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

Category: Data Page 1 of 9

Kinsie Huggins: the Future Doctor Who Could Shot-Put

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From shot-putting, to helping conduct two research studies, to being selected for a cardiology conference, meet: Kinsie Huggins. She is from Houston, Texas, currently majoring in Biology and minoring in Psychology with a Pre-Med track here at Duke. With such a simple description, one can already see how bright her future is!

“I want to be a pediatrician and work with kids,” Huggins says. “When I was younger, I lived in Kansas, and in my area, there were no black pediatricians. My mother decided to go far to find one and I really bonded with my pediatrician. One day, I made a pact with her in that I would become a pediatrician too so that I can also inspire other little girls like me of my color and other minority groups.”

Having such a passion to let African-American and minority voices be heard, Huggins is also part of the United Black Athletes, using her shot-put platform to make sure these voices are heard in the athletics department.

And while she may be a top-notch sportswoman, she is also just as impressive when it comes to her studies and research. One of her projects focuses on the field of nephrology – the study of kidneys and kidney disease. She and a pediatric nephrologist are currently working on studying rare kidney diseases and the differences in DNA correlating to these diseases.

Kinsie is also a researcher at GRID (Genomics Race Identity Difference), which studies the sickle cell trait in the NCAA. With the sudden deaths of college athletes from periods of over-exhaustion during conditioning, there has been a rise in attention of sickle cell trait and its impact on athletes. At first, the NCAA implemented a policy that made it mandatory for college athletes to get tested for sickle cell in 2010, but some were wary about the lack of scientific validity in such claims. Now, the NCAA has funded GRID to conduct such research.

The difference of Normal red blood cell and sickle cell (CDC).

 “We are analyzing the policy (athletes need to be tested for sickle cell), interviewing athletes in check-ups, and looking at data to see if the policy is working out for athletes and their performance/health,” Huggins explains.

With such an impressive profile, it doesn’t go without saying that Huggins didn’t go unnoticed. The American College of Cardiology (ACC) select high school and college students interested in the field of medicine and have them attend a conference in Washington D.C. to hear about research presentations, groundbreaking results of late-breaking clinical trials, and lectures in the field. Having worked hard, Huggins was selected to be part of the Youth Scholars program from the ACC and was invited to the conference on April 2-4. 

Let’s wish Kinsie the best of luck at the conference and on her future research!

Post by Camila Cordero, Class of 2025

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 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

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

Opening the Black Box: Duke Researchers Discuss Bias in AI

Artificial intelligence has not only inherited many of the strongest capabilities of the human brain, but it has also proven to use them more efficiently and effectively. Object recognition, map navigation, and speech translation are just a few of the many skills that modern AI programs have mastered, and the list will not stop growing anytime soon.

Unfortunately, AI has also magnified one of humanity’s least desirable traits: bias. In recent years, algorithms influenced by bias have often caused more problems than they sought to fix.

When Google’s image recognition AI was found to be classifying some Black people as gorillas in 2015, the only consolation for those affected was that AI is improving at a rapid pace, and thus, incidents of bias would hopefully begin to disappear. Six years later, when Facebook’s AI made virtually the exact same mistake by labeling a video of Black men as “primates,” both tech fanatics and casual observers could see a fundamental flaw in the industry.

Jacky Alciné’s tweet exposing Google’s racist AI algorithm enraged thousands in 2015.


On November 17th, 2021, two hundred Duke Alumni living in all corners of the world – from Pittsburgh to Istanbul and everywhere in between – assembled virtually to learn about the future of algorithms, AI, and bias. The webinar, which was hosted by the Duke Alumni Association’s Forever Learning Institute, gave four esteemed Duke professors a chance to discuss their view of bias in the artificial intelligence world.

Dr. Stacy Tantum, Bell-Rhodes Associate Professor of the Practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was the first to mention the instances of racial bias in image classification systems. According to Tantum, early facial recognition did not work well for people of darker skin tones because the underlying training data – observations that inform the model’s learning process – did not have a broad representation of all skin tones. She further echoed the importance of model transparency, noting that if an engineer treats an AI as a “black box” – or a decision-making process that does not need to be explained – then they cannot reasonably assert that the AI is unbiased.

Stacy Tantum, who has introduced case studies on ethics to students in her Intro to Machine Learning Class, echoes the importance of teaching bias in AI classrooms.

While Tantum emphasized the importance of supervision of algorithm generation, Dr. David Hoffman – Steed Family Professor of the Practice of Cybersecurity Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy – explained the integration of algorithm explainability and privacy. He pointed to the emergence of regulatory legislation in other countries that ensure restrictions, accountability, and supervision of personal data in cybersecurity applications. Said Hoffman, “If we can’t answer the privacy question, we can’t put appropriate controls and protections in place.”

To discuss the implications of blurry privacy regulations, Dr. Manju Puri – J.B. Fuqua Professor of Finance at the Fuqua School of Business – discussed how the big data feeding modern AI algorithms impact each person’s digital footprint. Puri noted that data about a person’s phone usage patterns can be used by banks to decide whether that person should receive a loan. “People who call their mother every day tend to default less, and people who walk the same path every day tend to default less.” She contends that the biggest question is how to behave in a digital world where every action can be used against us.

