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Bitcoin mania has students flocking to crypto classes at Stanford and other top computer science schools

  • Dan Boneh, co-director of the Stanford Computer Security Lab, said cryptography classes are red hot.
  • Over 1 million people have signed up for his online class.
  • Carnegie Mellon hired a cryptography expert from Microsoft Research to help build out its program.

Cryptocurrencies are surging in value, and university students want in on the action.

In the past year, the price of bitcoin has multiplied by almost nine-fold, while ethereum is up about 27-fold. Hundreds of other currencies have emerged this year, and new projects are raising tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in coin and token offerings. Cryptocurrencies use cryptography to secure transactions and track the transfer of digital money.

"A lot of people are attracted to the huge valuations in these currencies," said Dan Boneh, co-director of the Stanford Computer Security Lab and a professor of cryptography.

Boneh said that security and cryptography represent the second-most popular subject in the university's computer science department, behind only machine learning.

Dan Boneh, co-director of the Stanford Computer Security Lab
Hector Garcia-Molina
Dan Boneh, co-director of the Stanford Computer Security Lab

"Cryptocurrencies are a wonderful way to teach cryptography" said Boneh, who's been studying cryptography for almost three decades. Beyond that, "there are a whole bunch of new applications for cryptography that didn't exist before," he said.

In 2015, Boneh began teaching a class on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and was quickly attracting over 100 students. Boneh said that more than 1 million people have signed up for an online cryptography class he teaches through the website Coursera.

Across the country in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon's Vipul Goyal is using Boneh's interactive online textbook for a class called Special Topics in Cryptography that the school is offering for the first time this year. About 20 students, mostly PhD candidates, are taking the class, which focuses on blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

The trend is not just limited to these two universities: the University of California at Berkeley launched a class last year called the Cryptocurrency Decal, and in 2015 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab established the Digital Currency Initiative.

`Some will do well and some will fail'

Carnegie Mellon's Goyal spent seven years at Microsoft Research in India, where he was working on new kinds of cloud encryption, before hopping to academia in January.

He recently helped start the CMU Crypto group, an effort to lure graduate students and visiting faculty with an expertise in cryptography to take on research projects. The other full-time professor in the group is Manuel Blum, who won the Turing Award in 1995 for his work in cryptography.

Goyal said he likes to imagine many forms of data that could be stored and transferred on blockchain. The first two generations of blockchain, he said, were centered around bitcoin and ethereum, but the technology is poised to move well beyond finance and money.

"The big question in my mind is, 'Can blockchain and cryptocurrencies replace the cloud completely?'" he said.

Boneh and Goyal both said that the explosive growth of cryptocurrencies and the prices of bitcoin and ethereum are luring many students to the field and to, in some cases, start their own projects.

"There are many experiments underway and just like in the rest of the start-up ecosystem, some will do well and some will fail," Boneh said.

Just as Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook and Evan Spiegel left Stanford early to build Snap, Goyal expects to see students abandoning their academic work in favor of getting in early at a crypto start-up.

But depending on how and when crypto assets get regulated, this generation of students could have a distinct advantage over the era of social network and mobile app creators.

"If you want to start a mobile app, you probably need some investor funding," Goyal said. "For cryptocurrencies, if you start your own and if people are interested, you automatically get funded by the value of what you created."