Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: Computers/Technology Page 1 of 18

“Brains are Weird… and the World is Difficult”

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Institute for Consumer Money Management, and Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Intending to do the right thing doesn’t always lead to actually doing it, a tendency formally known as the “intention-behavior gap.” We can intend to go to bed early and still go to bed late. We can want to exercise and still choose not to. We can recognize the importance of saving extra money and still choose to spend it instead. So why is it so hard to change our behavior? Because, says Jonathan Corbin, Ph.D., “brains are weird” and “the world is difficult.”

Corbin is a senior behavioral researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. The Center for Advanced Hindsight recently partnered with NOVA Labs, Thought Cafè, and the Institute for Consumer Money Management to create the NOVA Financial Lab, a group of financial literacy games targeted at adolescents and emerging adults. In each game, players practice managing money while taking care of a pet. You may never have to sneak a cat into a concert or prepare a retirement plan for a dog in real life, but you will need to understand concepts like budgeting, interest, and debt. “What we hope people start to do,” Corbin says, “is really think about, ‘What decisions should I make now to make better decisions later?’”

Essentially, “Money spent now is money that can’t be spent later.” As intuitive as that might seem, “The way we think about money is relative, and it’s not linear.” When you’re already spending thousands of dollars on a car, for instance, an extra five hundred dollars for a feature you may or may not need “feels like a very small amount of money,” but in a different situation, its value can seem higher. How many times, Corbin points out, could you go out to eat with five hundred dollars?

The three games combine financial literacy with behavioral science to explore why people make the decisions they do and how they can start to make better ones.
Source: https://advanced-hindsight.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/CAH-NOVA.pdf

There are three games: Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters, and Exponential Potential. (“One of the people from PBS helped us come up with these cute names,” Corbin says.) They each involve different skills, but they all focus on “financial literacy from a behavioral science perspective.” Players have to contend with both external obstacles and common behavioral biases to make financial decisions for a pet. “I always choose the dog,” Corbin adds, “but I understand other people might choose the cat.” (I chose the cat.)

The first game, Shopportunity Cost, focuses on short-term financial planning. It involves dressing a pet up like a person in order to sneak them into a concert for the night. “You have to make decisions that optimize the pet’s happiness while also being able to make it to the concert and back home,” but you have a limited amount of money to spend. If you spend too much money too soon, you’ll run out, but if you’re too frugal, your pet won’t enjoy the evening. As goofy as the concert scenario is, it introduces players to an important concept known as opportunity cost, which refers to the potential benefits we miss out on when we choose one alternative over another. Say you’re debating between a $50 outfit and a $30 one. The opportunity cost of choosing the more expensive outfit is $20, but shoppers don’t always consider that. “Opportunity cost neglect is the simple idea that when we’re faced with financial decisions, we tend not to consider alternative uses for that money.” Reframing the $30 outfit as “a $30 dress that I’m okay with plus 20 extra dollars” that could be spent elsewhere might lead you to choose the cheaper outfit. Or it might not. “Sometimes you want the $50 outfit, and that’s perfectly fine… but a lot of the time that might not be the right decision.” Like many things, taking opportunity cost into account is a balancing act. “We shouldn’t obsess over every possible opportunity that there is,” Corbin cautions, but “consider[ing] opportunity costs can lead to better financial decisions.”

Budget Busters, meanwhile, involves medium-term planning. Players have to manage checking, credit, and savings accounts while caring for their pet over a six-month period. Along with purchasing essential and non-essential items to attend to their pet’s basic needs and happiness, players have to contend with unforeseen circumstances like medical emergencies. The game introduces people to the 50-30-20 rule, a budgeting concept that involves devoting 50% of income to essentials, 30% to non-essentials, and 20% to savings. Budget Busters also explores the principle of mental accounting, the idea that aside from formal budgets, we have “categories in our head” that change our perception of money. “Let’s say you get birthday money from your relative. That money tends to be a different kind of spending money to you than money you get from your paycheck,” Corbin explains, because “money feels different in different contexts.” 

There are parallels in Budget Busters. Sometimes players receive unexpected windfalls like gifts or prizes. (My cat won $40 for being “Best in Show” at the local pet pageant.) Players get to decide whether to use the extra money on a “fun” item for their pet or put it into savings. Corbin says “gift money” is a classic example of a misleading mental account. “We tend to overspend… because it feels like it’s not even our money in a way.” In reality, though, money has “fungibility,” meaning it’s “exchangeable… across any account.” In other words, “money is money,” regardless of where it comes from.  A $10 bill, for instance, can be exchanged for two fives without changing its value. (Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, lack this property. “You can’t exchange the picture of a cat you bought from the internet for Chipotle.”) Like Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters focuses on both traditional financial concepts and common behavioral tendencies that affect decision-making. “None of these things are necessarily bad,” Corbin emphasizes, “but they’re things that one should be aware of… when that natural proclivity may be swaying them in the wrong way.”

