MIT has moved its blockchain research from the blackboard to the real world through a partnership with distributed ledger tech startup Ripple.

While MIT has long been involved in supporting the bitcoin and blockchain industries through research, the aim of this project is to develop blockchain, financial services and other enterprise data projects, the university said.

Project director David Shrier, of MIT Connection Science, said he expects this most recent step to attract a wide range of researchers, more than doubling in size its first six months of operation.

Shrier told CoinDesk:

"It’s one thing to develop a four node test blockchain. It's quite another thing to hook up to a large scale global network of nodes."

As part of the research, which is currently being conducted by seven students and professors, MIT is running a validator for the Ripple Consensus Ledger, its permissioned distributed ledger system. The validator is a server that confirms transactions on the network on which the XRP digital asset sits.

Going back to early 2015, MIT has been involved in blockchain tech most directly through support of bitcoin development through its Digital Currency Initiative (DCI). Last month, the MIT DCI helped raise $900,000 to support bitcoin developers, with donors to the fund including venture capitalist Fred Wilson and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman

MIT's decision to use Ripple over alternatives was in part due to what Shrier called the startup being "very well positioned" in finance. He added that the university is also interested in exploring "other different flavors" of blockchain.

Laying the foundation

However, MIT's embrace of blockchain has roots in its longstanding support of open-source projects in general.

Since 2007, MIT's Internet Trust Consortium, which includes UBS and NTT Japan, has been developing open-source projects dedicated to helping people more efficiently manage their data. Last year, the consortium was moved under Shrier's MIT Connection Science and began publishing blockchain-specific research.

Members of the consortium published the results of their "Enigma" research in June, which focused on how developers could build a decentralized cloud platform using blockchain. Co-led by Pentland, the project uses an external blockchain to manage who can access data and the identities of those users. The project is currently in beta.

This January, Pentland and fellow Ripple project leader Thomas Hardjono published an early draft of their work on ChainAnchor. While the final draft of the paper is not yet available online, the early version describes ChainAnchor as a means of "retaining user anonymity within a permissioned blockchain".

Both a paper showing their results and a website are expected soon.

The Ripple project, in turn, is led by MIT professor Alex Pentland; managing director David Shrier; and chief technical officer Thomas Hardjono. "Dozens" of researchers are expected to join over the next six months, according to Shrier.

Future Research

In total, Shrier says MIT now has about three dozen projects related to blockchain being run by between 50 researchers and 70 researchers.

"And I only expect that number to grow," he said.

As part of his work in blockchain, Shrier will teach a class on Future Commerce in an online setting for the first time this June. Previously the class was held in a traditional teaching environment, with 50 students creating 19 projects, five of which Shrier says are on their way to launching as startups.

So far, 500 students have signed up for the $2,300 12-week class, though Shrier expects the number to hit 1,000 students by the time class begins.

Image credit: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock.com

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