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UCLA cryptocurrency community explores the potential of blockchain

(Rachel Bai/Daily Bruin)

By Maya McNealis

Jan. 30, 2018 2:43 a.m.

Students on campus are exploring different ways to use blockchain technology by creating new labs and clubs related to cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that individuals or institutions can trade for value online. These currencies, such as bitcoin, are stored and transferred in secure and recorded transactions using a technology called blockchain. Every secure transfer of cryptocurrency is added to a record of recent transfers of that currency, and these blocks of data add up to form a publicly accessible blockchain, according to technology website Lifewire.

“Think of it as an open ledger that safely secures data so that it is publicly accessible,” said Aditya Agarwal, a second-year international development studies and economics student and vice president of Bruin Crypto Trading, a cryptocurrency club at UCLA.

Anthony Humay and Douglas Wong, both second-year computer science students, founded the club Blockchain at UCLA last year because they think there is a lack of opportunities for undergraduate students at UCLA or living in Los Angeles to explore blockchain. The club, which formed in partnership with the Blockchain Lab, hopes to educate and encourage students across disciplines to design new applications for blockchain.

Agarwal said because cryptocurrencies are decentralized, they do not require a bank or any other third party to facilitate transactions.

Although digital technology comes with the risk of double spending, or transferring the same digital coins to several parties, blockchain addresses this through mining, a process in which specifically configured computers verify the validity of each transaction in a block before it can be added to the blockchain, according to Lifewire.

Agarwal said although blockchain was originally used mainly for financial transactions, it is now being applied to problems like power grid sharing.

“The U.N. might be able to identify refugees coming into different countries by (blockchain) identification number,” Agarwal said. “You can literally do everything with it.”

The UCLA Blockchain Lab, founded in 2017, aims to explore the other possible applications of blockchain technology. Veronica Reynolds, a UCLA law student and co-founder of the lab, said one of the lab’s objectives is to explore how blockchain technology can solve world problems by incentivizing individuals to support certain causes, such as ocean conservation.

The lab is currently building an ocean conservation coin that incentivizes elimination of pollutants such that the coin’s value will increase as the amount of water pollutants decrease.

“Any technology is morally agnostic,” she said. “We want to focus on how people can use this technology to improve the world.”

Reynolds said she thinks blockchain could also improve financial security in countries that are politically unstable.

“For people who don’t have access to banks, or perhaps their currency is unstable, having a global digital currency … will allow them access to income or money in a way that they are currently not able to access,” she said.

One application of blockchain technology Humay and Wong are interested in is how blockchains can be used to create decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), which are companies that are run by computer-generated programs instead of employees.

“All the work gets done through smart contracts, and so one of the applications of (blockchain) is a decentralized car network, incentivized by tokens within the network,” Humay said.

Though Uber and Lyft already incorporate market platform technology into their process of coordinating drivers, Humay said DAOs would be more advanced.

“It cuts out the middleman, and would cut out competitors like Uber and Lyft,” he said.

Agarwal said although many economists are unsure of cryptocurrency’s validity because of the high fluctuation in its value, he thinks cryptocurrency is a secure and growing industry. He added he thinks that individual currencies, like bitcoin, may be more risky.

“Bitcoin was a bubble, but cryptocurrency isn’t,” he said. “Bitcoin is just one of the types of cryptocurrencies, but there are thousands of other cryptocurrencies that are doing so much more than bitcoin.”

Reynolds said she plans to continue studying blockchain because of its numerous applications.

“One thing that really drew me personally to the blockchain community was the fact that it was born from innovation and collaboration from the very beginning,” Reynolds said. “Blockchain really connected to the cypherpunk mentality – cypherpunks were really about change.”

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Maya McNealis
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