As founding co-director of Princeton’s DeCenter, Jaswinder Pal (J.P.) Singh believes the University can play a unique role in the evolution of blockchains as a technology that allows people to achieve trust without central intermediaries, potentially decentralizing conventional power structures in society. It is critical, he says, to take an interdisciplinary approach that includes engaging researchers and educators together with leaders in technology, business, government, and human rights.
“Princeton is very well situated to do this, because we have all the right ingredients,” said Singh, including strengths in engineering, social sciences, and public policy. “The ethos of Princeton, including the informal motto of being in the service of humanity and the focus on fostering collaboration, make this a perfect arena for Princeton to take leadership.”
In this Q&A, Singh, Professor of Computer Science, Technology and Societal Change, outlines blockchain’s promise and risks, and his aspirations for the DeCenter’s contributions to exploring and shaping this area.
What is blockchain’s potential, and where does the DeCenter fit in?
This technology addresses a very longstanding problem: the problem of decentralizing trust. If people who don’t know or trust one another want to transact with one another, as happens in the world all the time, the only real way to do it has been through a centralized intermediary, like a bank, a government, or a corporation.
The invention of the bitcoin blockchain provided a new possibility: What if, if we don’t know each other, we all can agree on what the truth is, without trusting centralized entities? So-called permissionless blockchains provide a protocol by which anybody can participate and can contribute to maintaining the agreement. A global ledger maintains not only the transactions that have happened, but also the order in which they happened. Other blockchains and other layers have enabled greater functionality to build diverse applications beyond what bitcoin itself provides.
What are the applications of this decentralization of trust that can positively impact humanity? Can it allow power to become less centralized in society, and in what areas? We have seen that centralized entities, such as giant cryptocurrency trading firms, can play big roles and cause big problems. Still, the underlying technology has powerful properties that can lead to positively impactful applications. What are those, how do they drive the technology, and what are their societal implications? The questions are intellectually deep and cross-disciplinary. The mission of the DeCenter is to explore these questions.
Why is decentralization important?
Trust in institutions has declined: trust in governments, trust in large companies, trust in the financial sector. I think it’s clear that power has become too centralized in small numbers of institutions. And that’s what needs to change: not that there should be no institutions and nobody should have power, but it should not be so concentrated and centralized. How do these technologies, their applications, and policies facilitate that?
To me, the greatest importance is for people whose livelihoods are at stake, whose rights are at stake — people who are living under tyrannical, authoritarian, or unstable regimes. Those are the starkest situations, where if people have ownership and custody of their money in a global rather than locally controlled asset, and if they can participate with those assets in different types of applications without being censored out at whim, that could be a huge win for global society.
New technologies often have the effect of the rich getting richer, but the hope is that we’re focusing on democratization, permissionless participation, censorship resistance, and transparency. The bitcoin blockchain ledger, for example, is a public, global ledger. Anyone with the required skills can just connect their laptop to the internet and independently validate the entire ledger. They do not have to rely on a bank to tell them what’s in it. The level of transparency here is radically different.
What is your vision for the DeCenter’s role?
We are taking an interdisciplinary approach across three areas: the technology itself, applications of the technology, and the policy, ethical, and social considerations. Each of these areas impacts the other in substantial ways. It is also very important that this not be an ivory-tower effort, but pursued in conjunction with industry and open-source ecosystems, where a lot of the innovation happens.
The biggest open question in my mind is, what are the applications that really matter in the long term, that can truly have major positive benefit for society? Blockchain today is a bit like the World Wide Web was 25 years ago.
The time is now, in the early days, to look carefully at societal impact, which includes regulation, policies, and managing risk. It also includes ethics. What happens when criminals, terrorists, or rogue nations participate? How do regulation and the central properties of permissionless-ness and censorship resistance interplay? How are different groups disparately impacted? What are the ethical implications? What happens when unregulated assets proliferate? There’s a lot of opportunity for bad behavior, as we’ve seen. How do you manage that risk? You don’t want to come along later and try to undo something that is entrenched in society.
In addition to research, education, and building applications and technologies, we are also becoming a convener for thought leadership, the place where these deep questions are explored.