Cryptocurrencies Come to Campus

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The interest is a fueled by the rising price of virtual currencies over the last year. But they have created a host of issues that are worthy of study even apart from the price, professors in a variety of fields said.

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For lawyers, virtual currency projects have challenged traditional legal categories and definitions of what constitutes a security or a commodity.

Regulators have been caught flat-footed as entrepreneurs have raised billions of dollars by selling virtual currencies without going through the traditional fund-raising channels, taking advantage of the legal fuzziness surrounding them.

For economists and business school professors, Bitcoin and other digital tokens have raised questions about the nature of money. The first lecture in the Berkeley class, for example, considered the development of Bitcoin against the history of money.

Several business school classes are also focusing on the decentralized methods of record keeping and decision making introduced by Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is given credit for creating the first blockchain, a ledger of transactions that is updated by a network of computers without relying on any central company or government.

Photo

Drew Hinkes, a lawyer and adjunct professor, speaking to Mr. Yermack’s class last week.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Many big companies are now looking at how blockchains independent of Bitcoin might be used to do things like track music royalties or cargo containers with input from the many parties involved.

“The students in my class are from every possible discipline,” said Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke’s business school, who is teaching a class with 231 students this semester. “They understand that this is going to disrupt many different areas of business, and they want to be the disrupters, not the disruptees.”

The computer scientists, meanwhile, are digging into the cryptography that virtual currencies use to secure their wallets and transaction data, as well as the design of the distributed computer networks that make blockchains possible.

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Last week, Stanford University hosted a three-day conference on the architecture and security of blockchain software, part of a new cottage industry in academic conferences and journals that have sprung up.

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“Let’s assume that tomorrow the price of Bitcoin drops down to $2,” said Nicolas Christin, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, who is teaching a course on “Cryptocurrencies, Blockchains and Applications” this semester. “I still think it’s very cool from a technical standpoint.”

Professors and students alike said that aside from the academic possibilities, familiarity with blockchain technology was becoming much more useful on the job market.

Photo

Mr. Hinkes’s Bitcoin socks. Professors in a variety of fields said virtual currencies had created a host of issues that were worthy of study apart from their prices.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The job site Indeed.com has reported a spike in job listings that mention the blockchain, and there is now an entire site, Crypto Jobs List, dedicated to opportunities in the young industry.

Vinny Tuminelli, a business school student sitting at the back of the Berkeley class, said that during an internship at Anheuser-Busch last summer, the blockchain had come up in an “innovation team” he was on. When he met with his supervisor more recently, the topic came up again.

“My original understanding was that it was just thrown out there as a buzzword,” Mr. Tuminelli said. “But now it seems like it has some legs behind it, and people are putting real resources toward it.”

Students appear to have caught on to the opportunity faster than their professors. Berkeley students have created a campus club that offers multiple courses on blockchain technology, taught by the students themselves.

The director of M.I.T.’s Digital Currency Initiative, Neha Narula, said that when it didn’t schedule a course for this semester, she got constant requests from students. So she put one together and is now co-teaching it.

“Students are just fascinated with this area,” she said. “They want to learn about it desperately.”


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