Budget Busters, which focuses on monthly budgeting, also encourages players to look closely at discounts when shopping. “Sometimes the discount that looks really good from a  percentage-off perspective isn’t actually the better discount” in terms of overall budgeting and total amount of money saved, Corbin warns.

The last game, Exponential Potential, explores concepts like compound interest, debt, and investment. The premise of the game involves traveling back in time to balance debts and investments. The goal is to make your pet a millionaire. By showing players how investment decisions can affect future net worth, the game seeks to increase understanding of processes involving exponential growth. Exponential Potential introduces the concept of exponential growth bias. According to Corbin,  “We tend to underestimate things that grow exponentially.” He cites the coronavirus pandemic as an example: “Even the people who were making the graphs of Covid’s growth… it’s really hard for them to figure out how to show that to people.” Log-transformed graphs are one option, but they can be deceptive by making the slope look flatter. Similarly, when dealing with exponential growth in the financial world, “People are going to underestimate how badly they’re going to get burned” by debt, but they may also underestimate how much they’ll benefit by saving for retirement.

With compound interest, for instance, “The interest gets applied both to principle and to interest from the last time, and that’s where exponential growth happens.” In the game, players have the opportunity to adjust how much money to put toward paying off debts, investing, and saving for retirement each month. Then they travel decades into the future to see how their decisions have affected their pet’s net worth.  “We’re hoping that that kind of feedback allows you to think through… what you might have done wrong and try to correct,” Corbin says. Once again, though, raw numbers aren’t the only factor at play. “We just want people to understand what the optimal way to do this is, and if there’s a better way for them to do that psychologically, that’s fine.” Debt account aversion, for example, refers to the fact that people want to have fewer debt accounts, meaning they are often eager to pay off accounts in full when they can. Some financial advisers suggest that “because they think it’ll get the ball rolling and you’ll be more likely to pay off the next one.” According to Corbin, there isn’t a lot of evidence for that, and sometimes paying everything off at the outset isn’t ideal. For instance, “It is optimal to start thinking about retirement as soon as you can… but if you’re delaying putting money into retirement because you’re so concerned with your student loan debt,” that can be problematic. Still, Corbin understands the appeal of closing debt accounts. “I am risk-averse, which means if I have a debt I’m probably going to put more money toward that debt that I necessarily should given what the interest rates are and what I could potentially make by investing that money instead.” Financially speaking, “There’s a decent likelihood that I should just pay the minimum on my mortgage… [but] I’ve decided I’m willing to trade off those future gains for the peace of mind that if something goes wrong… I’ll be ahead on my mortgage payment.” Even in Exponential Potential, the right choices aren’t always clear-cut. Corbin describes it as a “sandbox approach” where players are given more opportunity to play around. “This is the trickiest game because there’s no perfect answer for anything,” he says. “Everything has risk.”

Another bias that can affect our financial decisions is known as present bias, the tendency to discount the future in favor of the present. Corbin offers the everyday example of staying up too late. “Nighttime Me wants to stay up and read…. Morning Me is going to be really ticked off at Nighttime Me when they’re exhausted and don’t want to get up.” Research suggests that people can have a harder time identifying with their future selves. That can easily affect our financial decisions, too. “I’m going to let future me worry about that. That guy. Whoever that is.” However, “If you can get people to identify more with that person,” they can sometimes make better decisions. Ultimately, “The game isn’t trying to force people to become investment robots.” We are biased for the present because we live in it, and that’s normal. The purpose of the game is simply “to nudge people… to worry just a little more about the future.”

“Money is basically for safety, security, and happiness,” Corbin says. The ultimate objective is to balance needs, wants, and savings to achieve those three goals both in the present and the future.

By Sophie Cox
By Sophie Cox

Duke First-Year Founds Cryptocurrency Security Startup, Harpie

“Crypto is scaling so quickly but security systems are still the same as they were in 2013.” Those are the words of Daniel Chong, a recent Duke student whose new startup aims to change that.

One of the largest challenges within cryptocurrency is security. The most impactful application of cryptocurrency thus far is decentralized finance (DeFi). DeFi eliminates intermediaries by allowing people and businesses to conduct financial transactions through blockchain technology as opposed to working through banks or other corporations. However, as a result, people are personally responsible for securing their assets. 

Graphic from the Harpie.io Website

When engaging with cryptocurrency people generally use a trading platform and a wallet. Cryptocurrency trading platforms like Coinbase, Binance, and Crypto.com allow people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies using USD or other cryptocurrencies. However, in order to use crypto, one must transfer some of it into a wallet.

As with conventional currency, crypto wallets are not required in order to use cryptocurrency but they allow individuals to store their tokens in one place, easily retrieve them and send it to other individuals or organizations (i.e. buying non-fungible tokens).  Some of the most popular wallets include Coinbase wallet, Metamask, and Electrum. 

Screenshot of a Metamask Wallet

These wallets are not only password-protected but provide each user with a seed phrase or a series of words generated by one’s cryptocurrency wallet. This phrase, like a password, provides access to the crypto associated with that wallet.

