New research seeks to create blockchain technology that mimics human-like trust

9/26/2018

Allie Arp, CSL

One of the most unique evolutionary aspects of humans is the ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. As part of his new research project, “Rethinking Cryptocurrencies for Resource-Constrained Networks,” CSL Professor Pramod Viswanath is trying to mimic how trust among humans drives societies, as an inspiration for building new blockchain technology with applications in cryptocurrencies.

“These are ways of getting people with different strategic interests to come together,” said Viswanath, a professor of electronic and computer engineering. “It’s a technological solution to enable trust.”
Pramod Viswanath
Pramod Viswanath

Animals like bees and fish have the ability to cooperate in large numbers, but in a very rigid process. Gorillas can cooperate and be flexible, but only in small numbers. Humans have the evolutionary advantage of being capable of cooperation and flexibility in large groups. Current blockchains are like gorillas; they are good at cooperating and the nodes are flexible, but not at a large scale. Viswanath would like to design a blockchain that can operate at a global scale, opening up new functionalities built on distributed trust. 

“For a long time, human societies were driven by tribal motions of trust, though mostly now it’s institutional trust,” Viswanath said. “In the United States, this means trust in the government and in businesses. The entire premise of blockchains is that we can achieve institution level trust but in a distributed way.”

The main challenge facing Viswanath is that blockchains, as they are currently designed, are very resource heavy. Blockchains are often used to manage databases and banking systems, for supply-chain verification, or to distribute cryptocurrencies – operations that take up a lot storage space and computational energy. This strains the networks on which the blockchains operate. More issues can arise if the blockchain’s network is unreliable, causing delays or inconsistencies in the chain. Viswanath hopes to address all of these issues with the following plans to:

  • Design blockchains for storage-constrained nodes
  • Designing consensus mechanisms for network-constrained nodes
  • Combine the first two objectives to propose holistic blockchain architecture that is designed with both network and device constraints in mind

These designs will be built from the ground up.

“We don’t try to put a bandage on it. We start thinking about all aspects of blockchain and solve them all,” Viswanath said. “We have already had success with this strategy. The key is to consider all aspects: storage, networking, and algorithm. Being right on all three in a harmonious way is what makes it work.”

Viswanath is writing a book on the concept of using first principles, looking at everything from beginning to end, to redesign blockchains. One of the coauthors is a familiar face: Giulia Fanti, a former postdoc at CSL. Now at Carnegie Mellon University, Fanti is a co-investigator for the recently funded project. 

There are also two current graduate students working on this project, which was funded for three years by the Army Research Office in the amount of $588,850.