A Convo with Aparna Krishnan, Rising Blockchain Thought Leader

A Convo with Aparna Krishnan, Rising Blockchain Thought Leader

One of the cryptoverse’s most impressive up-and-comers? Aparna Krishnan, a 2018 Thiel Fellowship and Social Alpha Foundation grantee, a co-founder of open-source blockchain research lab Mechanism Labs, and former Head of Education and Executive VP at Blockchain at Berkeley. Needless to say, Krishnan’s going places, and she was kind enough to chat with Bitsonline about her current research, her thoughts on the space, and more. 

Also see Novogratz: ‘A Herd of Institutional Investors’ Will Run Into Crypto

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Krishnan: ‘This Is the Right Time and Place to Be Pursuing Blockchain Research’

William Peaster, Bitsonline: Your accolades and accomplishments are both extensive and impressive. Thanks kindly for chatting with Bitsonline. Could you tell our readers a little bit about your present work, namely your research at ThunderCore and your paper “Meta-Analysis of Alternative Consensus Protocols”?

Aparna Krishnan: The “Meta-Analysis of Alternative Consensus Protocols” provides a framework to understand several of the popular blockchain protocols that use proof-of-stake as a sybil control mechanism. The paper also has a chart version available on our GitHub. We are also working on blog posts to make each of the protocols that we analyzed understandable to anyone getting started with blockchains.

The goal of this paper was to provide a common language, framework, and method of understanding blockchain protocols. Oftentimes when people think a blockchain is perfect because it is the most scalable or the most secure blockchain they have encountered, they forget that it makes other trade-offs to achieve those properties. People also often make the mistake of comparing blockchains strictly on just one parameter. This paper is meant to provide everyone with an easy to understand method of comparing blockchains.

Aparna Krishnan: a researcher to watch out for in the years ahead.

The work I’m doing at Thunder Token is currently focused a lot on research related to the protocol. There is a lot of research to be done and a lot of practical considerations to be made in implementing the Thunderella white paper.

William: Congratulations on being announced as one of 2018’s Thiel Fellows! I imagine it’s as great of an opportunity as it is a responsibility. I know the Fellowship is still fresh, having been announced on June 22nd — but how do you think you will approach it going forward?

Aparna: The fellowship is unique in that it is an opportunity for me to work on something that I am passionate about consistently for the next two years. For me, taking time off from school to work on a project I love with the people I work the best with isn’t a scary decision. The default path of education will always exist and I can go back to it after I finish working on what I’m currently passionate about. This is the right time and place to be pursuing blockchain research and the industry is the best place for me to be making the biggest impact possible.

I don’t see this as me giving up on education because learning is a lifelong process, but by being in an environment where I will learn the most, I am actually optimizing my learning. That environment just happens to not be an educational institution at this point in time.

The only responsibility that comes with the fellowship is a responsibility to myself; one where I am constantly challenging myself, stepping out of my comfort zone, and growing in order to make the biggest impact possible. I look forward to the next few years with the fellowship.

William: As you see it, what are the hot-button issues in cryptoeconomic design right now?

Aparna: The most pressing problems in the blockchain space are scalability, privacy, governance and incentivization. Mechanism Labs currently focuses on scalability through consensus mechanisms research and incentive scheme design.

The biggest problem I can identify is an incentive misalignment for people who research and develop these middle-layer solutions. In the age of the internet, there was an incentive misalignment for those who developed new protocols. In the age of blockchains, there is an incentive misalignment for those who upgrade existing protocols. That’s probably why we see so many new blockchains.

William: You’ve spoken on your desire to see more women moving into the fledgling blockchain space. What would you like to see, or what efforts do you think would be most effective, on that front?

Aparna: I believe that the emergence and subsequent rise of a new technology presents an opportunity to empower more women. I admire the efforts of Alexis, my co-founder who also runs She256, who works tirelessly to bridge the gender gap. I was personally inspired by several other women in the blockchain space such as Professor Elaine Shi, Dr. Mahnush Mohavedi, and Elizabeth Stark. Having conferences where we showcase the work of women in the space is a wonderful way to celebrate each of their accomplishments and realize the individual role each of them has played in shaping this field. Most people don’t realize that blockchain was brought into academia because of Professor Shi. She wrote the first ever academic analysis of bitcoin and started IC3. Her work and vision has inspired me as a researcher.

I think every blockchain organization needs to make active efforts in recruiting women into all roles. It might take longer to find the right women, but if we make an active effort to ensure that organizations maintain the gender balance at the start, we will be able to maintain that balance much more easily as the field keeps growing.

Women need to actively support other women. Nydia Zhang from Social Alpha Foundation, Professor Shi, and Dr. Mohavedi have all been mentors to me and have helped me get to where I am.

William: You’ve co-founded the world’s first open-source research lab in Mechanism Labs. What are the main rewards and challenges you’ve faced in doing so?

Aparna: The biggest reward has been the support and engagement we’ve received to our open-source and collaborative effort, which has been positively acknowledged by a large number of people.

It’s astounding to realize that the collective intellect of humanity is capable of so many things. If I can play a role in channelling this intellect in a meaningful and collaborative way so that we have a blockchain that finally meets the dream of decentralization someday, I would feel satisfied by all the work that I do.

The biggest challenge I see right now is patent law. A fundamental incentive realignment needs to happen in order to ensure that people can be compensated and recognized fairly for working open source and collaborating rather than by patenting their work. I also foresee a challenge in getting the different protocol designers to agree on a common set of terms and use it in their future work.

For Those Interested in a Deeper Dive

As the “world’s first open-source research lab,” Krishnan’s Mechanism Labs hails a new means of concentrated, high-level collaborative research. The pioneering model may prove popular for future labs.

If Krishnan’s Thunder Token research is of interest, you can find more information on the project’s site here. The ThunderCore protocol is EVM-compatible, which the team boasts of allowing Ethereum DApps to be migrated over to “immediately increase their performance.” You can also find the Thunderella white paper that Krishnan previously mentioned here.

To learn more about Krishnan’s 2018 Thiel Fellowship, which has put her in company with Thiel alumnus and Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin, be sure to check out the June announcement. She’s a fascinating researcher, and if such a fellowship is any indication, she’s only just getting started.

What’s your take? What do you make of Krishnan’s research? Let us know in the comments below. 

Images via Mechanism Labs, Pixabay

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