Columbia University is one of the oldest universities in the country. In fact, it’s older than the country. It was founded in 1754 when New York was still an English colony and its original name was King’s College. Along with Harvard and Princeton, Columbia has played a preeminent role in American academia; 96 Nobel Prize laureates have an affiliation with the school. It has been at forefront of the scientific discovery, 33 Nobel Prize winners were affiliated with its Physics Department, the Manhattan Project takes its roots here. The university also played a role in the invention of Sequential Lateral Solidification (SLS) as well as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) – some of the widest used technologies today. In addition, the school supports quite a few initiatives to foster entrepreneurship and innovation amongst its students and alumni. It’s rumored to be the second largest owner of land in New York City behind the Catholic Church and boasts one of the biggest endowments which as of 2018 stands at around $11 billion.
IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) is no slouch either, a tech giant with $110 billion market cap, and although it has gone through its ups and downs while transitioning from a hardware company to a software company, it has been amongst the early adopters of the blockchain technology as it was one of the early members of the Hyperledger Project.
Thus, when we came across a headline “Columbia University and IBM Establish New Center to Accelerate Innovation in Blockchain and Data Transparency”, we believed this was a major development in the space and something that was a bit underrated by the community, so we decided to give our readers a better insight into this collaboration.
Sharon Sputz, Garud N. Iyengar, Satish Rao, Jules Miller, and Nitin Gaur
According to Sharon Sputz, Executive Director of Strategic Programs at Data Science Institute at Columbia University, the cooperation will consist of three main areas: 1) Education 2) Research and 3) Acceleration.
Several courses will be added to the curriculum of various schools of Columbia University. For instance, the Law School will add a course on governance and the Business School will have one discussing digital assets as a new asset class focusing on the securities aspect. The new curriculum hasn’t yet been unveiled in its entirety.
The research side of this partnership will be publishing whitepapers and conducting workshops. According to the Columbia University research leader Garud Iyengar, thus far, three research projects have received seed funding:
- Machine Learning and the Changing Economics of Knowledge (Simona Abis and Laura Veldkamp). “This project uses a combination of theory and empirics to estimate how data is transformed into knowledge, productivity, and profits, and how machine learning alters that process. By developing a method to value data as intangible capital, we can gauge how machine learning has changed the returns to scale of firms that use big data”.
- Incentive Compatible Blockchains (Christos Papadimitriou, Tim Roughgarden, and Xi Chen). “The goal of the research is to understand the role of incentives in blockchains. The researchers aim to explore the design space of reward mechanisms for both the Proof-of-Work and Proof-of-Stake frameworks, to achieve Myerson-like characterizations of incentive compatible blockchain protocols, and to identify tasks that are achievable in permissioned blockchains but formally impossible to carry out in permissionless blockchains”.
- DeepSEA Framework for Building Certified Smart Contracts (Ronghui Gu). “This DeepSEA-IBM project aims to enable the formal verification of Hyperledger Burrow smart contracts in Coq. It allows the developers to implement the contact in a high-level language, while a specification that can be reasoned about in Coq will be automatically generated. The contract will then be compiled into Hyperledger Burrow bytecode with a proof that no bugs are introduced during the compilation”.
In addition, there will be workshops held on these topics, and the ultimate goal is to publish whitepapers illuminating the discussions held in the workshops.
If the first research topic is not directly related to the blockchain technology, the last two touch on the subjects that don’t only have an academic interest, but practical implications as well. Based on the Bitcoin example, we know that the PoW (proof-of-work) framework may work, but we don’t exactly know why. Also, we assume that it becomes safe only once a certain scale has been achieved, but we don’t know where this threshold lies. On the other hand, the PoS (proof-of-stake) framework doesn’t even have much empirical evidence to support its validity; meanwhile, we are just a few months away from Ethereum Casper being implemented.
Although the last research topic will be focused on Hyperledger Burrow, its findings should have general applicability to other smart contract enabled blockchain platforms. This research will look into how the formal verification methods can be applied to smart contracts to verify their completeness. It may have an esoteric ring to it for most readers but in fact, it is very practical. Once a contract becomes complicated, it becomes very difficult to foresee and cover all possible outcomes. In the physical world, we have a legal system to resolve the disagreements arising from this incompleteness and general ambiguity. However, with smart contracts, if one fails to foresee those complications, there may be no recourse. In addition, malevolent parties could design smart contracts in such a way as to take advantage of one or several parties involved. Thus, having the ability to check the contract in advance would facilitate the development of more complex smart contracts. Having this ability would be similar to being able to check whether a program will run into an infinite loop before running it (which unfortunately is not possible).
How IBM and Columbia are accelerating adoption
Perhaps, the most interesting part of this collaboration for the crypto community is Acceleration. The Columbia-IBM Blockchain Accelerator has two programs: Network and Launch. The latter is headed by Satish Rao. It is open to the teams whose members are either currently attending or had graduated from one of the New York City universities. It’s geared toward early-stage companies. Currently, it is accepting applications, in March ten teams will be selected.
The selected teams will be attending 3-hour weekly workshops. And although the initial focus is on blockchain technology, according to Mr. Rao, one of the workshops will be on “tokenization of the existing business models.”
The Network is for later stage startups, those “who have raised a round or two and are looking to scale up.”
Here also, ten teams will be admitted (we’ll cover the announcement on January 21), they’ll be spending 2.5 days on site in January, February, and March; and, then in March there’ll be a demo day where the teams will have an opportunity to pitch.
Jules Miller, who is a partner at the Accelerator, couldn’t reveal too much about the selected companies since the news is under the embargo until the announcement day, so here is what she did mention:
- The companies come from different industries (healthcare, royalty management, adtech etc.) as not to compete with each other.
- With revenues from tens of thousands to tens of millions dollars.
As to why IBM is involved in this project, Ms. Miller commented:
Although neither Columbia University nor IBM will make a financial investment in the accelerated companies, they’ll benefit from various resources provided by the two institutions.
Columbia University, besides its overall academic resource, will provide to each selected team:
- A computer science student
- An MBA student
- Access to its investor network
IBM will provide:
- A tech mentor
- A business mentor
- $120K of free IBM cloud credits for IBM Blockchain Platform and IBM cloud services
We were assured by everyone involved that despite the IBM’s emphasis on Hyperledger, the participants will not be forced to use Hyperledger and will be free to use any available public or private blockchain platform.
“It’s going to be a neutral ground,” according to Nitin Gaur, director of IBM Blockchain Lab.