Princeton University is launching an initiative on blockchain and its potential to disrupt and redistribute power in society. Supported by four alumni as part of a major gift combined with Princeton’s Venture Forward campaign, the initiative will bring together scholars from all disciplines to better understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of the technology.
The rise of cryptocurrencies – digital money without a central governance organization – followed waves of earlier technological revolutions, from the printing press to the Internet, each of which led to profound changes in the distribution of political and economic power. in the society. Blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies, does not operate under central control, opening up the possibility of innovations and societal changes beyond cryptocurrencies, including new types of contracts and communication platforms.
“Technology has always disrupted power, but blockchain is a new platform to do that. It is very exciting and important to think broadly and deeply about the applications this enables, as we are also generating innovations that push the boundaries of the technology itself,” said Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The initiative will be based in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, while engaging innovators and scholars in the fields of social science, public policy, economics, and humanities. It will accelerate fundamental research not only on the underlying technologies of decentralization, but also on the societal impacts of these technologies. This work will create a dynamic environment for teaching and learning around these technologies and their impacts.
The initiative received seed funding from four alumni who are leaders in technology, investing and blockchain. The donors are: Peter L. Briger, Jr., 1986 graduate and director and co-CEO of Fortress Investment Group; Joseph M. Lubin, 1987 graduate and co-founder of blockchain and cryptocurrency platform Ethereum and CEO and founder of ConsenSys, a blockchain company; Daniel W. Morehead, 1987 graduate and founder and managing director of Pantera Capital; and Michael E. Novogratz, 1987 graduate and managing director of Galaxy Investment Partners.
“These donations enable Princeton to pursue a pioneering research initiative with the ability to shed light on the impact of blockchain technology and its potential societal implications,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “Through Princeton’s distinctive approach to interdisciplinary research and teaching, the initiative will lead to a better understanding of the possibilities of this important new technology. I am grateful for the leadership and generous support of this extraordinary group of alumni.
Blockchain, a digital ledger of transactions that is open to anyone to manage and view while being protected against false entries, is rapidly being developed for uses beyond digital currencies. Several companies, for example, use the blockchain to create and manage contracts. Some technologists see blockchain as the basis for a new generation of the Internet, known as Web3, in which disparate users not only generate content, like social media posts, but also own and manage the platforms. of distribution.
Lubin, whose Princeton degree was in electrical engineering and computer science, said one of the main goals of the donation was to engage Princeton’s strength not only in engineering but also in the social sciences. “It is a very powerful technology that has the power to transform the economic and social model of the internet as we know it. Our collective understanding of the pros and cons of digital technology has advanced significantly over the past two decades of digital innovation. The emergence of Web3 presents an opportunity for societies to collectively take stock and assess how this new era of digital innovation can best serve their citizens.
“Our fulfillment of the promise of Web3 depends on building it in a way that is sustainable and well-governed, distributed and resilient, as well as open and participatory,” Lubin said. “The social sciences have a crucial role to play in helping to define a vision of how Web3 can achieve these goals, as well as establishing the principles that should guide our innovation, to ensure that Web3 can better serve communities around the world. on a global scale.”
Jaswinder Pal Singh, a computer science professor who leads the initiative, said such decentralized technologies could be transformative for society and that new, highly collaborative research is essential to deploy new technologies in ways that yield the most benefits. and the least damage.
“It’s a long-standing problem in computer science: how to get agreement or consensus among a distributed set of entities that don’t trust each other. How do you get them to accept that something is the truth? said Singh, who is also a co-founder of a blockchain-based company. “The bitcoin blockchain has solved this problem in an innovative and powerful way. It has, for the first time, allowed people to agree that something has happened and gain the necessary trust without the need for centralized authority, with code visible to all.
This has implications not just for currencies, but for many types of assets, information and governance, he said. Companies are already building many new types of technology, creating whole new areas such as decentralized finance, known as DeFi. While the initiative is not intended to promote cryptocurrencies or any particular use of blockchain, it will greatly advance research in this emerging field.
“We are at a very early stage in understanding the opportunities and challenges associated with these technologies and their applications,” Singh said. “The decentralization of trust can be just as powerful and transformative as the global web. It can transform existing systems and lead to new applications that we can’t even imagine today, with tremendous impact for society. We must engage not only with technology and its uses, but also with the economics, governance and policies associated with it, and do so with industry. Getting it right will require foundational, interdisciplinary research and education, as well as close engagement with the rapidly evolving startup community.
The decentralization initiative will accelerate three areas of work at Princeton: the engineering underlying blockchain and related technologies; innovative uses of technology not only in finance and economics, but also in areas such as voting and news; and the implications these technologies could have for society.
“It’s just a set of cross-functional applications, which is a perfect fit for Princeton because we have great strength in all of these application areas, we’re emerging as the center of a regional hub of technology entrepreneurship, and we have a tradition of educating students who work and think across disciplinary boundaries,” Goldsmith said. “Technology is changing rapidly, so bringing together a wide variety of experts with the engineers who build these platforms is a crucial importance for students and for society.”
Princeton researchers will also partner with external entities, including technology companies, to bring innovations to market, while regularly bringing together academics and thought leaders on the impacts of these technologies.
Goldsmith said work on the engineering side will bring together Princeton’s already strong research groups in the areas of networks, consensus algorithms, optimization, game theory, cryptography and structure structures. data. Research application work will include interdisciplinary collaborations within or beyond Princeton in areas such as economics, finance, politics, and the humanities.
“We will connect engineering advances with the transformative applications of these new platforms, and also understand the societal implications of these technological changes,” Goldsmith said. “It’s a great place for Princeton to take the lead.”