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Aparna Krishnan of Mechanism Labs on Overcoming Obstructive Roots, the Limitations of Blockchain Technology and the Need for Diversity in the Industry

Aparna Krishnan holds a special place in the blockchain community.

As the co-founder of Mechanism Labs, she is also the recipient of a Thiel Fellowship and a monetary grant from the Social Alpha Foundation. In a recent interview with Distributed, Krishnan explained how she got her start in the blockchain arena, what keeps her motivated in a relatively volatile and unpredictable ecosystem and why she thinks a world dominated by blockchain technology may never happen.

Freedom From an Obstructed Beginning

Born in India but raised in Oman, Krishnan says she grew up in a very obstructive environment.

“There wasn’t much freedom of choice with respect to products I could buy, and there was no freedom for me to get around the [capital] city of Muscat without my parents driving me everywhere,” she explained. “There were restrictions on what applications you could use in Oman, and internet service providers blocked out free messaging/calling applications like Skype and WhatsApp. The constrictions on what you could use, buy, do and places you could go made me feel like I was constantly restricted in my ability to think and be creative.”

Blockchains and cryptocurrency ultimately gave Krishnan a way out. Krishnan says she was always involved in mathematics and computer science. She participated eagerly in the Math Olympiad at her school and was always fascinated by the intersection of both subjects. She says that cryptography falls perfectly into that intersection.

“When I first heard about Bitcoin in 2015, it appealed to me as this cryptographically simple idea that was so elegant in its construction,” she said. “All it used were hash functions and signatures. The [white] paper was unlike anything else I had ever read before. It didn’t have proofs and yet, it worked so well. Blockchain [technology] appeals to me for several different reasons, one of them being the freedom it brings to people. The ability to send uncensored transactions and messages is extremely powerful.”

In the past, Krishnan has served as the head of education at Blockchain at Berkeley, an organization that hosts events and programs focused on education, consulting and innovation around blockchains. She also taught a university-accredited blockchain class at the university. That course now boasts an online version that about 50,000 students have signed up for.

From there, she went on to teach blockchain executive education programs at organizations like Mercedes Benz India and the UC Berkeley School of Law.

In 2016, she co-founded the crypto-economics research team for Blockchain at Berkeley, which focuses on alternative consensus research. The organization received a grant from UC Berkeley’s blockchain lab. The team eventually took on the name Mechanism Labs and now focuses on pushing research forward in the blockchain space through increased accessibility. The organization also conducts economic incentive research.

Last summer, Krishnan received an education grant from the Social Alpha Foundation (SAF), a not-for-profit platform that concentrates on supporting blockchain education and outreach by empowering communities to utilize blockchain technology for social good. She said the aim of the grant is to cultivate advanced blockchain skill sets and thought leadership in Asia. Recently, she delivered a series of lectures on crypto-economic design, the balance of cryptography, economics and game theory to the faculties and students at various universities throughout the continent, as well as to the Hong Kong blockchain community.

Understanding the Obstacles

Despite being 10 years old, Bitcoin and blockchain technology are still relatively new. Krishnan said that while blockchains offer several use cases, it’s not plausible to think the entire world will eventually run entirely on blockchains.

“There are several cases where centralized databases are extremely efficient,” she claimed. “Just like the internet has not replaced all forms of interpersonal communication and data sharing, I think blockchain [technology] will not replace all forms of centralized databases. Complete decentralization is not a realistic expectation; this would require decentralization to exist on all levels of the stack, right from the medium of communication to the user interface. Thereby, we would need decentralized internet service providers and a decentralized way of compiling any app built. While, theoretically, this could exist, it seems extremely inconvenient as a means of operating.”

She does believe, however, that blockchain technology will be globally adopted within the next five to 10 years, but if blockchains are going to garner full trust and legitimacy, further (and clearer) regulation is a must.

Among the most positive changes she has witnessed in the industry have been the addition of communities like Ethereum, DFINITY, Zcash and IPFS. She said that several cryptographic tools like zero-knowledge proofs, verifiable delay functions and threshold signatures are also making headway in the blockchain space and are beginning to experience wide-scale usage.

However, she has also witnessed people pumping and dumping coins, along with investors plunking money into a technology they don’t understand. This has resulted in unhealthy and bearish market conditions, which is why she feels regulation must exist.

“Being able to deal with fraud and malicious activity is an important aspect for any system to survive and, if anything, well thought-out regulation allows innovation to thrive,” she said. “If there was no regulation around privacy-preserving technology, it could increase the likelihood of terrorist activities. If we lived in an ideal world where all people are honest and well meaning and will use the technology that we build in such a way that it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s basic rights, perhaps we don’t need regulation. However, given the world we live in, regulation around blockchain [technology] is just as important as the technology itself.”

Krishnan also took time to speak about the gender gap in the blockchain space and noted that the industry will never be diverse as long as it remains dominated by a strictly male presence.

“For us to grow the intellect of humanity, there needs to be a way to include as many diverse thoughts as possible,” she said. “I recognize that women, on average, tend to be less confident about their thoughts and ideas, and thus they are less likely to be heard and shape the technology in the same way that men can. But if men are the only ones building the technology of the future, they are more likely to build a world that mostly benefits their interests and needs, implicitly excluding the needs of the other segments of the population. I believe women and other minorities need to have an equal ability to shape it.”

In the end, Krishnan remains confident in blockchain technology and said that the problems witnessed in the space like the recent crypto crash will only help industry leaders realize what weaknesses need to be addressed.

“The hype and price speculation surrounding bitcoin has not correlated to actual usage and adoption of this technology yet,” she claimed. “Soon, we are going to see an increased push to build solution-based technology that answers a need, and despite the recent market crash, several high-quality experts have come into the blockchain space and are here to build the future.”

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