Cryptography, the practice of encrypting or securing information from uninvited parties, has become a popular topic on college campuses due to the cryptocurrency frenzy. Whether you’ve invested in a cryptocurrency or not, you’ve most likely heard of bitcoin at some point. If not, it’s a form of cryptocurrency: a digital currency secured online with cryptography techniques. In 2017-18, Stanford and other leading computer science schools are seeing a major surge in crypto class interest and enrollment.
"A lot of people are attracted to the huge valuations in these currencies," Co-director of Stanford ‘s Computer Security Lab and Professor of Cryptography Dan Boneh says. He’s referring to the fact that cryptocurrency’s market value is currently estimated to be in the hundreds of billions.
Both bitcoin, which was released in 2009 and is in the market lead, and the cryptocurrency ethereum, which was released in 2015 and now holds the second position, have doubled in price multiple times in 2017. Bitcoin has the distinction of being known as the first “decentralized” digital currency, in that it works between users without an administrator or middleman. It was released as open-source (publicly accessible) software by an individual or group under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Ripple is currently in third place and many other currency startups are now popping up – hundreds have taken off this year and raised millions.
While machine learning is still Stanford’s most popular computer sci subject, crypto and security come in second. Boneh’s on-campus classes are very popular and more than 1 million people have signed up for an online version he offers through Coursera. This class is $79 with a completion certificate or free without. Professor Vipul Goyal of Carnegie Mellon uses one of Boneh’s online textbooks for his upper-level crypto class. The University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab are also running in-depth cryptography programs.
Both Boneh and Goyal believe that cryptography, cryptocurrencies and blockchain have potential beyond the realm of digital money. Blockchain is a distributed (spread-out) computing system in which data (“blocks”) are spread across multiple computers and secured with cryptography. Blockchain was originally focused on cryptocurrency, but Goyal wonders if these systems could actually replace the cloud one day, which stores data over the internet rather than in a hard drive. He thinks the rising popularity of cryptocurrency and the related classes may lead to more students leaving school early and founding their own digital currency startups.
Meanwhile, a Sept. 2017 poll from student loan marketplace LendEDU showed many Americans have not jumped onto the crypto train yet, so these students may have a distinct advantage over the crowd. Over 75 percent of the 1,000 respondents had heard of bitcoin but only about 14 percent either owned or used to own any of the currency. Younger participants were more likely to be familiar with bitcoin and the concept of digital money. About 11 percent thought bitcoin was illegal and over 45 percent were unsure of its legality, pointing out a major public-image issue for the currency. Nearly 40 percent were “open” to the idea of using bitcoin. About 32 percent were aware of runner-up ethereum.
Time will tell how various cryptocurrencies fare in the market and public perception. But, digital currencies and cryptography are alive and kicking in the world of university computer science and the minds of its students -- some of whom will undoubtedly be the entrepreneurs of the near future.