Saturday, thousands of seniors in Blacksburg will don caps and gowns and take the final stroll of their undergraduate lives. Many will head out of town with Virginia Tech sheepskins, mostly broke and with butterflies in their stomachs about the future.
At least a handful will leave with some money in their pockets. They earned it Friday afternoon, in a theater at the university’s Squires Student Center. For the past few months, they’ve been planning and plotting enterprises in something that may be the biggest thing since the development of the World Wide Web.
You may have heard of “the blockchain.” It’s one of the hottest areas of computer science right now. For the past 10 years, its primary utility has been as the backbone of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
Although likely unintended, cryptocurrencies have made buying heroin, guns and fake IDs simple and anonymous on the Dark Web.
But blockchain technology has almost endless applications for good, too — in health, art, housing, politics, economics — you name it.
Friday, five student teams put some of those on display in a mostly-empty hall before an international panel of experts. The 20 students, most of whom but not all were seniors, collected prizes totaling more than $28,000 in the Virginia Tech Blockchain Challenge.
Along the way, they treated a handful of curious onlookers to glimpses of the future. The breadth of potentially disruptive technology they displayed staggers the mind.
Broadly speaking, blockchain technology uses decentralized networks to process and store data securely and transparently. It’s a foolproof way to document the creation and ownership of intellectual property, or to log financial transactions, or anything time-sensitive, in a way that can be easily verified by anyone.
The student projects were more narrowly focused on building specific blockchain applications that provide value to Virginia Tech and its students, faculty, alumni and staff.
Imagine: A digital application that allows a professor in a 200-student lecture hall to take attendance with the press of a button. Imagine how much lecture time that saves, over the thousands of lectures that occur at Virginia Tech during just one semester. Team JW and the Blockchain Bois demonstrated that.
Or consider: An apartment complex, rigged with solar panels, that automatically pays rent credits to tenants based not only on the amount of power their dwelling produces, but also on how much water and electricity tenants conserve. In the most extreme scenario, one could earn money by living in an apartment rather than paying rent.
That was the thrust of a demonstration by Eco1ogic , a three-member graduate-student team in the competition. (The other 17 student competitors were undergrads.)
“This is just a glimpse of how powerful the blockchain can be,” said judge Raphaël Gaudreault, chief technology officer for Eva, a blockchain-based ridesharing startup in Montreal, Quebec, that launched five weeks ago and has 300 drivers. “There are new business models that have never been thought of in the past.”
For yours truly, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English 35 years ago, the competition featured some bewildering buzz-terms. Among them were “smart contracts,” “quantum cryptography” and “permission structures.” Another was IPFS, which — no kidding — stands for “InterPlanetary File System.”
That’s not a term borrowed from an Isaac Asimov science-fiction novel. Dan Larimer, chief technology officer for Block.one, a two-year-old Blacksburg-based blockchain startup, said the IPFS is actually a real thing.
I wasn’t the only one bowled over by the sky-high level of discussion during the two-hour program.
Another was Mary Guy Miller, director of the Roanoke-based Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program, which helps early-stage technology companies grow. She was among the invited panel of experts.
Miller holds a master’s from Virginia Tech in information sciences, as well as a doctorate in instructional design. Decades ago, she founded Interactive Design and Development Inc., a Blacksburg-based tech company. During the two-hour program Friday, Miller dated herself by recalling that when she was in graduate school, IBM had just come out with its second-generation personal computer — the first PC with a hard drive.
“I realized sitting here that I could go back to school,” Miller said. “There’s so much exciting technology.”
The competition was organized by Kirk Cameron, a professor in Tech’s Computer Science Department who has spearheaded the university’s blockchain-education efforts. It was funded by Block.one, which a year ago gave the university $3 million to help students build blockchain skills. Block.one software developers also served as mentors for the student teams.
Originally, there was supposed to be one $7,500 prize to a graduate-student team, one $7,500 prize to the top undergrad team and three $2,500 honorable mentions. But after the presentations, the judges found themselves flummoxed at picking just two top finishers. So instead they chose three.
JW and the Blockchain Bois — which came up with Attend.it, the class attendance-taking invention — won $7,500, plus a $750 premium for best social media presence on campus. That four-student team featured the only female student in the contest, Jiayi Wang.
Eco1ogic also scored $7,500, as did HokieChain, a five-student team that developed a blockchain-based version of something Tech students use every day now, their Hokie Passport cards. One advantage of HokieChain is that it allows for students to pay each other, rather than merely at dining halls, bookstores and Blacksburg merchants.
Two $2,500 honorable mentions went to Soundbin, a three-student team that developed a media distribution service that connects music fans directly with the artists they idolize. It could allow artists to sell music without using middlemen such as iTunes. That could easily lead to cheaper music for fans and more money for the artists.
The other honorable mention went to VotingBlock, a five-student team that developed a blockchain election-voting system. It would allow for reliable, private and secure balloting that could eliminate the possibility of human counting errors and deliver real-time results as votes are cast.
Congrats to all the competitors. These kids are on the cutting edge of the technology that soon may form the backbone of the internet.
Larimer, a Floyd County native, told the crowd that blockchain technology has potential way beyond that.
He sounded more than a bit idealistic in predicting that blockchain could one day “secure life, liberty, property and justice for all.”
If you’re skeptical, that’s understandable. Twenty years ago, if you told me people would one day buy used cars on the internet, sight unseen, I would have called you crazy. Friday, there were 113,412 vehicles listed on ebay Motors, and that’s only one of many used-car websites.
And consider this: A year ago Block.one made international headlines as $4 billion poured into the company in a matter of days, after it auctioned off a billion units of its own digital currency.
That suggests no small number of smart people are betting Larimer might be right.