Professor Nitin Kalé shares how ITP’s new minor in blockchain challenges students to invent new use cases for the technology
Nitin Kalé, associate professor of information technology and industrial and systems engineering practice, taught USC’s first class in blockchain in Fall 2017. Since then, he’s helped create ITP’s minor in blockchain, making USC Viterbi School of Engineering one of the first schools in the world to offer an academic program in the field.
The minor in blockchain is open to all students across the university and provides especially valuable skills for students interested in entrepreneurship, fintech and cybersecurity.
Professor Kalé shared with us what makes blockchain a unique solution to solve contemporary problems and what students can expect to gain from this minor.
What is this minor about?
I heard about Bitcoin in 2010 and I didn’t give it too much thought. I thought it was some scam or something that was a trend. Maybe people didn’t use it, or it was used for some nefarious purposes.
Many years later, I came across the paper that introduced Bitcoin to the world. That’s when I got really interested in it. I’ve spent several years understanding how Bitcoin works and the technology behind it, which is blockchain. I thought it would be great for our students to learn about this because it has the potential to change the world.
Through a series of courses in this minor, students will learn how Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies work, but also where blockchain can be used in non-crypto use cases.
Why does blockchain interest you?
It has never happened in history where two people who are distant from each other could transact or communicate value without the use of a trusted intermediary. An example of this would be if I wanted to send a person some money: either we have to send it, give it in cash in person, or trust a bank, some credit card system, or some other kind of payment system like Venmo or PayPal to do this transaction. But if we did not have this intermediary, how could two people transact value?
This problem was solved with blockchain.
What is one thing you want people to know about blockchain?
Bitcoin and blockchain are not synonymous. Yes, Bitcoin is built on top of blockchain, but blockchain can be used for other transactions as well. Bitcoin was the first application — that’s why we hear so much about it. And it is a very, very successful application. But if you go back several decades, you’ll see the internet was invented, and then on top of the internet, we built many other protocols, such as messaging, email, and — ultimately — the web.
In our blockchain minor at ITP, we plan to teach students not only the crypto and Bitcoin application of blockchain, but how blockchain can be used for disintermediation, for building trust within parties that don’t trust each other, and for other purposes.
What is the most valuable part of this minor for students?
Students will learn the technical as well as the business underpinnings of blockchain — not only how blockchain works in specific cases like Bitcoin, but how to use blockchain technology to solve other problems beyond cryptocurrencies and beyond Bitcoin.
This is a relatively new area and most students may have come from a database background where they know how to create mobile apps and they know how to create web applications on top of a centralized database. But blockchain is a different beast. This is decentralized, so one of the things we teach in this minor is how to create decentralized applications.
Just imagine if tomorrow instead of Uber, it was a peer-to-peer Uber — if there was no Uber company and drivers and riders could find each other through this decentralized application. These are the kind of things students will learn that will prepare them to work in industry, in startups, and to create their own startup using dApps.
What are dApps?
Decentralized applications — also known as “dApps” — are a new type of application. We’re used to applications such as Uber, Amazon, Uber Eats, et cetera where there’s a centralized company that coordinates suppliers and users — those who want the service and those who provide the service. But you can imagine a future where users and peers can transact with each other without the use of a centralized company. These are called dApps. To write these dApps, we use blockchain as the underlying technology. This writing and creating and coding of these apps requires some special skills. Our minor plans to teach this in one of the courses.
What is your favorite project that students complete in this minor?
The final project in one of my classes is for student teams to come up with a use case for blockchain technology that we have not covered in class. It cannot be cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, Ethereum, anything like that. They have to come up with a novel idea for the use of blockchain technology.
One semester when I was teaching this class, a group of students came up with the idea of using blockchain for voting for our local, county, state and even national voting. The goal of the project was to provide a proof of concept of how we can use blockchain to provide privacy, transparency, credibility and trust in a voting system in such a way that no one can cheat or subvert our democracy. ∎
Use cases of blockchain technology
Civic leverages blockchain technology to provide identity verification services.
textile supply chain
Queen of Raw uses blockchain to improve the supply chain for fabric and reduce waste.
GridPlus is working to improve energy efficiency using blockchain.
Kalé teaches classes in data analytics, blockchain, database design and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. He won the 2013 SAP University Alliances Visionary Member Award and the 2016 SAP Majdi Najm Award for Outstanding Service. He also co-authored "Practical Analytics" (Epistemy Press, 2015) with Nancy Jones, lecturer at the Charles W. Lamden School of Accountancy at San Diego State University.
You can learn more about the blockchain minor on the ITP website.