An example seed phrase

The catch is, if an individual gets locked out of their wallet and cannot remember or does not have access to their seed phrase, all of their money will be lost. This is a major problem in the space and people have lost millions of dollars to lost seed phrases and inaccessible wallets. In fact, 20% of all existing Bitcoin tokens have been misplaced. 

Furthermore, in the past, it was already hard enough to secure one’s crypto wallets but now people have several wallets, each with their own unique seed phrase and passcodes making it all the more difficult. In the Fall of 2020, Daniel Chong, a Duke first-year at the time, identified this wallet security problem. 

“Crypto is scaling so quickly but security systems are still the same as they were in 2013.”

Daniel Chong

Having grown up in Las Vegas, Chong was used to fast-paced environments and unique challenges. During high school, Chong started coding as a hobby. 

“I just wanted to build something,” he explained

The first project he built was a website for a research paper he had in his high school psychology class. In 2018 Chong was introduced to solidity, a programming language that’s main purpose is to develop smart contracts for the Ethereum blockchain. If you are unfamiliar with blockchain, please refer to my previous article here

Chong matriculated to Duke during a period of transition, the Fall of 2020. As a result of being sent home due to COVID-19 in the Spring and having to shift to online meetings, many on-campus clubs were struggling. Early on Chong met Manmit Singh, a Junior at the time and the President of the Duke Blockchain Lab.

Even though Chong was only a first-year, he had experience coding in solidity and ended up aiding Singh in revamping Duke Blockchain Lab so students could continue engaging with and learning about blockchain despite the pandemic. Additionally, he ran a virtual course on web3 and solidity development for other club members. 

Despite the fact that Chong was attending classes, involved in clubs, and working part-time, he began talking to his brother Noah who was a senior at Georgia Tech about once again, building something. 

After working on building a security solution for crypto wallets for about a year, Chong and his brother received venture capital funding for their startup Harpie: a simple crypto protection plan that scales with you. 

Chong explained that venture capitalists are very excited about crypto right now, especially back in November of 2021 when crypto was in a bull market and bitcoin was at a market high of 60,000. 

Harpie is a web app that allows users to connect all of their wallets to individualized protection plans. This means that if you have a Harpie protection plan and someone hacks your wallet or you get locked out, you can go to the Harpie web app and transfer your funds from the unusable wallet to a new one.

Additionally, users are able to choose the degree of security their Harpie account has. Users can regain access to their fund via email, phone, or (personal recommendation) 2-factor authentication. Ultimately, for $8.99/month you can protect as many wallets, with any sum of funds, as you want.

Why Harpie is a better backup Solution

After working for just over a year, Harpie launched on February 14th, 2022. The next weekend Chong and his brother headed to ETHDenver, the largest Ethereum conference, to promote Harpie and compete in the Hackathon. For those who are unfamiliar, hackathons are competitive, sprint-like events where computer programmers and others are involved in software development work to build something over a condensed period of time. 

Over 10,000 people participated in the ETHDenver hackathon in person and over 30,000 participated virtually for over $1 million in bounties and prizes, as well as up to $2 million in investment capital.

While the teams had 36 hours to build a project, Chong and his brother managed to build there’s in 4-5 hours. They did this by quickly creating a front-runner bot/flash bot to help people avoid getting hacked by detecting and halting transactions to unauthorized addresses.

The brothers not only successfully built the bot but also placed top 10 in the overall hackathon and had the opportunity to present their project.

While presenting, Chong also received questions from Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum. He explained this as a very “nerve-wracking experience” and added that Buterin asked very technical questions such as what the miners’ extractable value would be.

Chong and his brother (left) onstage with Vitalik Buterin (right) presenting at ETHDenver

In the future, Chong would be open to entering more hackathons but right now is more interested in growing his startup. Currently, Chong is taking time off from school to focus on Harpie and to, ultimately, revolutionize security systems as they relate to online assets.

“Rest easy knowing your crypto is safe.”

Daniel Chong

What’s Up In Space? 3 Experts Weigh In

On Friday, February 25th, 2022 the brand-new Duke Space Diplomacy Lab (SDL) had an exciting launch with its first panel event: hosting journalists Ramin Skibba, Loren Grush, and Jeff Foust for a conversation on challenges in space within the next year. Moderated by Benjamin L. Schmitt of Harvard University, the conversation was in line with the SDL’s goals to convene a multidisciplinary group of individuals for the development of research, policy proposals, and solutions to mitigate risks in space.

In conversation, three key themes arose:

  1. U.S Russia Relations

With the current Russian invasion in Ukraine and the subsequent strain on U.S-Russia relations, the geopolitics of space has been in the limelight. Control of outer space has been a contentious issue for the two countries since the Cold War, out of which an uneasy yet necessary alliance was forged. Faust remarked that he doesn’t see U.S-Russia space relations lasting beyond the end of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2030. Grush added that before then, it will be interesting to see whether U.S-Russia relations will sour in the realm of space, simply because it’s questionable whether the ISS could continue without Russian support. However, Russia and NASA have historically acted symbiotically when it comes to space, and it’s unlikely that either party can afford to break ties.

