BioE 60: Beyond Bitcoin

Applications of Distributed Trust

Winter 2021
Nicolas Kokkalis, Kavita Gupta, Jan Liphardt

In the past, people have relied on trusted third parties to facilitate the transactions that define our lives: how we store medical records, how we share genomic information with scientists and drug companies, where we get our news, and how we communicate. Advances in distributed systems and cryptography allow us to eschew such parties. Today, we can create a global, irrefutable ledger of transactions, events, and diagnoses, such that re-writing history is computationally infeasible. In this class, we will bring together experts in cryptography, healthcare, and distributed consensus with students across the university.


Welcome to "Beyond Bitcoin"!

Schedule (subject to change)

Week Date Homework In-class Discussion Topics Readings
1 Jan 13 - What is a blockchain and how does it work? Distributed consensus. Discussion topics : What is blockchain? Discuss origins, core concepts of distributed consensus, and compare/contrast traditional ways of accounting or recording information with the blockchain. Decentralized vs. centralized.
2 Jan 20 - Cryptographic basics: Hash functions and Public Key Cryptography. What is a hash function? Why is the blockchain "secure"? Public keys as identities.
3 Jan 27 - Smart Contracts and Decentralized Applications. Introduce concepts of smart contracts. Public vs. private blockchains. Applications to Ethereum and developing in Solidity.
4 Feb 3 - Architectural weaknesses of current protocols. Proof of stake and zero-knowledge proofs/protocols. Scaling, energy utilisation, 51% attacks, growing length of blockchains, incentive misalignments (e.g. in Ripple), hard forks. Problems with Proof-of-work; Alternative mechanisms such as Proof-of-Stake; The ability of zero-knowledge proofs to ensure security and privacy (examples: Zcash and Ethereum).
5 Feb 10 - Implications: Secure distributed storage and compute. Use of blockchains and distributed trust to safely store massive amounts of information in peer-peer networks (examples: FileCoin). The IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) hypermedia distribution protocol (addressed by content and identities); bittorrent swarms.
6 Feb 17 - Implications: Healthcare and MedRec/MedChain. Talk and questions with special guest. How can blockchain help create a more secure and efficient system to store and transfer medical records/research data? Current limitations on medical records.
7 Feb 24 - Implications: Micropayments and the unbanked. Micropayment applications to the Energy sector. Current limitations of transaction fees. Segwit/Lightning as a potential two-layer approach to micropayments on top of Bitcoin.
8 March 3 - Implications: Sharing personal data for discovery. Privacy and third-party access to personal data.
9 March 10 - Implications: Intelligent currencies. Cryptocurrencies and the dynamics of the crypto market as a whole. What's next?
10 March 17 - Project/Final Presentations More info on this later. -


Prof. Jan Liphardt (BioE) (jliphard (at) stanford (dot) edu)
Office Hours: By appointment - just email me.
Course Instructors

Nicolas Kokkalis
Kavita Gupta (kavita (dot) gupta (at) stanford (dot) edu)
(Lots of guest speakers)

Class Time

Wed 10 - 11 am via Zoom


Talk to us during class or email the instructors to make an appointment.

We use the mailing list generated by Axess to convey messages to the class. We will assume that all students read these messages.

Honor Code

(From the Office of Community Standards): The Honor Code is the university's statement on academic integrity written by students in 1921. It articulates university expectations of students and faculty in establishing and maintaining the highest standards in academic work. The Honor Code is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively: that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading; that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code. The faculty on its part manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent the forms of dishonesty mentioned above. The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code. While the faculty alone has the right and obligation to set academic requirements, the students and faculty will work together to establish optimal conditions for honorable academic work.

  • There is no required textbook, but we will expect you to read (or skim) the readings listed above.

Course Description

In this class, we will bring together experts in cryptography, healthcare, and distributed consensus with students across the university. The first weeks present a technical overview of blockchain primitives. In the following weeks, the class will focus on discussing applications and policy issues through lectures and guest speakers from various domains across both academia and industry.



Required Work


Attendance will be taken at the start of each class, and will be mandatory. You have one free absence for the quarter (email the course staff if there are extenuating circumstances).

Final project (ONE of three choices below)

1. Student teams form and work together to create a youtube lecture/how-to that is related to a class topic and explains a technical aspect to a layman. For example, a youtube lecture/how-to could describe how zero knowledge proofs work, and why they might be relevant to biomedical research, medical diagnostics, and banking.
2. Student teams form to create a 4 part blog post related to an aspect of the course. For example, the blog post could cover incentive alignments (or misalignments) in the various protocols, or specific applications (e.g. electronic medical records on the blockchain), or cryptographic primitives.
3. A team or individual implementation project of their choice (we can provide ideas/guidance). For example, a student team could try to design a protocol that replaces the standard proof of work functions (e.g. SHA-256 hashing) with more useful calculations.

Final grade computation
  • You will pass the class if you come to class regularly and if you put in reasonable effort into the final project.
  • Website Design from CS124 course staff. Used with permission from Dan Jurafsky.


Can I audit the class?
  • Yes, almost certainly. Please email the instructor.
What is a student initiated course?
  • The teaching staff of this class consists of Stanford students and lecturers (under the mentorship of Prof. Jan Liphardt).
What does a typical class look like?
  • We will leave classes relatively unstructured and student-run, but expect a discussion on the week's reading, as well as frequent guest speakers.
Will lectures be recorded?
  • Unfortunately not. Please contact the teaching staff if you would like a copy of the slides etc., but most of the course readings/material is listed above.