Dr. Philip Napoli has observed behaviors in the digital world for several years as James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School, specifically focusing on self-reinforcing cycles of social media algorithms. He contends that Facebook’s algorithms, in particular, reward content that gets people angry, which motivates news organizations and political parties to post galvanizing content that will swoop through the feeds of millions. His work shows that AI algorithms can not only impact the behaviors of individuals, but also massive organizations.

At the end of the panel, there was one firm point of agreement between all speakers: AI is tremendously powerful. Hoffman even contended that there is a risk associated with not using artificial intelligence, which has proven to be a revolutionary tool in healthcare, finance, and security, among other fields. However, while proven to be immensely impactful, AI is not guaranteed to have a positive impact in all use cases – rather, as shown by failed image recognition platforms and racist healthcare algorithms that impacted millions of Black people, AI can be incredibly harmful.

Thus, while many in the AI community dream of a world where algorithms can be an unquestionable force for good, the underlying technology has a long way to go. What stands between the status quo and that idealistic future is not more data or more code, but less bias in data and code.

Post by Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, 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

What Happens When You Give People Money?

What happens when you give people money? Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Natalie Foster know: through their research, they’ve seen the impacts of guaranteed income firsthand.

On November 9, as part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy’s Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture series, these experts discussed their work and what we can learn from it at “What Happens When You Give People Money: The Future of Economic Security for Children and Families.”

Natalie Foster

Foster, co-founder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, began with the big idea of guaranteed income. Before the pandemic, wealth and income inequality were at all-time highs — disparities that “can be traced back to the origins of racialized capitalism.” But recently, things have gotten even harder. Wages have remained stagnant despite increases in productivity — and despite inflation, making it harder to afford things like rent. Foster denounced the “strong ideology that says that lack of security in this system is a personal failing. That if you can’t pull yourself up, there’s something wrong with you.” There’s something wrong with the system, Foster said. “People are working. The economy isn’t.”

Foster explained that the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” fundamentally changed welfare by converting the old New Deal-era unlimited grant program into the flat-funded block grant we now know as TANF, leaving determination of eligibility to state discretion and generally “making welfare more punitive.” The Act, Foster said, was built on racist stereotypes, like that of the welfare queen. To make matters worse, it was passed against the backdrop of a persistent devaluation of the labor of people of color

Foster said that even though there didn’t appear to be room in these political conditions to do things differently, she had the “audacity to imagine something else: the ‘adjacent possible.’” She wanted to give cash to people directly, ensuring an income floor regardless of whatever crises that may abound.

Foster worked with the mayor of Stockton, California on the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which provided 125 Stockton residents with $500 monthly payments for two years. 

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

Foster was connected by a mutual friend to Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Nyandoro had launched The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi with $1,000 monthly payments for one year. 

With The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Nyandoro sought to shift away from economic policy “rooted in ‘what is,’ and toward ‘what could be.’” This concept has a rich history, she said, and includes the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. She had a specific ‘what if’ in mind: “What if when Black women told us what they needed, we believed them?” What if we sought to overturn the very structures that keep these people down, and subverted the “paternalistic nature of the social safety net”? 

Nyandoro stated that as a researcher, when she has questions, she “goes back to the people.” When she did, she found that although people’s needs were individual, “cash was ubiquitous” — cash was a solution that could address every single one of the problems that she heard. Giving cash directly could help combat a system that “penalizes people for being poor, rather than trying to lift them out of poverty.” 

Why low-income Black mothers? Nyandoro explained that in order to do the work of economic liberation, one must identify what’s wrong with the system. In this case, that meant identifying those who are the most negatively impacted by the system, and using what limited resources are available to help them specifically.

Nyandoro turned to her findings: giving people cash works. These mothers are often working tirelessly, holding down two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet. After receiving the money, people continue to work and often do so at higher rates (a major fear of opponents of guaranteed income). As a result, their income is often doubled — with life-changing results

Beyond the numbers, Nyandoro emphasized that “we are seeing joy. We don’t talk about joy enough as it relates to Black women.” This money allowed Black women to feel free, to be entrepreneurial: to “dare to dream for the first time — for themselves and for their families.” 

She referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous speech “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining that in order to change the narrative, “we need to change the narrator.” It’s time to think about whose voices we center.

In Jackson, Mississippi and Stockton, California, the pair had carried out research about the ‘adjacent possible.’ They’d used cities and states as “laboratories in democracy.” Foster said that their work was paving the way for gradual advances in guaranteed income — slowly, but surely. Then, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, ideas that had recently been dismissed as too radical were viewed as necessary. Often unable to work, people needed money fast in order to put food on the table and cover their most urgent needs. The federal government rose to the challenge with the American Rescue Plan, providing stimulus checks and pandemic unemployment insurance, plus expanding the Child Tax Credit. “The ‘adjacent possible’”, Foster said, “had become the possible.”