2. Space debris

Major global players, from the U.S to China to India to Russia, are all guilty of generating space debris. Tons of dead satellites and bits of spacecraft equipment litter the areas around Earth – including an estimated 34,000 pieces of space junk bigger than 10 centimeters – and if this debris hit something, it could be disastrous. Grush paints the picture well by comparing spacecrafts to a car on a road – except we just trust that the satellite will maneuver out of the way in the event of a collision, autonomously, and there are absolutely no rules of the road to regulate movement for any other vehicles.

A computer-generated graphic from NASA showing objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites.

Skibba suggests that the best thing to do might be to make sure that more stuff doesn’t enter space, since the invention of technologies to clean up existing space debris will take a while. He also points to efforts to program new spacecrafts with graveyard orbit and deorbit capabilities as a necessary step.

3. Who is in charge of space?

Faust explained that commercial space exploration is moving incredibly fast, and legal regulations are struggling to keep up. Tons of companies are planning to launch mega-constellations in the next few years, for reasons that include things like providing higher-speed Internet access – something that we can all benefit from. Yet with new players in space comes the question of: who is in charge of space? The Artemis Accords are the existing rules that govern space at an international level, but they function as an agreement, not law, and with more players in space comes a need for legally binding terms of conduct. But as Grush puts it, “there’s a tension between the nimble, rapid commercial environment and a regulatory environment that wasn’t quite prepared to respond.”

The eight signees of the Artemis Accords

Beyond who rules over space, there’s also the question of decolonizing space. Skibba brings up that amidst a growing number of mega-constellations of satellites being launched, there are key questions being asked about who has access to space, and how we can level the playing field for more countries and companies to enter space exploration.

Space is uncharted territory, and to understand it is no small feat. While science has come incredibly far in terms of technological capabilities in space, it’s clear that we don’t know what we don’t know. But with a more multilateral, global approach to exploring space, we may just be able to go even farther.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

What is The Duke Summer Experiences Database?

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Graphics courtesy of Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education at Duke University.

Pre-pandemic, Duke undergraduates looking for a good summer experience might have seen something good at an in-person fair or maybe heard about an opportunity from a favorite professor. But there was a lot of luck involved.

Now, thanks to the Duke Summer Experiences database, which launched in late January, undergrads can view a variety of summer opportunities in one centralized place. They can search by area of interest, type of program, program cost, year in school, and several other filters.

“Duke Summer Experiences is a resource for all of Duke,” says Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education, “because it’s an easily searchable, permanent database that allows people to select the features of an opportunity that are important to them.”

Angst explains that the new database is “an evolution of the Duke summer opportunities fair and the ‘Keep Exploring’ project.”

In previous years, Duke organized an in-person fair with representatives from various summer programs. During the pandemic, the “Keep Exploring” project was created to “[provide] students with summer opportunities and mentorship during a time when not a lot of traditional opportunities were operating because of COVID.” The two programs joined forces, she said, and ultimately expanded into the Duke Summer Experiences website.

By aggregating opportunities into one place, the database should increase awareness and access for summer programs.

Dean Sarah Russell, Director of the Undergraduate Research Support Office, thinks this might be especially valuable for research opportunities, which she says tend to be less publicized. “Previously,” she says, “students might know about DukeEngage, GEO, or summer courses, but would have to rely on word of mouth or, if they were lucky, a tip from faculty or advisors to find out about smaller, lesser-known programs.”

Ms. Leigh Ann Muth-Waring, Assistant Director in Employer Relations at the Career Center, sees similar benefits to the new database: “Prior to the website’s creation, students had to actively search for information about summer programs by contacting individual departments on campus,” sometimes causing students to miss deadlines. The Duke Summer Experiences website, on the other hand, provides easy-to-navigate and up-to-date information.

Another goal of the Duke Summer Experiences database, Ms. Angst says, is to “build a community of practice where administrators can share best practices, resources, and lessons learned.”

Dr. Karen Weber, Executive Director of the Office of University Scholars and Fellows, hopes this will “enable administrators across campus to collaborate more effectively together and improve programmatic outcomes.” For instance, “They can communicate on shared initiatives, such as developing successful recruitment and marketing strategies, creating student applications, editing participation agreements, addressing student and administrative issues, engaging with faculty, and assessing programs.”

Along with making summer opportunities easier to find and encouraging administrative collaboration, Duke Summer Experiences is also beta-testing a new application process that would allow students to use one application to apply for multiple opportunities at once. Muth-Waring said the Duke Experiences Application “allows the student to complete one questionnaire with general information (name, major, etc.) which then can be used to apply to multiple Duke-sponsored summer programs.” It also provides links to other programs students might be interested in.

