Impressions of SBC19 at Stanford

Stanford feels like the promised land to anyone used to Chinese academia. The campus opens with a palm-lined drive that leads to manicured lawns and stately sandstone buildings. You can breathe the air. There are Rodin sculptures scattered through campus. And the facilities put other colleges to shame: the conference was in the Alumni Center, which was by itself roughly the size of some smaller Chinese institutes.

In the main auditorium the talks were consistently high quality. Pieter Wuille discussed Bitcoin scripting. Vlad Zamfir shared his preferred approach to sharding and proof-of-stake while Vitalik Buterin presented another Casper implementation. Other lectures covered new ways to provide formal verification of smart contracts, management of state channels and optimize peer discovery. Almost everyone attending seemed to feel that this was exactly the right focus for a blockchain conference: presentations on hard technical problems and incremental progress.

With that said, people often say that the most important “track” at a conference is the hallway, because it’s the incidental meetings with industry peers that produces the most lasting collaborations, insights and friendships. We focused unabashedly on exploiting this “hallway track” to find students, academics and industry people who might be interested in Saito, and to learn what was happening with the blockchain industry in California. How should Saito be engaging with the US given how disruptive we will be to everyone making money there? And what we learned was surprising.

Image: Wikipedia

From our perspective, it was stunning how little (read “no”) discussion there was of economic fundamentals. All of the presentations we saw assumed that blockchain just works and concentrated on refining execution details. The one presentation on economics was about how blockchains could change economics in other markets. Only one or two people we met over the whole three day conference seemed aware that there are incentive problems in proof-of-work and proof-of-stake networks.

This led to some narrow group-think. Somewhat astonishingly given the importance of these developments in Asia, there was little discussion of the bitcoin forks or the ABC / SV hashwar. Even more striking was any focus on using blockchains for non-monetary applications. There seemed little or no awareness of what nChain are proposing and of what is the strongest — or at least boldest vision — of what blockchain can be from a team with the resources to achieve it.

With that said, this tunnel vision probably worked in our advantage, as the mostly academic crowd at least seemed to realize that Saito’s take on blockchain is new and possibly threatening. We met a lot of smart people who gave us time and engaged with our ideas. No-one seemed to worry much about the real implications though — one of the consequences of the extreme comfort of the setting may have been a sort-of induced complaisance.

We are in San Francisco and the Bay Area for another week and are presenting in more detail on Thursday to people who have expressed interest in Saito. Our time in the US has been rewarding and while the state of blockchain seems to be inward-looking we have met a good number of people who remain open and engaged by ideas. We are going to focus on making this smaller group grow. If you are in town, join us on Thursday.

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