DeCenter conference emphasized need for many disciplines to guide blockchain

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by the Office of Engineering Communications
April 26, 2023

As society charts blockchain’s future, it must grapple with deeply connected questions about the technology, its applications, and its governance and effects, Jaswinder Pal (J.P.) Singh told experts from academia, business, government, open-source ecosystems and non-profits gathered for a conference on the technology on April 13.

Singh, co-director of Princeton’s Center for the Decentralization of Power Through Blockchain Technology (DeCenter), said that addressing such challenges is essential to realize the opportunity of blockchain technology and navigate through a complex landscape of risks. He said Princeton University, with its breadth of research and education and its desire to collaborate with industry, open-source projects and government, is ideally positioned to help guide the transformational development of the new technology.

“Princeton, through the DeCenter, is going to be a thought and impact leader in this area,” Singh, Professor of Computer Science, Technology, and Societal Change, said at the DeCenter’s spring conference. The University’s broad strengths in engineering, social sciences and humanities make Princeton uniquely positioned to help “set the proper foundations for it across technology, applications, economics, policy and society.”

Watch video of the conference here.

Welcoming guests for the full-day conference, Singh said that by working across these areas the DeCenter initially is seeking to identify the key applications and questions that will guide blockchain’s future. “These terms we talk about — trust, power, decentralization — what exactly do they mean in the contexts at hand?” Singh asked. “How do we measure them, and how do we evaluate technologies and applications along these dimensions? What are the key applications of the decentralization of trust that will deliver long-term positive value to society and humanity? How, exactly, does this decentralization help people, society and industry, and whom does it help? When, and for whom, is it not good?”

“We need to address all these areas together, with scholars, practitioners and students coming together to work on key opportunities and concerns. And we must build real applications and solutions and drive our efforts with them,” Singh said.

Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and DeCenter co-director, told the audience that the interdisciplinary nature of the challenge is one reason Princeton is well placed to help guide the development of blockchain.

“We, as an engineering school, sit within a great liberal arts university that allows us to educate different types of engineers, to do our research through a different lens, which is influenced and impacted through our collaborations with our colleagues across the University,” said Goldsmith, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I don’t believe there is any engineering school in the country that has such strong ties to the liberal arts, to policy, to ethics. The DeCenter, in many ways, is a showcase of everything I would like to accomplish within the School of Engineering.”

The conference opened with a discussion between Goldsmith and Rostin Behnam, the chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been a central regulator of some cryptocurrency activity. Behnam said the challenge for government agencies and members of Congress who are trying to create regulatory frameworks is to strike a balance that protects investors without stifling innovation. He said the regulations need to develop speedily enough to react to changing market conditions, but with enough deliberation to ensure that the system is both transparent and trustworthy.

Rostin Behnam (left) seated on stage holding a microphone next to Andrea Goldsmith (right) who is seated holding a microphone

The conference opened with a discussion between Andrea Goldsmith and Rostin Behnam, the chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been a central regulator of some cryptocurrency activity.

The spring conference was a second appearance for Behnam, who spoke at the DeCenter’s Inaugural Summit on Nov. 30. He said that Princeton has an important role to play in shaping the future of blockchain through an interdisciplinary, multilateral approach that prioritizes both innovating and avoiding harm.

“It is important to engage,” Benham said, adding that Princeton researchers should work to ensure that policy makers understand “what you envision as the future of the technology and what role it is going to play in our future.”

Delivering the morning’s keynote speech, Roya Mahboob, cofounder and CEO of Digital Citizen Fund, told the audience that Bitcoin has provided a financial lifeline for the women in her home country of Afghanistan and for some people who have had to flee the country. She said the development of an effective cryptocurrency ecosystem could provide a method to empower disadvantaged people around the world who, for economic or political reasons, lacked access to banking systems or control over their own assets.

“Freedom is the ability to be yourself, without anyone’s permission,” Mahboob said. “Monetary policy is sometimes a human rights issue.”

The conference also featured keynote talks and panel discussions that delved into a wide range of topics related to blockchain’s development. Nolan McCarty, the vice dean for strategic initiatives at the School of Public and International Affairs and an expert on the intersection of economics and political science, headed a panel examining governance and blockchain. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Matt Weinberg, who explores how algorithms create incentives that shape users’ behavior, moderated a panel on NFTs (non-fungible tokens, a way of using blockchain to uniquely identify physical or digital objects) and other digital assets. Andrew Chignell, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor in Religion, Philosophy, and the University Center for Human Values, headed a panel that explored questions of power, trust and ethics raised in the context of the blockchain-based cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

Carole House, the former White House Director of cybersecurity and secure digital innovation, delivered the afternoon keynote speech. She emphasized that for all their benefits, decentralized finance systems pose uniquely challenging regulatory questions, particularly when it comes to deciding who is responsible for transactions that violate federal law. For example, if hackers send large sums of money to sanctioned regimes such as North Korea, are the distributed set of people who validate the transaction (known as miners or stakers) criminally responsible, she asked.

“There’s great potential risks because all those benefits that you think of for being able to send a wire transfer from my pocket to yours anywhere in the world are also features that are incredibly attractive to illicit users and to criminals,” House said.

Regulators must strike a balance between decentralization and making sure the system is self-policing or that someone can be held responsible for violating the law. “I have yet to see really good answers surrounding that, and what accountability truly looks like and what recourse looks like for victims in completely decentralized systems,” she said, urging the creators of these systems to propose answers before regulators impose strict rules.

Jaswinder Singh (right) looking at a poster board with an attendee (left)

DeCenter co-director Jaswinder Pal (J.P.) Singh (right) talked with an attendee at the conference’s closing poster session.

The conference concluded with Jennifer Rexford, computer scientist and Princeton University provost, who said the event was a “canonical example” of Princeton taking a nimble approach on a timely topic by connecting researchers and leaders from many disciplines and sectors.

She said the DeCenter also reflects a focus on bringing together people who want to go beyond doing excellent scholarship to have a practical influence, “whether that’s through startup companies or tech transfer or open-source software, or you name it, trying to find ways to have their work really jump the chasm and have an impact.”

Lastly, she said, the breadth of the day’s topics exemplifies Princeton’s focus on thinking about the human impacts of technology. “We want to think early and often about new technologies — which are always dual use, with good and bad impact on society,” she said. “Blockchain is certainly no exception. There can be very harmful uses as well as profoundly exciting ones that might be transformative in very positive ways.”