Ms. Angst also sees the new application system as a valuable tool. She hopes that it will reduce “application fatigue” among students looking for summer opportunities.

The Career Center is already using the new application platform for their summer Internship Funding Program, which encourages participation in unpaid or low-paying summer internships by providing financial support to students. According to Ms. Muth-Waring, the new application system “has helped us streamline our program’s application process so that it is easier and less burdensome for students.” Streamlining the process of finding summer opportunities is a major goal of the Summer Experiences website as well. Ultimately, Ms. Muth-Waring says, “both the Duke Summer Experiences Database and the Duke Experiences Application are creating an easier way for students to learn about and apply to university-sponsored summer programs, research opportunities, internships, and funding sources.” For students seeking summer opportunities through Duke, the Summer Experiences website can make the process easier.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

2019 Duke Grad Founds Cryptocurrency Startup Fei Protocol

As cryptocurrency gains popularity, people continue to question “How and where can these tokens be used?” A November 2021 study by Pew Research reported that 86% of Americans claimed to have heard about cryptocurrency and 16% say they personally have invested in, traded, or otherwise used it

Despite this, there are still very few places where one can make purchases directly using crypto. This means that in order to use cryptocurrency, people must first convert it back to US dollars, which can cost a lot due to transaction fees. Additionally, the exchange rate between any given crypto token and USD changes by the second, resulting in a lack of price stability.

(If you are unfamiliar with cryptocurrency or transaction (gas) fees please refer to my prior article here.)

Duke Alum, Joey Santoro, sensed this gap and saw an opportunity. Santoro graduated from Duke in 2019 with a major in Computer Science. There needed to be a volatility-free token with a stable valuation (i.e. matching the USD), to move between the worlds of crypto and fiat currency. This is also known as a stablecoin. While several were already in existence, Santoro wanted to create a more scalable and decentralized one.

Thus, in December of 2020, Joey founded the Fei Protocol. Fei is a stablecoin in Ethereum native decentralized finance (DeFi). Stablecoins are a type of token that aids in maintaining a liquid market by pegging the token’s value to the USD.  Fei is able to achieve this through various stability mechanisms. Stablecoins can be used for real-life transactions while still benefiting from instant processing and the security of cryptocurrency payments.

When asked why he chose to work in crypto as opposed to Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) Joey explained that it came down to how much impact he could have.

“The barrier for making an avenue of innovation in crypto is so much lower than something like a machine learning. Higher risk, higher reward.”

joey santoro

Santoro did not come to Duke with the plan of founding a web3 DeFi protocol. In fact, when he matriculated he was actually pre-med and originally only took CS 101 because it was a pre-requisite for the Neuroscience major.

However, it did not take long for Joey to realize he wanted to work in the crypto space. In his second semester, he joined the Duke Blockchain Lab and ended up teaching a blockchain course in his junior and senior years.

Because decentralized finance is still so new, no one completely knows what they are doing, which creates considerable opportunities for innovation. Additionally, because the crypto space is decentralized, it is inherently collaborative and community-driven. 

“Being able to write code that’s immediately interoperable with dozens of financial protocols is the coolest thing ever,” Santoro said

Joey argues anyone can become an expert in a particular area in crypto in a couple of months. He said economists and mechanism designers are increasingly moving into the crypto space. 

When the Fei Protocol launched in 2020 it was the height of a bull market for crypto and there was heavy demand for a decentralized stablecoin. While there were several other stablecoins in existence, USDC and tether were the most popular and they were both centralized, meaning they were owned by companies. 

“What so important to me and why I do this is because I want people to be able to do whatever they want with their money.”

JOey santoro

The demand for a decentralized stablecoin created excitement around Feio but also a highly compressed timescale. The Fei Protocol ended up having the largest token launch for an Ethereum DeFi protocol in history, raising $1.25B. However, when it launched,  the peg broke due to issues with the incentive mechanism and bugs in the code.

Santoro recalled the surreal and challenging experience of watching the protocol he spent countless weeks working on fall apart before his eyes. However, his team and investors decided to stick it through and try to salvage what they had built. It took over a month just to fix everything that had gone wrong. In the meantime, people were threatening Santoro and his team. 

While the Fei protocol faced challenges while launching,  Joey and his team were able to adapt, learn from their mistakes, and come back stronger. They recently conducted a multi-billion-dollar merge with Rari Capital and launched Fei version2 (V2).

Additionally, this is the first multi-billion dollar merger in DeFi meaning that the decision to merge was voted on by members of the respective Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). This is a huge milestone in the world of DeFi and sets a precedent for the potential of decentralized business operations. 

Joey Santoro Presenting at the ETHDenver Convention

Moving forward Joey explained, “I’m obsessed with simplicity now; I still move fast but more carefully.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

The Mind Behind Muser

Biology professor Sheila Patek remembers when she was an undergraduate, petrified as she waded through the world of academia in search of a research position. Knocking on door after door, Patek promised herself that if she was able to enter that world of research, she was going to change it; she was going to help students find opportunities and shift the rigid, exclusionary culture of academia.

