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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

What’s happening with the Digital Currency Initiative by Chris Peterson SM '13

developing blockchain technologies here at MIT

I’ve blogged before about how, a few years ago, Jeremy Rubin ’16 managed to raise $500k in funding and a ton of faculty sponsors to distribute $100 in Bitcoin to every MIT undergraduate as his final project for the class I was teaching.

Which, by the way, is not a bad final project for a sophomore year elective.

Since then, that project has grown into the Digital Currency Initiative (DCI), based at the MIT Media Lab. As the DCI site says:

The goal of the Media Lab Digital Currency initiative is to bring together global experts in areas ranging from cryptography, to economics, to privacy, to distributed systems, to take on this important new area of research. The effort will reach across the MIT campus, and we look forward to including collaborations with leading experts around the world. Heading the initiative is Brian Forde, former senior White House ​advisor for ​mobile and ​data ​innovation. He will work with Lab researchers and faculty across the MIT campus to explore the many issues involved in blockchain and bitcoin technology.


Soon after the DCI was established, the Media Lab hired three of the core developers of Bitcoin to continue work on technical development, as well as my friend Chelsea Barabas SM ’14 as the DCI’s Head of Social Innovation (i.e., it’s her job to make sure that Bitcoin and related technologies help make the world a more, rather than less, fair and equitable place). Jeremy, who will graduate in June with a B.S. and MEng in Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and concentration in Comparative Media Studies, still works on the project as well.

Last November, Chelsea organized a MLTalk with the DCI developers and Media Lab director Joi Ito to talk about what they hoped the DCI could and would be:

Earlier today, the DCI announced a $900,000 Bitcoin Developer Fund to to cover salaries, travel and overall support of Bitcoin protocol development efforts, including events like the Scaling Bitcoin workshop series. The fund makes no directives to developers on what work they should do or the positions they should take on policy decisions.

Bitcoin specifically (and blockchain technologies more generally) have been the subject of praise, scorn, and fantasies of both the utopian and dystopian varieties. The truth, as always, is a bit more ambiguous than any given account. Personally, I like to think about the DCI as doing for blockchain what the W3C did for the world wide web: providing a stable shelter at MIT for a fragile technical ecosystem as it continues to develop, or, more specifically, a home for developers as they continue to work on (and work out) such a specification. I’ll also note that LearningMachine, the company which operates our supplemental portfolio software SlideRoom, has partnered with the Media Lab to to build a blockchain issuing module and credential verification system extending the Lab’s digital certificate system.

I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going to happen with Bitcoin and/or blockchain, but I’m pretty excited that its future, whatever it is, is going to built here at MIT.