Blockchains kill in Cornell Tech professor’s thriller novel

A confluence of events, combined with a healthy obsession for details and a love of writing, gave computer scientist Ari Juels just what he needed to produce his second fiction thriller.

Juels, the Weill Family Foundation and Joan and Sanford I. Weill Professor in the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and the Technion, spent much of the pandemic-forced lockdown and a coincidental sabbatical writing “The Oracle,” his new novel about a software developer who, along with his FBI partner, race against time to dismantle a murderous blockchain program launched by the Delphians, worshippers of the ancient Greek god Apollo.

Juels – also a computer science faculty member in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science – tells the story from an expert perspective: The technology described (often in great detail but for a general audience) is based heavily on research he and his research group are doing at Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus.

Much of my research for the book didn’t involve what many novelists do – that is, reading scholarly publications – but instead I was writing those publications,” Juels said. “Part of the fun of ‘The Oracle’ is that I was, and am, living the research in the novel.”

This is Juels’ second foray into the literary world. His first was the 2010 computer security thriller, “Tetraktys,” which, like “The Oracle,” combines Greek history and modern-day technology in a tale of mysterious computer break-ins, international intrigue and corruption.

Juels talked with the Chronicle about his new novel:

Question: Is this a cautionary tale? Your author’s note at the beginning of the book reads like a warning of sorts.

 Answer: Most certainly. At its heart, the story is a cautionary tale about haphazardly fusing technologies – in this case, blockchains with artificial intelligence, specifically large language models such as ChatGPT. The scenario in the book involves a blockchain technology called smart contracts automatically paying bounties for murders. AI plays a role here by interpreting news articles to adjudicate payment. The novel is near-future sci-fi, but the technologies it describes are here now and its premise is technologically plausible. Happily, smart contracts like the one in “The Oracle” aren’t possible with today’s infrastructure and I think colleagues in the community are taking the future risks seriously.

Q: This book is based on a 2015 research paper you co-wrote; how much other research did you do in the writing of the book?

A: The technology part of the book is based heavily on our research, including a 2015 paper and a number of others – some of which have seen the light of day as blockchain technologies in use today. I did have to do a fair amount of research in the old-fashioned way – reading books and articles – for the other aspects of the book, especially the history of the Oracle of Delphi.

Q: What are the biggest dangers of blockchain/cryptocurrency/smart contracts and the like?

A: There are two dangers: the rock and the hard place, if you will. On the one hand, blockchain technologies, like all technologies, are dual-use and can be abused in all kinds of ways. That includes scams, like FTX – the exchange run by the now infamous Sam Bankman-Fried – and criminal uses, both of the kind that are common today and those that might occur in the future, like the one in my novel. Those are a clear, present and evolving danger.

But on the other hand, there’s also the danger of overreaction or misconceptions about the downsides of the technology. For instance, I worry that people, especially politicians, will conflate the frothy and sometimes silly side of crypto – think dog-themed coins and other meme coins – with the deep and powerful blockchain technology that crypto has given rise to. The result could be that a promising and rapidly evolving technology is quashed in its infancy. So in short, the dangers I worry about are abuse and neglect.

Q: History and its ties to the present are evident in both of your novels; what is your fascination with the ancients?

A: In general, I find the vantage point of the ancient world an immensely insightful way to understand the modern one. When it comes to ancient Greece in particular, though, my fascination is with a kind of miracle: This tiny community, over a short span of time, was responsible for the birth of theater, philosophy, accurate depiction of the human body, and democracy – just to name a few of the outcomes of the creative explosion there. To me, this is a recurring source of wonder.

Q: How has fiction writing informed or changed your academic writing, if at all?

A: Not much. Academic writing is so constrained by the standards and conventions of the academic community that there isn’t much opportunity for real stylistic experimentation. One example: A colleague of mine and I published a paper way back when in which we cited the popular cookbook “The Joy of Cooking.” We were chastised by reviewers for what they felt was an insufficiently scholarly citation. That’s just how hidebound some parts of the community are.

I see fiction as a way to ask important what-ifs for which there’s little room in academic circles. It’s also a way, I hope, to popularize technological ideas for non-technologists – and in this case, to draw attention to all of the wild and visionary things happening in the blockchain world that are so rarely written about.

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Becka Bowyer