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21 Nov 2019

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Research

Blockchain in Fudan: a win-win result of university-industry research collaboration

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Can you imagine that you need not do a second blood test when you transfer to another hospital? Your health record could be shared among hospitals. Can you imagine that rumors and plagiarism would be impossible as you can trace all news to its source?


With the advance of the technology of blockchain, all these visions will come true. Then, what is a blockchain? Why do we develop it? Who are working on it?


It’s a long way for a new technology to grow from the lab then to be applied to the industry. Before blockchain was known by the general public, many Fudaners had devoted their research to this field for long. 


Fundamental research: deal with security and efficiency issues

The foundation of blockchain is cryptography, without which there is no blockchain,” Professor Kan Haibin, from the School of Computer Science, Fudan university, explained. In 2013 when blockchain was just a virgin land in China, Kan’s team had already sniffed the potential value in this frontier technology.


Kan explained the concept of blockchain by comparing it to “doing bookkeeping in a group”. “Everyone keeps their accounts over any income or expenditure, so any mistake or attempted alteration can be immediately detected,” said Kan. Transparency and immutability are significant properties of blockchain.


“The essence of blockchain is decentralization,” Kan added. “For now, we need third-party media such as Alipay and WeChat to complete a transaction, but we can do without them with blockchain.” The risks brought by third-party payment would thus be reduced.


Kan Haibing

For Kan, security and efficiency are the two nuts to be cracked at the fundamental level. Security is what Kan’s team has focused on in recent years. On the basis of cryptography, coding theory, algorithm and computational complexity, they integrated cryptographic techniques such as attribute-based cryptography, zero-knowledge proof and secure multi-party computation into blockchain to ensure privacy. 


Kan’s team has harvested several patented and authorized research, including a decentralized authorization and certification platform based on attribute-based passwords, news source tracing approach, blockchain-based platforms for education certification and cross-university course selection. Now, they are building a data sharing and exchange platform based on blockchain and attribute-based cryptography.

Zheng Lirong

Aside from Kan’s team, another team led by Prof. Zheng Lirong, from the School of Information Science and Technology, is cracking the other nut.


The efficiency problem is a side effect resulting from “distributed ledgers”, since data gets replicated on every node upon the update of a single block, which has led to the low calculation efficiency during synchronization. Zheng’s team has thus proposed the notion of “Flexible co-Chain” to address the issue.


“‘Flexibility’ is contrasted to the inconvenience in existing blockchain systems in terms of structure, block generation, consensus mechanism, privacy protection, etc.,” Ling Li, an associate professor from Zheng’s team, explained. “The flexible chain can change to meet different needs, better adapting to the application or individual requirements,” Ling added. This technology optimizes the design of distributed architecture and computing resources, which perfectly resolves the contradiction between trust and efficiency in distributed computation.


More lab work such as zero-knowledge proof, secure multi-party computation and etc., which Kan’s team has long been working on, is still in need of further exploration and research. These technologies, though far from being applied, play an irreplaceable role in providing secure and controllable support for the development of blockchain applications.


With the fundamental research on blockchain undergoing rapid development, Kan said, “there are many technical hurdles for us to overcome in the future.”


Industrial application: efforts of experts from various disciplines

Difficulties and constraints exist in both the research of underlying technology and the application of mature technology.

Launching ceremony of Shanghai Blockchain Engineering Technology Research Center

According to Liu Baixiang, student of Kan and Chief Technical Specialist at Shanghai Blockchain Engineering Technology Research Center, as the large variety of applications of blockchain technology in areas, including supply chain management, smart city, smart administration, education, public welfare security, spans basically all disciplines such as economics, management, sociology, etc. and therefore demands a wide range of knowledge and industrial experience of researchers. At present, the lack of interdisciplinary talents has become a “stumbling block” for industrial application to take off.


“Taking full advantage of Fudan University’s comprehensive advantages, integrating multiple fields and uniting various industries are the fundamental method to tackle this problem and that is the way forward for Fudan’s blockchain research”, said Liu.


