One would expect that Bitcoin, which combines advanced concepts from multiple disciplines including computer science, mathematics and economics, it should be an ideal topic in institutions of higher learning (some may point out that its libertarian appeal strengthens its case).
Only recently though has it made inroads into universities. And even then, its foray has been largely limited to the “lighter” side of things: bitcoin acceptance, bitcoin promotion, competitions etc. Surprisingly, hardcore research and in-depth education is relatively scarce.
A few institutions are getting a head start, including a few in Israel. Leading academics that have placed bitcoin on their radar got together on a panel at Inside Bitcoins Tel Aviv, held at the Kfar Maccabiah Convention Center during October 19-20.
The panel included: Prof. Eli Ben-Sasson – Technion, Israel Institute of Technology; Dr. Aviv Zohar – Hebrew University Jerusalem; Iddo Ben-Tov – PhD student, Israel Institute of Technology; Prof. Samuel Itzikowitz – Computer Science Department, College of Management Academic Studies; Christian Decker – PHD Candidate at ETH, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.
The biggest challenges to research
In general, choosing a direction for research can be difficult, since the future application of Bitcoin to the real world remains unclear.
Right now, Bitcoin is used on a relatively small scale. But if it were to be used for every sale and transaction, the current system is inadequate. The challenge is how to make Bitcoin scalable.
Should there be a course on Bitcoin?
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Currently, Bitcoin has no textbook. Technical papers on the subject are scarce. The consensus among the panel what that an undergrad course on the topic is unfeasible, unless done in seminar style. The material in algebra courses has its roots from 200 years ago, and in computer science, from 40-50 years ago. But with Bitcoin, a seminar is the best approach as the core material is cooperatively synthesized. One can learn a lot of lessons just from raising the question of how to build a monetary system.
It was also debated if it’s worth testing students on such quasi-material.
The fact that Satoshi’s paper was posted, essentially anonymously, on an online forum
Perhaps the most interesting part. The panel mused at how Satoshi’s paper would have likely been rejected upon its first few attempts for peer-reviewed acceptance. But on occasion, such is the treatment for the most brilliant ideas.
Satoshi’s paper remained forlorn in 2009 but was soon popularized by libertarianism and “crypto-anarchy”, which kept it alive to one day merit exploration by the scholarly community.
The panel also mused how Satoshi must have been a PhD student- not a professor- judging by the high quality of his code.
How can research contribute to the benefit of Bitcoin?
Academia’s role is to research; science is here to explain and improve. It’s up the world to take the next steps to make it real. Researchers can also innovate value-adds such as safety-nets and risk-reduction features when the business community does come around to its next application.