We recently published the full report of our Research Priorities workshop. There you can find a detailed overview of the discussion plus links to the slides and videos. In this post, we summarise some of the highlights.
Research is at the heart of innovation and technological advance. This is certainly the case with blockchain. Because many blockchain use cases involve replacing traditional centralised approaches to economic, social or even political structures with decentralised ones, blockchain touches on a wide range of non-technical subjects too, from regulation and the law to economics, ethics and even philosophy. That makes for a large number of potential fields of research. At our workshop on Research Priorities we explored the state of play of blockchain research in the EU in form both technical and non-technical angles.
There are a lot of technical topics to tackle in blockchain
The first presentation looked at blockchain-related technical research from a researcher’s perspective. There are four main sets of problems in blockchain.
- Scalability problems have to do with ways to increase transactions per second, for instance via sharding, sidechains or rollups.
- Privacy problems have to do with how to hide transactions and data on a blockchain, either generally or selectively, while maintaining the viability of the chain. Here research is often around developing new cryptographic methods, like zero-knowledge proofs (ZKP), or new privacy-preserving computational methods, like multiparty computation.
- Generalisation problems have to do with what kinds of things you can do on the chain, for example is the smart contract language Turing complete (so all purpose), and if so, can complex things be done in a scalable way.
- Decentralisation problems have to do with to what degree the platform is and remains decentralised. Both Bitcoin and Ethereum were designed to be decentralised, but have seen mining centralisation.
There is another problem that underpins these four that is very important but should be considered separately: User Experience, or how we can safely implement systems, and how easy are they to use, administer and regulate.
These basic problem sets often result in a very broad array of specific research topics, so it makes sense to generalise the problems as much as possible. For example, one way to solve a number of problems simultaneously is by distribution (sidechains, sharding); another is by specialising (state channels); and so on. Research problems in blockchain can also be looked at in terms of two fronts: developing new cryptographic tools, and developing good UX.
Academic collaboration in the EU for blockchain
This presentation was followed by a presentation on a study of the blockchain ecosystem by the Blockchain & Distributed Ledger Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano. According to the researchers, the number of worldwide business applications of blockchain is growing, but the number of concrete projects worldwide is still low. The market is still more focused on platforms than applications. The EU ecosystem could benefit from best practice, collaboration among academics, and blockchain education students and professionals.
During the panel discussion that followed, panelists focused on a number of issues facing the ecosystem that are relevant to the research agenda. For instance, while there is a lot of academic research on technical topics, there is less work analysing practical uses for businesses. Mapping the ecosystem also remains a huge challenge. Blockchain education also needs to be multi-disciplinary. It is important that students have a good overview of the tech but also of other fields, like social sciences, political science or the law. Similarly, we need to better study the impact of technology. In particular, we need methods to predict the development of a technological process in society, to monitor the actual development, and to stop unhealthy technological developments if needed.
Research priorities for early implementations in live applications
In the next panel discussion subject turned to what research priorities should be to help foster live applications and early adoption. One area of great promise is privacy-preserving technologies. Blockchain, with its distributed ledger and group consensus, is very much about transparency. Yet people want privacy too. Privacy-preserving technologies like ZKP can help square the circle, and there is a lot of excitement in this area. The ecosystem could also profit from more research on integration between blockchains, which is not the same as interoperability, but rather more about coordinating transactions between different blockchains. Another challenge is to reconcile the legal and regulatory framework with the fast moving technological advances. Here, regulatory sandboxes, where regulators and companies can learn together in a controlled environment with near market conditions, are a very good idea. Governance of blockchain projects, particularly where groups of competitors need to cooperate on a shared infrastructure, remains a real challenge. Research in best practice in this area is therefore important.
Research priorities and way forward for the EU
The final session of the day was dedicated to an open discussion among all participants on the subject of research priorities for the EU. Questions revolved around the technology itself, risk assessment in areas like security, governance and the legal framework, as well as research into high impact use cases. Among other things, it was noted that many sectors work on the same underlying use case just in different contexts. If there was an agreed path to follow research learnings and best practice could more easily be shared. New sectors would then not have to constantly reinvent the wheel. Design is an important area of research that often gets overlooked. One participant thought decentralisation should have overall priority because it is the desire for decentralisation that drives a lot of the efforts in blockchain. Therefore you need to understand what decentralisation means first. In terms of risks, focus needs to be on security risks, legal and compliance risks, systemic risks of decentralized technologies and user experience related issues (e.g., loss of private keys). Sinc blockchain is the technology of trust, we also need ways to evaluate how trustworthy blockchain-based platforms really are. This is not just a question of technology but also governance and related items.
Detailed reports on all our workshops, including links to the presentations and the video of the day, can be found on our Reports page.
The Workshop took place on 18 February, 2020 in Brussels.
There were 40 people registered for the event
Speakers and panelists included:
- Bodo Balazs (University of Amsterdam)
- Roman Beck (IT University of Copenhagen)
- Nicolas Liochon (ConsenSys)
- Arnaud Le Hors (IBM)
- Astrid Stroobandt (Howest University of Applied Sciences)
- Ivona Skultetyova (Tilburg University)
- Marc Taverner (INATBA)
- Giacomo Vella (Politecnico di Milano)
- Ludovic Courcelas (ConsenSys, moderator)