Beyond Bitcoin - Applications of Distributed Trust
New Winter Student Initiated Course

Course Title: Beyond Bitcoin: applications of distributed trust
Units: 1, CR/NC
Time: Wednesdays 5:30-6:20pm

Abstract: In the past, people have relied on trusted third parties to facilitate the transactions that define our lives: how we store medical records, how we share genomic information with scientists and drug companies, where we get our news, and how we communicate. Advances in distributed systems and cryptography allow us to eschew such parties. Today, we can create a global, irrefutable ledger of transactions, events, and diagnoses, such that “rewriting history” is computationally infeasible. What can we build on top of such a powerful data structure? What are the consequences of pseudo-legal contracts and promises written in mathematical ink? In this class, we will bring together experts in cryptography, healthcare, and distributed consensus with students across the university. The first weeks present a technical overview of blockchain primitives. In the following weeks, the class will focus on discussing applications and policy issues through lectures and guest speakers from various domains across both academia and industry.

Exams/Grading: No exams, 50% participation, 50% project (ONE of three choices below)

1. Student teams form and work together to create a youtube lecture/howto that is related to a class topic and explains a technical aspect to a layman. For example, a youtube lecture/howto could describe how zero knowledge proofs work, and why they might be relevant to biomedical research, medical diagnostics, and banking.

2. Student teams form to create a 4 part blog post related to an aspect of the course. For example, the blog post could cover incentive alignments (or misalignments) in the various protocols, or specific applications (e.g. electronic medical records on the blockchain), or cryptographic primitives.

3. A team or individual implementation project of their choice (we can provide ideas/guidance). For example, a student team could try to design a protocol that replaces the standard proof of work functions (e.g. SHA-256 hashing) with more useful calculations.

Syllabus (Class starts in Week 2 so subject to slight modification)

Week 1 - What is a blockchain and how does it work? Distributed consensus.
Discussion topics : What is blockchain? Discuss origins, core concepts of distributed consensus, and compare/contrast traditional ways of accounting or recording information with the blockchain. Decentralized vs. centralized.

Reading materials :

● Bitcoin paper :

● "Minimum Viable Blockchain" by Ilya Grigorik

( )

Week 2 - Cryptographic basics: Hash functions and Public Key Cryptography.
Discussion topics : What is a hash function? Why is the blockchain “secure”? Public keys as identities. Talk and Q&A with Ben Jun.
Guest Speaker : Ben Jun (Co-founder of Cryptography Research, Advisory Board @ RSA, and current CEO of HVF)
Reading materials :
● Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies by Arvind Narayanan (free pre-print version
here: ). Chapters 1 and 2 are good introductory readings.

Week 3 - Smart Contracts and Decentralized Applications.
Discussion topics : Introduce concepts of smart contracts. Public vs. private blockchains.
Applications to Ethereum and developing in Solidity. Reading materials :
● "On Public and Private Blockchains" by Vitalik Buterin ( )
● “A Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform” (Ethereum whitepaper)
● “Ethereum: A secure decentralised generalised transaction ledger” by Gavin Wood
● Solidity documentation: Week 4 - Architectural weaknesses of current protocols.
Discussion topics : Scaling, energy utilisation, 51% attacks, growing length of blockchains, incentive misalignments (e.g. in Ripple), hard forks.
Reading materials :
● “On scaling decentralized blockchains”
● “Segregated Witness Benefits”
● “The Bitcoin Lightning Network: Scalable Off-Chain Instant Payments”

Week 5 - Proof of stake and zero-knowledge proofs/protocols.
Discussion topics : Problems with Proof-of-work; Alternative mechanisms such as Proof-of-Stake; The ability of zero-knowledge proofs to ensure security and privacy (examples: Zcash and Ethereum).
Reading materials :
● “zkSnarks in a nutshell” by Christian Reitwiessner
● Proof of Stake:
● Introducing Casper “the Friendly Ghost”:

Week 6 - Implications: Secure distributed storage and compute.
Discussion topics : Use of blockchains and distributed trust to safely store massive amounts of information in peer-peer networks (examples: FileCoin). The IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) hypermedia distribution protocol (addressed by content and identities); bittorrent swarms.
Reading materials :
● On Decentralizing Prediction Markets and Order Books:
● Interplanetary Filesystem whitepaper:

Week 7 - Implications: Healthcare and MedRec/MedChain.
Discussion topics : Talk and Q&A with Asaph. How can blockchain help create a more secure and efficient system to store and transfer medical records/research data? Current limitations on medical records
Guest Speaker: Asaph Azaria (PhD from MIT Media Lab, currently at DE Shaw Research) Reading materials :
● Ekblaw, Ariel, Asaph Azaria, John D. Halamka, and Andrew Lippman. "A Case Study for Blockchain in Healthcare:“MedRec” prototype for electronic health records and medical research data." (2016).
● Healthcare rallies for blockchains (IBM Institute for Business Value)

Week 8 - Implications: Micropayments and the unbanked.
Discussion topics : Micropayment applications to the Energy sector. Current limitations of transaction fees. Segwit/Lightning as a potential two-layer approach to micropayments on top of Bitcoin.
Reading materials :
● Energy grid micropayments excerpt from “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World” by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott:
● “How Segwit and Lightning Will Enable Low-Fee Bitcoin Micropayments”

Week 9 - Implications: Sharing personal data for discovery.
Discussion topics : Privacy and third-party access to personal data. MIT Media Lab’s Project Enigma.

Reading materials :

● Sandy Pentland and Guy Zyskind (MIT Media Lab Project Enigma) "Decentralizing Privacy: Using Blockchain to Protect Personal Data" 10 - Implications: Intelligent currencies.

Discussion topics : Cryptocurrencies and the dynamics of the crypto market as a whole. What’s

Reading materials :

● MIT Technology Review article on crypto market dymanics: (references "Evolutionary dynamics of the cryptocurrency market" )

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