Years later, Professor Patek was able to keep her promise. She created Muser, a website to connect students to research opportunities in an effort “to achieve accessible, transparent, equitable, and multidisciplinary research experiences for students and mentors.”

Patek first began this effort as a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, where she found few efficient pathways for undergraduates to find research opportunities. Patek had grown accustomed to being at UC Berkeley, where they utilized a fully integrated system known as the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. The University of Massachusetts was more reminiscent of Patek’s own undergrad experience, and it was there that she and her colleagues began working on the first version of Muser’s software. This is the version that she brought with her when she came to Duke.

Here, we’re lucky to have a slew of resources — DukeList, the Undergraduate Research Support Office, Bass Connections — that are intended to help students pursue research. However, Patek says that Muser distinguishes itself by being specifically designed to address the many barriers that still prevent students from pursuing research — from a lack of support and resources to racial and gender biases. 

Team Muser: (from left) Sheila Patek, Founder; Sonali Sanjay, Co-Student Leader; Katherine Wang, Co-Student Leader; Theo Cai, Duke Undergrad Muser Director and Nowicki Fellow (Credit: Ben Schelling)

One way Muser does this is by making all initial applications anonymous. Patek mentions studies that have found that things like the race and gender connotation of names have significant influence on who gets a position; for example, when given CVs that are identical except for the gender of the names, faculty are more likely to rate the male CVs higher. From the mentor side of Muser, research leads see students’ personal statements first, then must formally review the applications if they wish to view all the information the student has provided — including their names. Patek notes that it has surprised and perhaps frustrated many mentors, but it’s a feature for the benefit of students; it allows them to first be heard without the preconceptions attached to something like their name.

On the flip side, Muser tries to keep things as transparent as possible for students (although anonymous mentors are in the works). There are set timelines — called “rounds” — in which mentors post positions and students apply then hear back. With most other forums for research like DukeList, students are expected to check in and apply constantly — not even knowing if they will get a response. Muser solves this through these rounds, as well as a unique “star” system: mentors that actually review every application get a gold star, visible to students applying. 

So far, over three thousand (3000) undergraduates have used the software, and Patek estimates that in 2021, 20% of Duke undergraduates had, at some point, held a research position thanks to Muser. She also boasts the diversity of research leads that have become involved with Muser; it features professors, graduate students, and lab managers alike as mentors, who represent a better gender and diversity balance than academia as a whole. But as much progress has been made, Patek’s ultimate dream would be for every project in every department to be posted on Muser, available for undergraduates who don’t have to worry about being denied because of bigotry or ignored altogether. 

“The culture of academia is fundamentally opaque to everyone not in it,” Patek notes, but she and the Muser team are doing everything they can to change that. The newest version of Muser’s software open source on GitHub and available for free — has recently been adopted by Harvey Mudd College and the University of Massachusetts, and Patek expresses her hope for the idea to spread nationwide. 

Universities that have adopted Muser

The website used to be called MUSER — an acronym meaning Matching Undergraduates to Science and Engineering Research — but nowadays, it’s known simply as “Muser.” I’ve been told that the rebranding is a play on words, referencing the Muses of Greek and Roman mythology who oversaw the full range of arts and sciences, to represent all thinkers. 

The next round of Muser for Summer 2022 research positions opens on February 19. Mentors can post opportunities NOW, until February 18. For more information, visit the website and check out this fantastic article introducing Muser.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Growing Role of Computation in Science

One of downtown Durham’s most memorable landmarks, the Chesterfield building looks like it was aesthetically designed to maintain the country’s morale during World War II. On the former cigarette factory’s roof rests a brilliant red sign that’s visible from miles away:

But don’t mistake the building’s quaint exterior for antiquity: the Chesterfield Building is home to one of the nation’s most powerful quantum computers. Managed by the Duke Quantum Center, the computer is part of Duke’s effort to bolster the Scalable Quantum Computing Laboratory (SQLab).

On February 2nd, the lab’s director – Christopher Monroe – joined engineering professor Michael Reiter and English professor Charlotte Sussman in a Research Week panel to discuss the growing presence of computation at Duke and in research institutions across the country. (View the panel.)

Chris Monroe

Monroe opened by detailing the significance of quantum computing in the modern world. He explained that quantum mechanics are governed by two golden rules: first, that quantum objects are waves and can be in superposition, and second, that the first rule only applies when said objects are not being measured.

The direct impact of quantum mechanics is that electrons can be in two orbits at the same time, which revolutionizes computing. Quantum computers factor numbers exponentially faster than classical computers, converge to more desirable solutions in optimization problems and have been shown to bolster research in fields like biomolecular modeling.

Still, Monroe insists that the future reach of quantum computing is beyond anyone’s current understanding. Says Monroe, “quantum computing is an entirely new way of dealing with information, so we don’t know all the application areas it will touch.” What we do know, he says, is that quantum computers are poised to take over where conventional computers and Moore’s Law leave off.

