W. Scott Stornetta: A life of research, education, and solving the fundamental riddle of data immutability through blockchain

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The life of W. Scott Stornetta can broadly be divided into two distinct parts. The first part of his career was spent on research and consulting, when he worked at such prestigious corporations as Bell Labs, for example. The second part is a life dedicated to the education of others. Scott spoke to BlockLeaders about his experiences in both fields, and how he solved the issue of data immutability while trying to prove that it couldn’t be done!

Education, education, education. The desire to share knowledge and wisdom, and inspire others to be the greatest they can be. To see your students thriving, and feel that you’re at least partially responsible for that boost to their lives.

The great Mahatma Ghandi once said ‘Live as you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever.‘ This is a very powerful quote, with rather profound ramifications. One’s education is the basis for one’s life. Life experiences also teach us a lot about ourselves, of course, and about other people and the world we live in. But a solid education is the foundation for a successful life path.

W. Scott Stornetta has spent a significant amount of his time striving to build that solid foundation, and his efforts paid off. He earned a B.S. in Physics at Brigham Young University, then a Ph.D. in Physics at the prestigious Stanford University. From there Scott went to work at at Bell Communications Research, a part of the former Bell Labs system created at the breakup of ATT into local and long distance phone companies. After working there for several years on a sort of proto-blockchain he left to help found Surety, which began operating a blockchain in 1995. Scott then worked as a consultant for many years, evaluating the commercial potential of technologies and helping entrpreneurs launch companies. He retired from that work to devote his life to teaching, first at Columbia High School, and then at Morristown High School. Education is an integral component of this man’s life. But Scott’s ambitions go much further. He’s now Chief Scientist at Yugen Partners, a blockchain-focused investment firm that provides institutional clients with access to the emerging blockchain space via commingled and customized portfolio solutions.

On the importance of ambition and education

In his own words, Scott has always been a person with high ambition. He says that “all through high school, I wanted to be the valedictorian, or the trumpet section leader, or the president of this and that.” This has certainly helped him do well in life. So ambition is important, but being ambitious does not always lead to a successful outcome. He recalls the story of a high school friend who was almost the polar opposite as him. The proverbial joker, every classroom seems to have one. So this guy lacked Scott’s ambition, but had the people’s touch. Later in life, when Scott was struggling to pay bills while studying for his Ph.D, he met his old buddy from high school. The joker guy had found his own calling in sales, and was now retired.

This tale puts things into perspective, doesn’t it.

Scott chose the path of education, while never losing his ambition to be a leader.

First of all, let me just say, in a somewhat selfish way, that education gives you a great opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives. I look at my students and see myself when I was their age. I want them to learn that science and technology, and clear thinking are very liberating indeed. These things can take you a long way. You can have a very thrilling life if you understand the opportunities given by science and technology.

But how does Scott create these opportunities for his students?

I tend to put the emphasis on learning, rather than teaching. So I’ll tell you about that. One of my favorite phrases is ‘That student is taught the best who is told the least.’

“I’ll tell you a little story about this. There was this famous mathematician, Robert Lee Moore, specialized in Topology. He’s the guy who said that phrase. Moore taught at the University of Texas for many years. At the time, this institution was very much considered a backwater university. Yet, he developed a method (Moore’s method) of learning that put great emphasis in helping the students incrementally explore and discover. Moore ended up generating more high calibre Ph.D.s in his area of research that all of the Ivy League institution combined.

“Moore taught his students to think for themselves. He’s one of my heroes.”

Time for curved ball. I asked Scott, if there’s one quote that you’d want your students to remember you by after you’re gone, what would it be?

Probably something simple, like You can do this.”

The event that led to a very fundamental change

Scott’s interest on blockchain technology was actually sparked many years before the tech actually existed. He recalls the tale.

It was the Spring of 1989. I was working on my Ph.D., and my advisor had a joint appointment at Stanford University and Xerox PARC. So I had an office there.”

“There was a big scandal at the time, involving an MIT immunologist named Thereza Imanishi-Kari. Kari had co-authored a 1986 Cell article with Nobel Laureate David Baltimore. It was discovered that a number of records from biological experiments carried out by Kari had been tampered with. A number of publications about these experiments, which had garnered great attention, turned out to be fabricated.”

“So this event got me thinking about the fact that we were moving into a fully digital world, and that soon there would be no way of knowing which records were authentic. That train of thought led me to be bothered in a sort of existential sense. Soon, nobody would be able to tell new bits from old bits, or real bits from altered bits.

“I felt that this problem required a fundamental solution.”

The issue of record tampering is a hot topic these days. Tales of election rigging are rife, particularly across Third World countries.

But the issue is not just confined to distant places. Data manipulation and questions about data ownership come up often on the news. So how can blockchain help with all this?

The problem here is that blockchain needs to be embraced and adopted by entities that care about integrity and transparency. If they do, they can establish themselves as organizations above reprove. These entities could then create an immutable trail of their activities, and that way, those actors who are not willing to do such because they have deliberate intent of creating false narratives, and essentially plotting and collude, they would be far less likely to participate. It would be much more difficult for them to achieve their aim.

