Published on May 1, 2015 at 21:40 BST
“If you would have explained Uber or Lyft five years ago, you would have had to explain it as digital hitchhiking, because that’s what it was.”
That analogy, according to newly appointed MIT Digital Currency Initiative director Brian Forde, illustrates where bitcoin and the blockchain are today – struggling for a more colloquial definition that may only come when the technology delivers a consumer experience that communicates its societal value.
Uber and Lyft, he noted, have since gone on to build a trusted system of background checks, ratings and payments that mainstreamed their services into culturally acceptable modes of transportation.
The Digital Currency Initiative finds the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seeking an active role in this transition process for digital currencies. As laid out in the group’s introductory blog post, the program has three goals: to engage students in research around key issues, convene stakeholders in discussions regarding the technology and provide a catalyst for unbiased research.
In a new interview, Forde sought to expand on these efforts, unpacking some of the perhaps denser terminology in the group’s launch messaging. For example, Forde elaborated on how he sees the Digital Currency Initiative addressing areas of high social impact under his leadership.
Put more simply, Forde suggested that bitcoin is likely to have use cases that, while potentially beneficial to millions globally, won’t or shouldn’t generate the investment return to attract venture capital.
Forde went on to indicate that MIT, through its own work and collaboration with international universities, would be able to leverage such connections to foster an environment where stakeholders can come together to discuss and expand these solutions.
He told CoinDesk:
“It’s hard today for a cryptocurrency startup to approach a federal, state or local government or international organization and say ‘Do I have a solution for you’, and for them to say ‘Yes, I fully understand cryptocurrency, think it will solve all of my transaction-based problems and I will buy your solution tomorrow.'”
MIT, Forde explained, will aim to facilitate the research that can identify opportunities and provide a meeting place where stakeholders can engage in talks that pave the way for development.
“This is an emerging technology and our focus at MIT is to help mainstream it in a way that it will have the impact that’s projected onto it,” Forde said.
Though arguably the first step from the academic community to play a serious role in the bitcoin and blockchain ecosystem, Forde sought to stress that digital currencies are not the first emerging technology to receive support from MIT.
In particular, Forde cited the Center for Bits and Atoms and its role in helping mature the conversation surrounding 3-D printing by pioneering the concept of a makerspace, an interactive environment where newcomers can create with the technology.
Forde’s own background includes other emerging technologies that were successfully mainstreamed.
As the president and co-founder of early voice over IP (VoIP) startup Llamadas S.A., Forde helped turn what was then an emerging technology unknown to the public into a thriving business in what he called “the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”.
“It wasn’t legal and it wasn’t illegal, it was just new,” Forde says, inferring a sentiment often expressed about bitcoin.
This experience led to a position at the White House, where he specialized in helping the Obama administration identify new beneficial technologies. It was there, Forde said, where he was first asked to conduct research on bitcoin and the blockchain, and where he gained a new toolset that he believes will allow him to help conversation around digital currency mature.
Forde said he has been interested in bitcoin for a few years, first encountering the technology at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank and incubator.
During the interview, Forde spoke out about what he characterized as an unhealthy culture that pervades the digital currency community whereby individuals will be judged based on the length of time in which they’ve been involved.
“I think we’re at a point where we need to get beyond asking the question ‘When did you start using bitcoin?’ because you don’t ask people when they started using the Internet as a proxy for their capacity to make an impact, and I think that creates a culture of exclusion that’s the opposite of what we want to do,” he said.
Forde went on to suggest that bitcoin stakeholders should be more welcoming to newcomers who might be able to add new value and perspective that can help move the technology forward.
“I think bitcoin needs more diversity, not less, and when we frame questions that way, it gives the impression to people who are curious about it and have significant value to add that you aren’t going to be as welcome as if you were in it from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s true,” he continued.
Overall, he called for a culture of positivity that can help the technology move past issues such as the collapse of bitcoin exchange Mt Gox and online black market Silk Road.
Such a future will require more than dialogue, however. On that front, Forde suggests the best way for MIT to be involved is engage its faculty and students about the technology.
Forde suggested that he would encourage exploration that would explore bitcoin’s scalability, security, stability and privacy, but cautioned that, by nature of the initiative, he wasn’t able to offer any specifics.
“I think specifically saying the exact research topics we’re going to focus on would be premature and irresponsible. What we are doing is conducting a comprehensive review of the research that has been done to see where there are opportunities for us to make a valuable contribution to the community,” he said.
So far, Forde reports that MIT has received “hundreds of emails” and that the university is indexing these comments so that data can be presented to core developers, faculty and students about the state of bitcoin research.
Though MIT’s goal will be to help “mainstream” the technology, Forde also discussed how the university will strive to take a neutral approach to this goal, defining what he believes maintaining neutrality would mean.
“The academic setting allows for professors and students, who don’t have necessarily a financial interest in cryptocurrency startups, to look it from as neutral a perspective as they may, from as honest as a perspective as they can,” he remarked.
Forde acknowledged that this doesn’t mean that private companies and venture capitalists wouldn’t continue research, but that MIT’s work would perhaps have “less of an angle”, and by extension, provide perhaps more factual guideposts for those looking to learn or engage with bitcoin.
“I think that, in collaboration with other universities, our faculty and our grad students can provide the necessary research that helps mainstream the technology because of the neutrality and the credibility that those respected professionals bring to the table.”
Though he stressed the Digital Currency Initiative would be driven by those who engage with it, Forde demonstrated a personal interest in how bitcoin and the blockchain could be used to improve governments, perhaps owing to his background as a White House advisor.
Still, he acknowledged that it will be some time before governments are comfortable using bitcoin or similar implementations, noting how many are still in the process of shifting toward cloud computing, for example.
“To think they’ll be on cryptocurrencies tomorrow is a bit of a misnomer,” he stated. “Having said that, there is an opportunity to collaborate with them early on and help them become part of that process. You can do that at a university where you can incubate that idea to think about how this plays out and get everyone comfortable with the technology.”
In particular, Forde evoked the idea of what he called “the rubber stamp authentication protocol”, the idea that governments still use ink-and-paper solutions to make important decisions.
“The rubber stamp authentication protocol is, ‘Did you get that stamped? Did you make a copy of your driver’s license to prove your identity? All of these things are forgeable,” he explained.
He added that he sees opportunities for the blockchain and bitcoin to help underscore solutions to these longstanding issues.
However, the actual development will be driven by students, who will come to MIT Media Lab for ideas that will become theses, some of which will then be commercialized by nonprofits or interested stakeholders.
Overall, he sought to dispel the idea that governments are slow to adapt to technology or are unable to comprehend compelling new solutions. Rather, he said he hopes that digital currencies might help governments upgrade for the 21st century, a development he framed as beneficial for constituents as well.
“I think cryptocurrency can help play a role in that technology stack.”