The country saw an “immediate drop in poverty.” The pandemic was revealing, said Foster. It revealed that cash provides time, stress reduction, and resilience. It revealed that cash serves as a tool to create economic security and “build back better.” Above all, it revealed that “poverty is a policy choice that we’re currently making. We could make a different policy choice in order to eliminate it.”

The pandemic also revealed that stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit were “very popular policies.” Nyandoro has observed support in the form of petitions for monthly cash transfers, the founding of organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and the launch of over a hundred guaranteed income pilots of some sort. All these efforts, Nyandoro said, are pushing toward “the same North Star”: centering the needs of families and achieving economic liberation through federal policy.

Foster turned the discussion toward next steps: “these victories have been immense, but could disappear” if the Build Back Better Act does not pass. The Act includes a year-long extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a key instantiation of guaranteed income. The Child Tax Credit has bipartisan support

If the extension of the Child Tax Credit passes, then according to Foster, guaranteed income is one step closer to becoming a cornerstone of social policy. This would be a “nail in the coffin of the way we’ve done policy for the last fifty years — that you’re only worth what you do in the world. Every human has dignity and worth, and we have the opportunity to build a policy that says just that.” 

Nyandoro agreed with Foster. As an anti-poverty advocate, she believes in a world without poverty: a world where “everyone can have a life of dignity for themselves and their families.” She believes that the ‘adjacent possible’ is achievable if “we can move beyond our own individual needs in order to view life as a collective, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.” She ended by quoting Toni Morrison: “if you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.”

Last Friday, the House voted to pass the Build Back Better Act, which now heads to the Senate.

Post by Zella Hanson

The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

The first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created in 2009 by a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto which is assumed to be a pseudonym. Over the last decade, cryptocurrency has taken the world by storm, influencing the way people think about the intersection of society and economics. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, another popular token, operate on blockchains.

Manmit Singh, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was introduced to blockchain his freshman year at Duke after meeting Joey Santoro ‘19, a senior studying computer science at the time.

Singh quickly found that he was not only interested in the promise of blockchain but skilled at building blockchain applications as well. As a result, he joined the Duke blockchain lab, a club on campus that, at the time, had no more than fifteen students. Singh, who is now president of the Duke Blockchain Lab, explained that there are now over 100 members in the club working on different projects related to blockchain. 

“Blockchain is a computer network with a built-in immutable ledge.”

Manmit SIngh

Essentially, computers process information, the internet allows us to communicate information and blockchain is the next step in the evolution of the digital era. It not only allows computers to communicate value but to transfer it as well in a completely transparent way because every transaction is tracked and, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger which is visible to others.

The concept and application of blockchain is not intuitive to everybody. Not only do people have difficulty understanding it, but they do not even know where to begin asking questions. 

For Singh, a key element to the club’s success was recruiting new members. The crypto space experienced a crash in 2017 resulting in a lot of skepticism around an already novel idea, decentralized currency. As a result, it was crucial to educate others on the potential of decentralized finance (DeFi), cryptocurrency, and, of course, blockchain. When recruiting, Singh wanted to bring in both tech and business-focused students so that they could not only work on building blockchain applications but conduct research on business models and how to generate value within decentralized finance as well.

Members of the Duke Blockchain Lab at a
weekly meeting learning about Stablecoins,
one type of token in cryptocurrency

Currently, members are working on a variety of projects including looking at consensus algorithms or how the blockchain makes decisions given that it is decentralized so inherently no one is in control. However, their most ambitious venture is the development of their Crypto Fund where people can invest money.

They are also looking to develop a Duke-inspired marketplace with talented Duke artists to sell non-fungible-tokens or NFTs. If unfamiliar, Abby Shlesinger, a senior studying Art History, created a blog to educate people on what NFTs are. 

One of the first projects Singh led involved developing a “smart contract” for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a computation engine that acts like a decentralized computer that can hold millions of executable projects. Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.

Additionally, Singh and other members of the Duke Blockchain Lab are working on tokenomic research with Dr. Harvey, a Duke professor who recently published a book alongside Santoro titled “DeFi and the Future of Finance” which you can find here. 

“Every blockchain is a complete economy that exists on a different plane.” 

Within these blockchain economies are various different types of tokens that vary in function and value. Tokenomics explores how these economies work and can be used to generate value. When asked to compare tokenomic concepts to ones in traditional finance, Singh explained that payment tokens are like dollars, asset tokens are like bonds and security tokens are like stocks. Currently, several companies are working on creating competitive blockchains that will be both cheaper and faster allowing creating an avenue for blockchain to continue accelerating into the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, Santoro, who introduced Singh to blockchain, graduated from Duke in 2019 and went on to form The Fei Protocol, a stable coin that unlike bitcoin does not change in value. His protocol raised one billion dollars within several weeks and while it had some initial challenges, it is now set to launch V2, a second version, soon. 

Singh plans to continue working on blockchain applications after graduating this spring and hopes to combine it with his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I am enthused by the applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things in disrupting the world as we know it.”

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

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