The meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, has received global attention, not least from governments, entrepreneurs and researchers. Cryptocurrencies provide an attractive alternative to traditional fiat currencies via a distributed, trustless and self-governing framework which not only enables low-friction financial transactions around the globe but also preserves the freedom and privacy of spending inherent in cash transactions.
Having shed their image as a niche cyberlibertarian hobby, cryptocurrencies and their underlying technologies have clear potential to not only disrupt the world of financial payments and services - in the same way that the VoIP technology behind Skype has disrupted the world of telecommunications – but also to dramatically increase opportunites for global financial inclusion.
The key innovation is the blockchain - a distributed but verifiable and permanent ledger of transactions, whose integrity is protected by a mathematical proof-of-work scheme. The latter is backed by the computing power of so-called cryptocurrency "miners" who compete to be the first to exhibit solutions to one of a series of hard cryptographic problems in return for currency units (mining rewards). For the Bitcoin network, this computing power currently dwarfs the computing power of the top 500 supercomputers.
Recently it has been recognised that blockchain technology - with suitable protocol modifications such as ''coloured coins" and ''side chains" - could be applied to domains beyond financial services. That is, far from merely enabling the ''Internet of Money", the blockchain could enable a wide range of next-generation internet services beyond money.
Indeed, what is on offer is the ability to support a general notion of trustless, verifiable decentralised ownership and the ability to transfer and process information in a decentralised but programmable way. It is hard to begin to comprehend the significance of this development but suffice to say it has the potential to fundamentally change the way human society deals with contracts, identity, patents, copyright, votes, and more.
Realising this potential, Imperial has provided seed funding for the Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering.
The goal of the Centre is to become a leading international centre for ongoing research and application activity related to cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. This entails three main objectives:
- Conducting research directed at designing and engineering improvements to the protocols underpinning blockchain technology. If the blockchain is to become the basis of a substantial proportion of future commerce, the present protocols need considerable enhancement to improve transactional capacity, to improve scalability, to increase resistance to attack, and to make the verification of transactions much more timely.
- Gaining insights into the dynamic operations of blockchains and associated markets.
- Exploring novel blockchain-based applications across multiple domains. In this way we seek to be leading the global drive to develop the ''killer apps'' for the blockchain.