A group of researchers are encouraging universities to set up bitcoin nodes as part of an effort to allow students and professors to experiment and test the network.
The private testbed network, called BSafe, aims to help the technology proliferate, while possibly preventing instances such as the collapse of Mt Gox or The DAO from happening in the future.
“Most developers in this world think that [bitcoin’s] fundamental cryptographic algorithm is ideal and can be used as a black box,” Shin’ichiro Matsuo, co-founder of BSafe.network, said.
Matuso argues that bitcoin, and for that matter all crypto-financial projects, need a more diverse group of researchers exploring and analyzing the technology.
Matsuo told CoinDesk:
“We need to do more accurate evaluations on blockchain technology.”
The network will also provide a communication channel between academia and Bitcoin Core developers on the many bitcoin testnets, the alternative blockchains used for testing code before actual live deployment on the bitcoin blockchain.
Debuted in February, the network currently has five nodes deployed: three in Japan, one in the UK and another recently set up by MIT. Matsuo’s goal is to have 30 university nodes set up before the end of the year, and farther into the future, three university nodes per country.
While bitcoin is the first target, Matsuo has ethereum and Hyperledger in his sights for expanding the network’s work.
More minds sought
For Matsuo, the main aim is to bring anthropologists, sociologists, scientists and legal experts into the bitcoin community, which in the minds of many has turned into a pro-bitcoin echo chamber where critical assessments are often times met with scorn.
But for bitcoin to become a legitimate technology solution to all different types of consumers, neutral, unbiased research needs to be carried out.
“Right now the community is a meritocracy and the majority of it is based on whether you can code,” said Cory Fields, a Bitcoin Core developer who’s helping BSafe set up a node at MIT.
This is a typical governance structure within the open-source community and can be a good thing in some ways but detrimental in others.
“Just because I can code doesn’t mean I know anything about economics and the outcomes of economic policies,” Fields said. “There’s room for some academics with some weight behind them … to come along and say I can’t code but this policy will be disastrous in the future or worth investigating the outcomes.”
Bringing in academics could be a very positive thing. Fields likens it to the development of the Internet, which grew out of a project originally aimed at linking universities together.
According to Fields, a consistent set of nodes working in unison would be able to measure things that have been hard to study before. He gave block propagation times – how long it takes to broadcast block authentication to the rest of the nodes – as an example.
Plus, organizers say, universities are a great way to develop talent in a niche field.
“In the space of what is now called blockchain, the expertise is actually quite thin,” says Pindar Wong, co-founder of BSafe and well-known internet pioneer and bitcoin enthusiast.
“The people who understand the elegant mathematics are unique individuals, probably less than 100 individuals currently take interest in bitcoin at the cryptographic level.”
And this, making the space more attractive for people who may have different interpretations of bitcoin’s pros and cons, is very near and dear to Wong’s heart. Bitcoin as a protocol for innovation lures in entrepreneurs who aren’t always the most safe individuals, he said.
But safety and soundness in the protocol is very important when dealing with consumer money, and bringing new people into the community also comes with hurdles.
“The thing that frustrates developers is that there are stages of understanding bitcoin and blockchain,” said Fields.
When first learning about bitcoin, outside researchers come up with ideas to rewrite the consensus code to eliminate certain struggles. But these researchers generally don’t realize that those rewrites have been pitched many years ago, worked through and finally shot down.
‘Bigger safety net’
Another advantage of setting up testbed networks could be finding vulnerabilities in the code before it leads to problems.
This process of testing code to guarantee that it does what it’s supposed to do and nothing else is called code proving. According to Fields, it’s a particularly important step in deploying code for many industries.
As it relates to the debates after The DAO attack, there was a camp that thought because users bought into the idea, they should be responsible for reviewing the code. But, not everyone that participated in The DAO had the technical capability to review the code.
“One of the ways around that is to have the code proven which gives a much bigger safety net for end users,” Fields said.
But so far, tools for testing and proving these new blockchain protocols haven’t been created yet.
“The DAO and the ethereum hard fork has helped to emphasize the importance of security and correctness of the applications themselves and the protocols on which they depend, moreover the role that academia can play in contributing the productive discussions,” Wong said.
Testbeds could bring this to the community.
BSafe is not the only testbed project for bitcoin that’s being set up currently, showing a trend towards diversifying the community.
“Like the internet in the 1980s, blockchain tech is not mature; there are many kinds of items there are still debates over in blockchain,” Matsuo said, concluding:
“And we need many experiments to find a kind of good balance; these sandboxes could help find that balance.”