Foundation of Digital Currency Initiative : Interview with Tadge Dryja from MIT DCI ①

Thaddeus Dryja (Tadge) is the creator and the co-author of the Lightning Network who is leading research on scaling and interoperability of cryptocurrencies and Smart contracts at DCI (Digital Currency Initiative) as an open-source developer and research scientist. Tadge is also working with students and other researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He studied computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and taught at Mie University in Japan before discovering Bitcoin and Blockchain technology, and working to improve the Bitcoin Network. Before co-founding Lightning Labs, he was CTO of a Bitcoin smart contract startup named Mirror based in San Francisco, where he led exploration of the limitations and possibilities of new decentralized financial systems.

Tadge Dryja

Interview Date :9th June 2020

A very early encounter in Japan

I moved to Tokyo in 2009 and had a job there briefly. After a while, friends asked about if I would like a job at Mie University. I first learned about Bitcoin in 2011 and I was living in Mie Prefecture in Japan. I thought it was really cool, I became involved with Bitcoin technology, and I got a computer where I installed a Bitcoin core on it and used that for my Bitcoins storage since 2011. To me, that is the most secure way to store it.

Tadge Dryja

I also was scared of it at the same time. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I thought it may be illegal. I remember I read a lot about in 2011-12 and decided I wanted to pursue a career in this, so I went back to America in 2013 to do a Ph.D. in cryptography. I only stayed 1 year in the Ph.D. program before I moved to San Francisco, and started working on the Lightning network, and digital currency development.

In 2017, I discovered Digital Garage in Ebisu where they have a Bitcoin research group and started working a lot with. They are working on Bitcoin software as well as making smart contracts. In Tokyo, that is the only company sponsoring Bitcoin-related work and events. There are a lot of good people there, and I enjoy working with them when I can.

Foundation of Digital Currency Initiative

Before the DCI, there was a foundation named the Bitcoin Foundation that was funding development of Bitcoin core. However, it fell apart, but many of the people from the Bitcoin Foundation such as Joi Ito, Jeremy Rubin, and many others decided to make a place that would fund the development of Bitcoin technology. Thus, the DCI was born from there. A little while after that, Neha Narula got her Ph.D. at MIT and when she finished, she joined the DCI. The main mission initially was to fund Bitcoin developers, but after a while that mission became bigger and also became more integrated with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). By the time I started there, they were working with students as well. We have something called the UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) different undergraduate students come and do research projects with us, and they would help out with research software.

Through my research, I knew about the Digital Currency Initiative. I have been working on Bitcoin, and it might come as a surprise but there are not that many people who work on Bitcoin. I knew many people who work in Blockstream, and I talked to people who also worked at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) DCI for a few years before officially joining the DCI. How I ended up here was a coincidence. I was visiting my parents who lived close to Boston at that time in late 2016, and during my visit, I had quite some spare time so I decided to visit the MIT. I met Neha Narula, Director of the DCI, and the DCI group, and asked them if I could go to MIT and work with them just to see what they were doing for a day or two. Neha she said sure, and so I brought my laptop and hung out there for a couple of days. During that time, I talked to students and explained what research I was working on. It was really cool to see people talk about Bitcoin and listen to what they were working on. After my second day there, Neha asked me if I would like to work there. I got a little surprised but was very flattered and said “Actually, maybe”. So, I moved from San Francisco to Boston to work at MIT.

An Open University

MIT is one of the premier research universities in America where a lot of research and new technology is a major part of their education system. Even before I officially started working there, I had already started going to the DCI every day. I thought I maybe could sit in the back of a class, and hopefully I would be allowed to join.  Some classes are quite open and are fine with people sitting in and learning. Even when I taught a class, there were a good number of people who participated, and you could tell they were not students. They were just interested and they just came in for the lectures. I did not think anything was wrong with that. So, it is pretty open and there are a lot of top students that are experts on cryptography and technology. All the MIT courses with Video and Audio are on MIT’s homepage, and everyone is welcome to watch and learn from it.

There is a lot of interest from young people. I know some professors who are cryptography professors, and in their classes, they will deliberately talk about Bitcoin because all the students are interested in it. That way they get many more students to take cryptography classes as well. So, there is a lot of interest in the students, and we don’t really have to tell them why they have to learn about blockchain technology or a decentralized system. It is very interesting to see there is not so much enthusiasm form the faculty as there is from the students. Even at events, we have a lot of high school students coming in with a lot of high spirits.

Intimacy of Bitcoin communities

If you are in the Bitcoin community, you already know people, and that can be both a good and a bad thing. The idea behind Bitcoin is that it is supposed to be trustless and decentralized. In reality, people know each other and hang out. We try to not make it like that, but rather be accepting of totally anonymous people. However, the communities meet up and know each other and that it is just how humans function. If you know people and you are friends with them, you work with them more and you trust them. So, there are both good sides and bad sides with that.

Wide Range of Research

2 years ago, I taught a class about cryptocurrencies and blockchain with Neha and all the videos are online for free. So, working on Bitcoin core development as well as on other technologies and papers is one thing, but we also are a part of MIT in that we teach classes and work with students. Our work is range wider than that. Some students work on Ethereum and other researchers at DCI for example work on cryptography related to Zcash with the Zcash team. There are also people who work with regulators looking at decentralized digital bank currencies. Today, we can definitely say that the community has grown and is looking into different fields of study. 

Current Bitcoin UTXO – Utreexo

I am working on Utreexo at the moment. The paper is completed and up on e-print, and the code is on Github. Initially, it was only me working on it, but now there is a number of people working on it and I am leading it, organizing it, and working on it with them. Utreexo is a way to make things a lot more efficient on Bitcoin. It is not a hard fork or a soft fork, and it is totally compatible with how Bitcoin works today. But what it does is that it drastically reduces the size of storage you need to run Bitcoin. Right now, when you run Bitcoin, it takes many gigabytes of space. The idea with Utreexo is that it will take only a few kilobytes, so that would make it much lighter and much faster, and you still get the same security.

Interviewer , Editor : Lina Kamada



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