On Campus: IIT Bombay Helps Build Blockchain Applications with Transparency, Provenance and Integrity

professor r.k. shyamasundar

In this edition of On Campus, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay Professor R.K. Shyamasundar says the study of blockchain will help nurture a coming generation of entrepreneurs comfortable with building applications at scale and across industries. As part of our discussion on IIT Bombay and its participation in Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI), he gave us a peek into the university’s work with a Ripple validator, blockchain related programs already underway on campus, and explained why the study of blockchain is so important to the future of business and daily life in the region.

IIT Bombay’s Vision for Blockchain Instruction
For Professor Shyamasundar, blockchain is groundbreaking because it proves that trust can be realized without a centralized or trusted third party. He believes that this will eventually result in a broad spectrum of blockchain applications that can govern several aspects of society with transparency, provenance and integrity. But in order for these applications to have real-world utility and acceptance, he says they must feature high levels of scalability and performance.

He sees his job at IIT Bombay as instructing the coming generation of entrepreneurs on how to build these applications, and how to apply those aspects of scale and performance into new and broader distributed ledger applications beyond fintech. He believes a blockchain education centered around hands-on exposure to the technology will produce new research opportunities and innovative new applications.

UBRI Fosters Academic and Real-World Collaboration for IIT Bombay
In explaining IIT Bombay’s interest in UBRI, Professor Shyamasundar echoed many of the same sentiments shared by other program participants. Namely, that it’s a powerful way to better integrate the study of blockchain across disciplines, provide students with exposure to live projects like running a validator and more effectively train the next generation of blockchain entrepreneurs.

As an example, he cited the university’s Centre of Excellence. It serves as a natural home for UBRI at IIT Bombay because it’s already an inter-disciplinary arrangement bringing together faculty and curriculum from the schools of Management, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering. He said also that the Centres for Economic Policy and the Centre for Alternative Technologies for Rural Applications have begun to show interest in using UBRI to explore blockchain for their own specific use cases.

Professor Shyamasundar pointed to a recent workshop hosted by IIT Bombay as evidence that the university also serves as a hub for regional stakeholders interested in blockchain. In February, they hosted 200 participants from academia, industry and government for a workshop on Blockchain, distributed ledger technologies and related applications.

At that event, a number of papers were presented for peer review alongside four keynotes from well-known blockchain organizations, including one from Navin Gupta of Ripple. Professor Shyamasundar said this workshop and others like it are an output of an active cybersecurity student club that meets regularly and is fond of having undergrads challenge seniors on their research and findings in order to promote group learning.

But beyond these academic efforts, Professor Shyamasundar was quick to point out that IIT Bombay is also far down the path of real-world blockchain collaborations with government and private enterprise. In particular, he mentioned interest from state governments and the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) in using the Land Management Protocol developed by IIT Bombay. Further, he said the university is providing consultancy services to startups and industry leaders, and they already have an ongoing blockchain collaboration in place with leading Australian universities and Data61/CSIRO.

Benefits of Ripple Validator on Campus
Another reason why Professor Shyamasundar is so enthusiastic about the UBRI program is because it enables IIT Bombay to operate their own XRP validator on campus. He says this is an effective way to expose the students to blockchain principals in practice and show them the design behind Ripple’s consensus algorithm.

In total, there are 11 people—from both the faculty and student communities—working on the validator. Live for the past three months, Professor Shyamasundar said it has produced an enormous amount of data that is warehoused and currently being used to set up a full-history server at the university. He mentioned that some of his students have been inspired by the sheer amount of resulting data to develop new projects by applying artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning.

Further, he thinks the data generated from this validator can lead in several new research directions, such as the privacy of transactions, AI or machine learning-based predictions about the XRP Ledger, and applications in healthcare or land management. He even mentioned that three undergraduate students are actively working in these areas.

Areas of Blockchain Study
In general, Professor Shyamasundar said his teams and students have been using Bitcoin consensus protocols, Byzantine fault tolerance consensus, XRP Ledger consensus, and various other protocols to build applications in healthcare, land management and financial services.

For Ripple specifically, he is interested to learn whether it’s possible to predict “trust paths” for transaction initiators and whether it’s possible under concurrent operations to scale up without deadlocking. He also said his work aims to achieve privacy by appropriate scheduling, wherein AI and machine learning techniques help identify a set of timed transactions that deplete some of the nodes on the path for a target.

Beyond the many blockchain-related projects already underway at IIT Bombay, Professor Shyamasundar mentioned a near-term effort to explore the capabilities of digital asset transfer using XRP. In the longer-term, he would like to cement UBRI-funded research capabilities as critical for local fintech and government partners.

Translating Research to Careers for Students
This is because Professor Shyamasundar understands that the world is becoming more interdependent, with global workflows and supply chains creating an opening for distributed ledger technologies to be utilized for time and process improvements. By creating partnerships with private and government entities, he hopes to build a natural path for IIT Bombay students to become entrepreneurs.

One of the most promising early paths for these students is in trust management. IIT Bombay students already study this as part of the university’s Security & Privacy research and are exploring blockchain as a way to deliver desired security properties over distributed systems. Giving students exposure to this early on helps train them to be entrepreneurs in public and private organizations after they leave the university.

The Future of Blockchain and Data
This use of data and research at IIT Bombay as preparation for the real world is timely for Professors Shyamasundar. He sees the proliferation of information systems in our daily lives, augmented by the use of mobile devices, as creating an enormous data ecosystem that can be monetized in new ways and lead to entirely new business models.

But he also worries this intrusive data gathering and the race to monetize it is making people very anxious and skeptical of the cost versus benefit of sharing their own data. He believes that blockchain can help balance the scales and bring some symmetry to the collection and use of data. He sees this requiring blockchain variants far beyond today’s cryptocurrency applications that are custom-tailored to the task.

But whatever the use case or industry, he hopes that IIT students will be leveraging their training at the forefront of these compelling new projects.

To learn more about UBRI, please visit our UBRI website and look for monthly Insights posts in the On Campus series.