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Why Blockchains Matter for Students

By Clayton Hartford
Canadian entrepreneur and start-up advisor
Originally published in mystudentvoices.com

In early October 2017, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Learning Machine, a Cambridge-based innovation firm, piloted a program whereby a cohort of 111 MIT students had the option of receiving a digitally verifiable, tamper-proof version of their diploma that they could share with employers, schools, family, and friends. For students who chose to opt-into the pilot, diplomas were made available for download and timestamped on an encrypted, global network that operates entirely independent of MIT’s control and has 10,000x the computing power of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. If this network were ever attacked and all of its servers in the US were taken offline, MIT students would still be able to have their diplomas verified because the servers powering the network are hosted by thousands of incentivized volunteers from around world responsible for upholding records of all transactions.

Nothing like this has ever existed before and it’s an incredibly big deal as it solves one of the world’s most challenging computer science problems.

Bitcoin’s Blockchain is the underlying technology behind the verification, receipt and record of the diplomas and virtually every Bitcoin transaction in human history. This technology has spawned a wave of transformative innovations, mushrooming from the concept of an open, peer-to-peer electronic cash system. It’s a lot to wrap your head around at first, but so was the internet, and like the internet, blockchains will become ubiquitous, forever changing the way we securely register events, like the birth of a child, land ownership or the purchase of a concert ticket. Our world has much to gain from blockchain technologies, as its promise is to build a more trustworthy internet and solve important problems that aren’t being solved.

What makes MIT’s pilot program so exciting is that its software and many other blockchain-based apps are open source, meaning anyone can use, copy, modify, and distribute its source code, free of charge. There is no blackbox, everyone has access to the “recipe”. Non-traditional educators, artists and yogis alike can create shareable certificates that are programmatically verified without a trusted third party or central registrar. This saves all parties involved a lot of time and virtually eliminates the threat of fraud on the system. If the yogis believe they can create a better version of the software on an alternative blockchain, they are free to do so. Unlike many of the popular apps we use today, open source software is built by a community of developers from around the world in a collaborative environment, offering full transparency into every contribution and every line of code. There are no opportunities to hide features that deceive users and violate trust.

You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose” — Dr. Seuss

Blockchains matter for students, because you are the tip of the spear for the future. Vitalik Buterin dropped out of the University of Waterloo to build Ethereum. Facebook was created in a Harvard dorm room, the first iteration of Snapchat was built by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Brown at Stanford and both products first hit it big on campus. We all have the choice whether to accept or reject the next wave of innovations and it’s really important we continue to ask ourselves, is this application making the internet more free and trustworthy? Does the app respect my privacy?

If we look at the data below, many of the apps we use today do not satisfy these criteria.

Unfortunately, there will always be snakes in the grass, attempts by others to undermine our privacy and hackers waging unrelenting attacks on our infrastructure. In the not-so-distant future, attackers will be thwarted off as more and more organizations transition from private and third-party data centres to highly encrypted, decentralized computing networks. Many users are also migrating from the monopolies to privacy-focused alternatives, like DuckDuckGo for search and Brave, the blockchain-based web browser which prioritizes user interests by blocking ads and invasive trackers by default. Embracing blockchain is a step in the right direction, but it’s not entirely the silver bullet.

While there is no shortage of hype around cryptocurrencies and blockchains today, it’s very important to note that there are a limited # of impactful decentralized applications (ÐApps) that are currently in-market today. In a new report published by Deloitte, the consulting firm highlighted that in 2016 alone over 26,000 open-source blockchain projects were created on the Github software development platform, yet only 8% are active. This information should not come as a surprise or discourage when you consider 9 out of 10 start-ups fail ~100% of the time. What Deloitte’s findings tell us is that there is a large and growing community of developers and entrepreneurs that believe their ideas run better on a blockchain.

For many of us, the fast-approaching holiday season represents a time for giving. While many will make contributions to charitable organizations, there are those who will not due to the lack of accountability and transparency across many NGOs. Joseph Thompson and his long-time friend and colleague, Niall Dennehy have decided to do something about this. The two Irish entrepreneurs are at the helm of AID:Tech, the first company in the world to successfully deliver aid to Syrian refugees completely and transparently using blockchain technology. AID:Tech is working with governments and NGOs around the world to build traceability into the donation process. This is accomplished by providing digital identities to the 2.4 billion undocumented citizens around the world and issuing tokenized vouchers that donors can track in real-time to understand exactly where every cent of their donations is being distributed.

This is only Chapter One. Imagine if we changed our existing reality to a blockchain-driven reality where immutable and transparent supply chains were applied to gun control, carbon credits, conflict-free diamonds, fair trade coffee, sustainable seafood or other causes near and dear to your hearts.

I believe we can do it.


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