While Monroe discussed computing innovations, Michael Reiter – James B. Duke Professor of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering – demonstrated the importance of keeping computing systems safe. By pointing to the 2010 Stuxnet virus, a series of cyberattacks against Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and the 2017 Equifax Data Breach, which stole the records of 148 million people, Dr. Reiter provided evidence to show that modern data systems are vulnerable and attractive targets for cyber warfare.

Michael Reiter

To show the interdisciplinary responsibilities associated with the nation’s cybersecurity needs, Reiter posed two questions to the audience. First, what market interventions are appropriate to achieve more accountability for negligence in cybersecurity defenses? Second, what are the rules of war as it relates to cyber warfare and terrorism?

After Reiter’s presentation, Charlotte Sussman transitioned the conversation from the digital world to the maritime world. A professor of English at Duke, Sussman has always been interested in ways to both memorialize and understand the middle passage, the route slave trading ships took across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas. Through the University’s Bass Connections and Data+ research programs, she and a group of students were able to approach this problem through the unlikely lens of data science.

Sussman explained that her Data+ team used large databases to find which areas of the Atlantic Ocean had the highest mortality rates during the slave trade, while the Bass Connections team looked at a single journey to understand one young migrant’s path to the bottom of the sea.

Professor Sussman (second from right), and the Bass Connections/Data+ Team.

Monroe, Reiter, and Sussman all showed that the applications of computing are growing without bound. Both the responsibility to improve computing infrastructures and the ability to leverage computing resources are rapidly expanding to new fields, from medicine and optimization to cybersecurity and history.

With so many exciting paths for growth, one point is clear about the future of computing: it will outperform anyone’s wildest expectations. Be prepared to find computing in academia, business, government, and other settings that require advanced information.

Many of these areas, like the Chesterfield Building, will probably see the impact of computing before you know it.

Post by Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, Class of 2025

Ethereum: What are Transaction Fees and How are They Determined?

By now most people have heard of Bitcoin, the first form of decentralized cryptocurrency which was created in 2009 and popularized in 2011. However, these novel tokens did not just appear out of thin air, they had to be mined. But what does this mean?

Essentially, there is a finite amount of Bitcoin, 21 million to be exact. Bitcoin miners run complex computer rigs to solve intricate and complicated puzzles in order to confirm groups of bitcoin transactions called blocks. Once a block is mined, the miner is rewarded with bitcoin. 

Bitcoin mining

On 3 January 2009, the bitcoin network came into existence after the founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, mined the genesis block of bitcoin (block number 0), and received a reward of 50 bitcoins. The rewards for Bitcoin mining are reduced by half roughly every four years due to its scarcity. Currently, miners are rewarded 6.25 Bitcoins for every block. Additionally, when a transaction is approved via mining, it is added to a block which is then added to the Bitcoin blockchain. A blockchain is an immutable, decentralized, and transparent computer network that acts as a publicly available ledger. For more information please reference my previous article here.

Not all tokens are mined, however, the most popular or widely used ones, Bitcoin and Ethereum are. Today, we will be focusing on the Ethereum Blockchain using ETH tokens.

Similar to Bitcoin, ETH is also mined by solving complex puzzles in order to confirm and verify blockchain transactions. However, ETH miners are paid in ETH, not bitcoin. In addition to receiving the ETH from mining, miners are also paid through transaction fees called gas

Transaction fees are determined by a Transaction fee mechanism (TFM), a key component of blockchain protocol. However, there has yet to be an empirical study on the real-world impact of TFMs. Recently, a study out of Duke and Peking University evaluated the effect of EIP-1559, the first TFM to abandon the traditional first-price auction paradigm. 

Every transaction or smart contract executed on the Ethereum blockchain requires gas. If you are unfamiliar with smart contracts please reference my previous article here

“Gas is a unit of measurement for the amount of computational effort required to execute a specific on-network operation”

William Zhao ’23, Student researcher

However, the price of gas is constantly changing in response to how many others are trying to make transactions on the blockchain. Gas prices are typically denoted in GWEI or a billionth of an ETH ( 0.000000001 ETH). For context as of February 1st, 2022 at 1:17 ET, ETH is worth $2778.50 USD per token

When an ETH transaction is placed it is not immediately completed and resides in a memory pool or “Mempool.” These are smaller databases of unconfirmed or pending transactions. Prior to the EIP-1559 update, the Ethereum TFM centered around the first-price auction paradigm. 

Mempool

Conceptually, the first-price auction paradigm is fairly simple. Essentially every time a transaction is made there is an accompanying gas bid. Crypto wallets like Metamask or Coinbase Wallet provide suggested gas bids for users but still allow them to alter the bid. This is because transaction verification priority is determined by the miner and thus given to whoever bids the most. Once a transaction is verified it is added to the miner’s block and then to the blockchain. As a result, some users would offer unnecessarily high gas fees in order for their transaction to skip the line and be quickly processed thus creating major delays for others.