“So I think if we reach the point where we don’t have any confidence or trust in any stories where the audit trail could not be authenticated back through the blockchain, it’d be easier to spot those that are fake.”

On the path to blockchain, and solving the crucial issue of data immutability

Scott’s life has evolved in many ways, but that original event in the Spring of 1989 indirectly led to his involvement in blockchain technology today.

So when I finished my dissertation at Stanford, I went east and got a job at Bellcore They had a number of outstanding people, in a variety of areas. My background was Physics, but we were free to roam around the building, and were able to strike up collaboration with anyone whom we thought would be worthwhile.

“One of the first things I did when I got there was to head over to the cryptography group, where I met Stuart Haber. I had actually met him during the interview process.

“So I brought up the issue of record tampering, and suggested that it’d become a big problem soon. But if we could get a jump on it and solve it, then we’d get some credit. Stuart agreed with me that a problem did exist, so we worked on it for a few months.

“We came up with a serviceable solution, but it still required the trust on a centralized entity. So I said, you know, this is still not fully satisfying. We need something that does not require trust on a central authority. So Stuart said ok, let’s give it a shot. We worked on it for another while, and he eventually suggested that there appeared to be no way of doing it without trusting a central entity. So I said, since we had spent so much time on it, why don’t we at least get a publication out of it. Why don’t we publish a paper to prove that this cannot be done without trusting a central authority.

“And it was while working on proving that the problem could not be solved that we found the solution. The issue was as simple as realizing that if two people intend to collude, you need a third -an overseer- to detect the collusion. But what if they try to implicate that third person? Then you need a fourth, and so on and so forth.

“So the truth that we were trying to sketch out was that there is no way of solving the problem, because it’d require a conspiracy that involved everyone in the world. We realized at this point that this was in fact the solution, namely, to cryptographically link all the records and then distribute them so widely that the entire world became a witness. So we were doing what blockchain does now (distributing records) but never actually used the name itself, blockchain.

“Fast forward to Satoshi (Nakamoto, the creator/s of Bitcoin) in 2008. Our work was starting to gain some visibility at this point. Now, Bitcoin’s Whitepaper did not refer to the term blockchain either, but I don’t know know how else you could refer to a cryptographically linked chain of blocks that are widely distributed.

On the relationship of blockchain and education

Scott’s long experience both as an educator and on the blockchain, the question of how to link the two was obvious. How does blockchain relate to education.

Scott said that “well, that is a fair question. I think that the real message for my students is that they should try to solve hard problems. It’s not so much that I feel the need to tie blockchain specifically into education.

“Education is about imagining a world that you’d like to live in, and then trying to create that world. The world I wanted to live in was one where everyone could trust records.

On Yugen Partners

Scott’s latest project is Yugen Partners.

Yugen is a blockchain-focused venture capital firm. What we’re trying to do is ferret out the difference between people who think that blockchain is a great idea and think that it can change the world vs those who have a very solid plan about how they’re going to go about changing the world.

“One of the benefits about being in the blockchain space is the fact that there’s so many brilliant and creative people coming into it. Alex Mashinsky is as good an example as anyone. He’s someone who is very intelligent, very capable, and sees the revolution coming, so to speak. So we’re looking for entrepreneurs, and companies like Celsius to help them these creative people to advance their agenda, through strategic investment and backing.”

On motivation

What motivates Scott to become involved in a particular project, and generally in life?

Well, you know, I’m someone who’s got a lot of ideas. Some of them are good, some are not so good. I try to refine those ideas down, but it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. I do like communicating the ideas that I think will make for a better place for people to live in.

What would this better place be like for people?

First of all, I wouldn’t force anyone to live in this new world. Instead, I’d like to invite them, and have them join voluntarily. That alone is what I think matters.”

Freedom of choice, I suggested, and he agreed. “Very much so. I like to call it liberty. I’m a great believe in the fact that centralizing authority leads to negative effects. The more distributed and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) we can make the world, I think we’ll all be better for it.

“I also love the idea that value should follow those who create it. I think that’s a core theme of the tokenisation aspect of blockchain. Remember, the original work that Stuart and I did, let’s call it a proto-blockchain. It already had many of the characteristics that people resonate with. Meaning that as soon as the records are distributed to their peers, there no longer exists central control, and there’s no way to create a collusion of the minority. In fact, you’d have to have a collusion of way more than 51% that Satoshi talked about.

“You’d be talking of 99.9999% democratization. So my point is that even though we were not talking about tokens at the time, that same principle of making the controlling authority be peer-to-peer, rather than centralized, was very much at the heart of what we did.”

You can follow Scott through his LinkedIn profile, personal blog, or his company website.

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About Author

Smart, dexterous. Tactile, intelligent, educated, and well-read. A little impatient, wholly intolerant to bad spelling and lazy grammar. Writer, poet, and lover of those who love the side that we don't see. Ireland-based, but my mind wanders the world. Adventurous, and non-smoker. Photographer of all that is worth being portrayed for its intrinsic beauty. Widowed father of two beautiful young creatures. There is a destiny, not a destination, in my life. There is an admiration for she who may be gone, but not forgotten. Through words we live, and through words we are remembered. Join me in my journey...

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