In addition to fundamental research, exploring application scenarios is what Kan’s team has been doing in recent years. They are working with Shanghai Huahong Jitong Smart System Company on a data service platform for the supervision of goods in supply chains, an attempt to apply this technology to governmental businesses. 


“Blockchain-based data sharing and access control technology can only be utilized after all levels of institutions are authorized to ensure data security of supervised goods to prevent data abuse and leak”, said Liu. 


A new Shanghai cross-university education platform embedded in blockchain technology is under construction. Through the network of “distributed ledgers”, each university involved represents a node where students’ grades are recorded, and other nodes in the network keep that log at the same time to make sure the records are unalterable. Students will also be able to submit and confirm their learning progress on this platform. The city is also exploring a mechanism of an electronic lifelong learning portfolios featuring the recording, transfering, exchange and authentication of information.


Zheng Lirong’s team are discussing in their laboratory

Zheng Lirong’s team is probing into more application scenarios. In 2017, they started the deep fusion of blockchain and the Internet of things and collaborated with CES Group, INESA Group and ICAS Group to establish the Shanghai Vital Product Traceability Engineering Technology Research Center. The team took an active part in the development of vital product traceability system led by the Ministry of Commerce. The system adopts the transparent and open blockchain technology, guarantees the supply of vital products such as agricultural products and dangerous goods, and ensures data authenticity, credibility and cybersecurity in the process of production and transportation.


At present, the team, with the help of the Blockchain Technology Association, has built strategic partnerships with a number of innovative enterprises including Shanghai Tegao, and launched “Blockchain + Internet of things” to reshape the value chain of trade flows and upgrade the management of the value chain, look into the specific cases of flexible shared chain networks in the securities industry, and realize efficiency, security and autonomy over core blockchain technologies in the financial sector.


Blockchain technology is soon to be applied to governmental administration. Based on the features of blockchain technology such as peer-to-peer connection, trusted storage and smart contract, Zheng Lirong’s team is promoting the use of blockchain technology in Shanghai “E-Citizen”, the mobile terminal of “Yi Wang Tong Ban”, a one-stop public service platform. Blockchain will play an important role in electronic license preservation, authorization certificate storage, historical record tracking and cross-departmental services.


“Our goal is to ensure open access to the underlying technologies of blockchain—that includes quickly deploying blockchain to all businesses of real economies, realizing cross-blockchain communication among different industries, making companies’ access to blockchain easier, and contributing to national technological innovation”, said Zheng. “This ‘open innovation’ is what many world-leading universities are doing, and the social responsibility a university should undertake.”


At Fudan University, there are plenty of other research teams working on blockchain-technology-related research and development, including those led by Prof. Du Li from the School of Economics, Prof. Zhang Chenghong from the School of Management, Prof. Wu Libo from the School of Big Data, and Prof. Li Qingjuan from the Fanhai International School of Finance, etc.


The research forces of Fudan University aim to strengthen fundamental research, accelerate technological breakthroughs, extend the ecosystem of the blockchain industry to the fields of public welfare, business and smart city to promote integrated innovation and to align their achievements to national strategies. Of course, talent training is also urgent in blockchain technology.

Prof. Kan haibin and students at a seminar

Kan said that the Blockchain Laboratory for Undergraduate Students program has been put on the agenda. He intends to build a lab for students from all kinds of academic backgrounds, where they can participate in theory study and hands-on experiments and inspire each other with their own expertise. Enterprises will also be invited to engage in this program to facilitate student entrepreneurship and talent cultivation. 


At present, Kan’s laboratory has been joined by a number of postgraduate students devoted to the underlying technologies of blockchain, and working on offering the professional master’s programs and engineering PhD programs specialized in blockchain.


In recent years, there is a growing demand of Fin-tech talents specialized in blockchain. Therefore, the School of Information Science and Technology has set up the financial information management program as a new branch of the engineering management major, and plans to start the admission of master’s candidates next year.


It won’t be long before we establish an wholesale educational system that includes bachelor, master’s and doctoral programs.


“In the future, we will set up more courses to provide guidance to students with different professional backgrounds and skills who want to participate in blockchain research, and produce talents in a more general and comprehensive way,” said Kan Haibin.


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