There were several problems under this previous TFM including long wait times for verification, extremely high gas and unpredictable prices, as well as inefficiencies around block size and consensus security. Recent research examined the causal effect of EIP-1559 on blockchain transaction fee dynamics, transaction waiting time, and security. They found that while the transaction mechanism became even more complex it did also become more efficient. 

EIP-1559 improves user experience by reducing users’ waiting times, improving fee estimation, and mitigating intra-block difference of gas price paid (which is more important for miners). However, EIP-1559  did not have a large impact on gas fee reduction or consensus security. In addition, they found that when ETH’s price is more volatile, the waiting time is significantly higher. 

Figure 8: Distributions of median waiting time. Users experience a much lower transaction waiting time following EIP-1559.

Ultimately, while user experience improved, scalability issues held the TFM from having a larger effect on important components like gas prices. 

“If you can only hold a certain amount of transactions that’s a hard cap on development, however, high gas prices are a scalability issue not a mechanism design issue.

William Zhao ’23, student researcher

This research paper was recognized by Vitalik Buterin, one of the co-founders of Ethereum.

By: Anna Gotskind,
Class of 2022

Remembrance of Wordles Past

Devang Thakkar, a fourth-year PhD candidate at Duke University, recently created an archive  for Wordle that gives users unlimited access to past Wordle games. Gray tiles indicate letters not found anywhere in the correct word, yellow indicates letters that are in the word but not in the right place, and green indicates correctly placed letters.

Writing this story was dangerous. Before, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Wordle, a wildly popular online word game created by Josh Wardle and recently bought by the New York Times. Now I can’t stop playing it. The objective of the game sounds deceptively simple: try to guess the right five-letter word in six attempts or fewer.

Thanks to Devang Thakkar, a fourth-year PhD student in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Duke, the 200+ Wordle games released before I discovered its charms are readily accessible online. So now I’m making up for lost time.

Thakkar recently spent a weekend building an archive of every Wordle game in existence. You can play them in any order. You can start at the beginning. You can start with today’s Wordle and work backward. You can sit down and play eight in a row. Just hypothetically, of course.

Devang Thakkar became hooked on Wordle when his roommate introduced it to him, but he wanted a way to access old Wordles as well. First, he experimented with manually changing the date on his browser to trick the computer into showing him old Wordles. However, his browser gave him an error message if he tried to go back more than fourteen days. To get around that, Mr. Thakkar wrote a Python script using a Python library called Selenium, which allowed him “to basically go back as much as you want.” 

Thakkar combined his own data with an open-source Wordle project called WordMaster created by Katherine Peterson. With an open-source project, Thakkar says, “You put your work out there, and then someone else adds to it.”

Devang Thakkar at the 2020 Data Through Design exhibition in New York.
Photograph courtesy of Devang Thakkar.

Whereas WordMaster randomly generates new five-letter words, Thakkar’s archive provides access to “official” Wordle games from the past. While there were many random Wordle generators already in existence, it was the usage of the official Wordle list and the ability to go back to a particular Wordle that set this archive apart. Thakkar also added features like the ability to share your answers with others and an option that lets users access Wordle games in a random order.

Thakkar tells me the project was “just for fun.” “I was bored… so I was like, ‘let’s make something!’” he says. Nevertheless, “That is essentially what I do for my work as well; I write code.” In the Dave Lab, Devang Thakkar uses sequencing data to study the origins of different types of lymphomas.

In his free time, Devang Thakkar enjoys woodworking and metalworking. Pictured here are two of his projects, a wooden bowl and his own dining room table.
Photographs courtesy of Devang Thakkar.

When he’s not working or making Wordle archives, Devang Thakkar can often be found in Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab, where he enjoys woodworking and metalworking. His projects range from creations intended as gifts, like a laptop stand and beer caddy, to his own dining room table. Thakkar says the hobby, being very different from his normal work, helps him maintain work-life balance.

The Wordle project, on the other hand, required coding skills Thakkar uses daily. “This is just like work for me, but for fun.” He enjoys graphic design and board games and has “a special affection for board games with words.”

As for the Wordle archive, Mr. Thakkar says he never expected it to become so popular. He thought it would mostly be used by his friends, but the archive quickly accumulated millions of weekly users. “People keep sending me screenshots of their friends sending them this website,” he says.

Meanwhile, I’ve started noticing Wordle references everywhere. Just after I spoke to Thakkar about his project, I happened to stumble across a link to BRDL, a delightful Wordle spinoff that uses four-letter birding codes instead of words. By blind luck, I guessed the right code on my second try: AMGO, American goldfinch. A few days later, I overheard two students talking about the daily Wordle. Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s become hooked on the game. Fortunately for everyone who is, Devang Thakkar’s Wordle archive, which he called “Remembrance of Wordles Past,” offers unlimited access.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

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