Preparations underway for the campus-wide MIT Bitcoin Project

Bitcoin ATM at MIT Coop
Bitcoin ATM at MIT Coop

How do you build an entire new currency ecosystem? Many folks, especially proponents of Bitcoin are trying to figure that out in new and creative ways.

As a test case, you won’t have to look much further than the implementation of the MIT Bitcoin Project this fall.

This summer, some of the key players involved in the Bitcoin initiative, which will be giving every undergraduate $100 in bitcoin, are working non-stop to make the one-of-a-kind Bitcoin experiment at MIT a success

Jeremy Rubin, who will be a junior, has been working around the clock this summer to make sure that when the project hands over the $100 of bitcoin to students, there will be opportunities to use the currency just as any other payment method.

The program is planned to officially start with the distribution of $500,000 in bitcoin a little while after the school year starts, most likely late September. With new students arriving on campus and a drawn out “rush” period, there is lot happening on campus. As Rubin said, “We don’t want to add any more complexity.”

Bitcoin summer school

Over the summer, the MIT Bitcoin Project is having a contest for people to submit projects on how to use the currency once it is in the students’ hands.

For the first round of BitComp, they had 40 teams submit ideas. That was narrowed down and just announced the winners of round two of the competition. Among the winning ideas were a way to order food for delivery using bitcoin and a policy futures market.

“We went through all the videos, and my jaw dropped,” Rubin said. “We are seeing everything from people thinking about the user interfaces to the architecture to people implementing new crytocurrency ideas.”

As for implementing the acceptance of bitcoin in and around MIT, Rubin said that they are taking their time, not wanting launch before people are ready to use the currency on campus.

“We don’t want to reach out to merchants too soon,” he said. “We’ve seen huge excitement from our initial talks. There will be a lot of activity from merchants in terms of where people will be able to go to spend their bitcoin.”

Creating a thriving bitcoin economy

“I’m more excited, not about where they will go to spend their bitcoin,” Rubin explained, “but what people will build to allow them to spend it in new ways.”

Some of the ways he expects students to innovate are to make everyday payment activities easier, such as with bill splitting apps that can tap into the currency network.

To create as much innovation around the distribution as they can, the MIT Bitcoin Project is having weekly “hack nights” where they have as many as 50 people. As Rubin said, “We’ll have someone come in to talk about an area of expertise or an API they built … We are fostering an academic and developer community around what is going on.”

More important for the success of the project is the social connections that people are building to push the initiative forward. “When people build things, it’s often not because they care about a specific issue yet, but they’ve found a group of people that they like to work with.” Rubin said. “Building that kind of infrastructure around bitcoin is important.”

One of the reasons that MIT gave the go ahead for the project is the very heavy research aspect to the Bitcoin Project. Rubin said that they have formalized the distribution of the currency and, “have plans so that we can learn something that is shareable.”

“There are a lot of other school’s that want to do similar experiments, and if we serve as a foundation and say, ‘Here’s what we learned and here are the mistakes that we made,’ that will be fantastic,” he added.

Additionally, he feels that there will be a bit of social pressure to spend bitcoin on classmates’ applications and not just sit on the currency.

“Whether or not they are positive on the outcome of bitcoin, they see it as really interesting stuff that we have to think about.”

Don’t think that Rubin isn’t a bit worried about what is going to happen come September, so he’s continuing to work on almost every aspect of the Bitcoin Project day and night. “I’m implementing a system that is going to be responsible for distributing a million dollars of Bitcoin, so I need to be comfortable with what I built,” he said.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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