Exploring Blockchain Technology in Blacksburg

May 24, 2018

A huge advertisement of Bitcon is displayed near a train station in Tokyo. Blockchain is a decentralized technology that can make transactions safe and secure, but crypto-currency exchanges that trade bitcoins and other virtual currencies that are based on this technology have been hacked because they are not working on secure networks.
Credit (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Blockchain technology could become the next great communications platform. It promises to provide both transparency and security to transactions of all kinds. And Blacksburg, Virginia is poised to become a center for its development.

First there was the world wide web, then came mobile and the cloud and now there is the blockchain. "Blockchain a term that's really just a metaphor."

Cal Ribbens is head of the computer science department at Virginia Tech. "The block has to do with blocks of information and the chain is just to suggest that these things are linked together. So, the idea is that a blockchain grows and as blocks of information are added to it, those blocks correspond to transactions or contracts or trades or any kind of an event that you want to safely and securely store, essentially forever, so that everybody could agree and go back and say, ‘yes that piece of information was exchanged at that point in time between those two people.'"

Or, between dozens of people or hundreds, even thousands - anyone who is what they call 'permissioned' on the blockchain. And because the information is not held by, say, one guy at one bank or some company in another city, everyone who' is part of it has a copy of on their computers.  And because the documented is distributed among numerous people, no one can alter it without everyone in the group knowing about it.

Director of the Financial Resilience Lab at Virginia Tech, David Bieri says, "That's why blockchain is often referred to as distributed ledger technology, or DLTs."

In four panels, experts explored the economic, social, and political implications of blockchain.
Credit Virginia Tech Photo

Bieri hosted a recent symposium on blockchain technology in Blacksburg calling the blockchain platform, "A key technological development that is set to fundamentally transform central elements of our economic life. It's perhaps only a mild exaggeration to suggest that in regard to its disruptive potential, the Blockchain is on par with the invention of electricity, the telegraph, the internal combustion engine and perhaps even the Internet."

He told the hundred or so people gathered in Blacksburg's Lyric Theater for the presentation, that they were at 'ground zero' for blockchain technology. "You may know that Blacksburg is the home of Virginia Tech and capital of the “Hokie Nation”, but Blacksburg also holds a, lesser-known, perhaps, claim to fame, namely that it sits, in some ways, at the epicenter of the blockchain revolution---a story that goes as far back as the late 1970s, when a handful of visionaries, crypto-pioneers as some call them with links to Virginia Tech, began lay the groundwork of what eventually should evolve into the blockchain revolution."

That revolution is getting reinforcements from a global leader in the filed, based in Blacksburg. Chief Technology Officer of Block.one, Dan Larimer, is giving 3 million dollars to Virginia Tech's College of Engineering to help train students for a brand-new field. 

Cal Ribbens says, “One of the things he and his colleagues at Block One emphasized is their serious intention to invest in this area. They really want to build part of their engineering team here they want to recruit people here."

And the second thing they said is that they want to engage with universities, with the academic side, "The blockchain world, and the start ups in that space, move very quickly and yet these folks want to ask serious questions in terms of the academics and the research and how to best educate students in this space, so we appreciate that.  That's encouraging."

Ribbens says Tech will add its first course solely focused on blockchain technology this fall and another next spring. The plan is to hire some additional faculty and ultimately, offer a minor or a certificate in the field. And he says, as far as he knows, Tech may be the first university in the country to offer a blockchain curriculum.