What is the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies & Contracts (IC3)?

15 Jul 2019

Founded in 2015 as an international partnership of academic organisations, the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies & Contracts (IC3) has a mission to move blockchain-based applications “from today’s white boards and proof-of-concepts to tomorrow’s fast and reliable financial systems of execution and record”. IC3 is based in New York City at Cornell University’s Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech.

And the finance world is taking notice. In fact, to kick off this year’s Cornell Blockchain Conference, IC3 co-director Emin Gün Sirer and members of the Cornell Blockchain Club rang the Nasdaq opening bell on 11 April.

“This demonstrates Cornell’s reach into the emerging financial tech industry in NYC as well as Wall Street’s interest in and commitment to blockchain technologies,” Sirer said in an article in the Cornell Chronicle.

Among the other organisations making up IC3 are Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, ETH Zurich, the University of California-Berkeley, University College London, the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The organisation launched with the help of a three-year, $3 million grant from the US Science Foundation.

IC3 focuses on two key areas of blockchain technology: science and code. Working with a variety of partners – including Cisco, Fidelity Labs, IBM, Intel, JPMorgan, Microsoft and Siemens – its goal is to enable “new cryptocurrency and smart contract solutions that are easy to program and formally verifiable, with provable security properties that meet industry’s expectations for efficiency and reliability”.

“What IC3 brings is that academic computer science legacy that can help us explore how this technology can be applied,” Fidelity Labs senior vice president Hadley Stern told Reuters in 2017.

IC3 has identified six “Grand Challenges” for blockchain technology development: scaling and performance, correctness by design and construction, confidentiality, authenticated data feeds, safety and compliance, and sound migration.

For example, to address the scaling and performance challenge, IC3 has proposed a protocol for Byzantine fault tolerance that ensures liveness. (David Schwartz, CTO of Ripple, describes “liveness” this way: “So long as there is always at least one transaction suitable for inclusion that has not been deemed final by any properly-operating nodes, the set of transactions deemed final by at least one properly-operating node will increase in number.” Or, as CodeChain editor Seung Woo Kim puts it, “liveness guarantees that ‘something good eventually happens’”. The developers named the protocol HoneyBadgerBFT because it “guarantees liveness without making any timing assumptions” about the network.

In other words, “Unlike the alternatives, HoneyBadgerBFT simply does not care about the underlying network.”

An earlier project, Hawk, which built on previous developments at Cornell and the University of Maryland, focused on building a blockchain system that “enables private smart contracts to be written but not disclosed to the public”. IC3 chief scientist Elaine Shi told CoinDesk in 2015 that such projects are important because “it is extremely easy to make mistakes programming smart contracts”.
More recently, IC3 sold one of its developmentsTown Crier, a system that uses trusted execution environments to securely trigger smart contracts – to Chainlink, a smart-contract network provider.

“Working with [IC3 co-director] Ari Juels and everyone at Cornell has been an immense pleasure for our entire team, and we look forward to working together with them and the rest of the academic security research community to create secure smart contracts that can meaningfully react to and affect key events outside of their own network,” Chainlink CEO Sergey Nazarov said in a press announcement.

While it might have a lower profile than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Currency Initiative or Stanford University’s Center for Blockchain Research, IC3 has projects spread “far and wide”, Bitrates noted recently. In addition to HoneyBadgerBFT, which is being used on an Ethereum sidechain, IC3 is also known for the Hydra framework for decentralised security and bug bounties and for Bitcoin-NG, “a next-gen blockchain protocol that has been used as the basis of Waves and Aeternity”.

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