirer, and Shi.
“At this point, it’s widely known that Cornell is the leading place for this kind of research and the credit goes to the amazing faculty we have,” Morrisett said.