Smart contracts and blockchain will provide needed trust, says Princeton professor

Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten says blockchain will enable smart contracts that provide trust to company systems in the future, but there are some myths and misconceptions.

Smart contracts and blockchain will provide needed trust, says Princeton professor

TechRepublic's Karen Roby talks with Princeton computer science professor and Offchain Labs chief scientist Ed Felten about blockchain and the future of smart contracts. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Ed Felten: A lot of people think about blockchain as a way of holding money or sending money from one person to another, but the other really exciting thing that blockchain systems can do are these smart contracts. A smart contract is basically a computer program or an application that rather than running on some company's computer where you don't know what it might be doing or what code is in it, it runs on the blockchain itself, and that is the advantage that people can see what the software is and they know that it will execute the way it's supposed to. It's a way for us as end users to get more trust in the services that we're using by moving them onto a blockchain instead of being on some company's machine.

SEE: Special report: How blockchain will disrupt business (free PDF) (TechRepublic download)

Karen Roby: So, where do you think we are with this? It's obviously very empowering to the end user, but understandably right now the technologies to support this program just aren't there yet. 

Ed Felten: Right, well it is early days. We're sort of in the Commodore 64-, early-IBM-PC-phase of development here where the technology is far enough that people in the field can really see what it's capable of, but it's not really quite ready for prime time in terms of supporting the kinds of applications that people are used to doing on computers. But that will come. The smart contract technology is developing really fast, and there are a bunch of companies, including ours, that are really trying to push it forward and make this a platform where people can do the kinds of things that they're used to doing on their computers every day.

Karen Roby: What do you think in terms of blockchain, what are some of the bigger myths? I think there's a lot of confusion out there as to what it can and can't do, and what all of this will mean down the road. But what do you see are some of the bigger myths or misconceptions with blockchain?

Ed Felten: Well, I think right now blockchain technologies are kind of rough around the edges. The idea that this is ready to be a sort of routine part of people's lives, that this would be where you could keep most of your money or how you buy most of the things you buy, the technology is really not there yet. We're really in an experimental phase, and you see people who are hobbyists there, and it really is a situation where you can see what the future is going to be, and it's just a matter of the technology community building the same kinds of infrastructure in the same kinds of ways that they did with first with PCs and then later with the internet.

Karen Roby: And what is it, when you look at down the road when it comes to blockchain, what is it that excites you the most about what's to come?

Ed Felten: What really excites me is seeing that this is going to become a more consumer-friendly technology. It's a technology that can really empower end users. It can equalize the relationship that we tend to have with the big services that we use, if it develops in the right way. And it's a way of integrating our sort of online interactions and the computer programs that do a lot of the things on our behalf. It's a way of integrating those together and giving us more control over them. So you can see a world where computers are more friendly and more trustworthy because of this technology, and that's what I see long term. And that's really, I think, the promise of the technology.

Karen Roby: Do you feel like we have the talent that's coming up that will be able to move this down the field?

SEE: Blockchain: Why the revolution is still a decade away (ZDNet)

Ed Felten: Well, there's a tremendous amount of talent. The students that we get today in our computer science classes are smarter and better prepared than ever. And there's a lot more of them. People are figuring out, especially students, young people, that being a computer scientist, being a software engineer is a high-leverage way to have a big impact on the world. That it's not just about going into a cubicle and producing some lines of code, but you can build new kinds of structures and relationships that people really value.

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