Cloud computing is a $247 billion dollar market that is dominated by the likes of Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. These major players offer centralized computing for a variety of uses ranging from backing up your company’s data to producing big data analytics remotely. However, there has been an interest in decentralized cloud computing as a cheaper option for businesses that cannot afford the prices set by incumbent providers. In addition, the potential for decentralized cloud computing can open up the doors to cryptocurrency mining for those who do not have the expensive computing infrastructure needed to ‘mine’ for these digital currencies such as Bitcoin. Ryan Robinson, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has built a startup named Conduit to address these emerging needs in the cloud computing and blockchain markets, respectively.
At first glance, it would not seem that Ryan Robinson would be interested in cloud computing, let alone technology. The Miami-Dade County native always viewed himself as an artsy kid. His main interests were poetry, music, and writing. You were more likely to find him reciting the works of Keats and Yeats than immersing himself in code. But Robinson never viewed the arts as separate from technology. He saw technology as a form of art, as expression resonating with you and fulfilling a need at the same time. Robinson’s held technology in its purest form as bettering mankind. His unfettered belief in technology driving positive change drove him to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During his time at MIT, he indulged in his two passions, physics and literature. Robinson found inspiration in the legendary physicist, Richard Feynman. He read his biography, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science the summer before coming to the Institute. Feynman’s last major contribution to science was postulating the fundamentals of quantum computing, an area that Robinson was only beginning to take interest in. The idea of quantum computing was planted in his head, and would continue to grow as he nurtured his mind with knowledge of the topic through his studies. His pursuit of quantum computing was solidified after he aced an advanced physics class focused on the subject. Robinson went to go on to take graduate level physics courses as an undergraduate, further cementing his understanding of quantum physics and computing. He wanted to put his knowledge to practical use by figuring out a way to bring quantum computing to the masses through his startup, Conduit.
Surprisingly, his idea for Conduit came from an introductory biology class he took in part to satisfy his General Institute Requirements. The professor of that biology class talked about how computers played an integral role in advancing the field, such as the Human Genome Project. One of the issues preventing us from improving our understanding of biological systems was the computation power necessary for these discoveries. Centralized cloud computing was one of the main ways that research labs were able to obtain the necessary computing power to drive their work, but the immense costs of cloud computing were prohibitive. Another source of inspiration for Conduit was the MIT Bitcoin Project. Started by Jeremy Rubin and Dan Elitzer at MIT, the project offered $100 in Bitcoin to every undergraduate student with the firm belief that “giving students access to cryptocurrencies is analogous to providing them with internet access at the dawn of the internet era.” Robinson wondered whether quantum computing could help drive down the costs of cloud computing, and help democratize resources needed for cryptocurrency mining. He wanted to make computation useful and accessible. His startup, Conduit, aimed make affordable, distributed computation a reality.
Conduit aims to gather underused or unused computational capacity from your device, say a smartphone or personal laptop, and share it others who need it to perform computationally intensive calculations, such as crunching through large data sets. Robinson’s goal for Conduit was to demonstrate the power of collective action by sharing computational power from hundreds of thousands of devices and loaning that resource out to companies and the cryptocurrency community who both need large amounts of computational resources for data storage or Bitcoin mining. Robinson had a grand idea for a pressing problem, but faced difficulty building Conduit as an undergrad at MIT.
Working on Conduit as an undergrad at MIT was challenging for Robinson. He found it grueling trying to build his startup while staying on top of his classes as well. The largest challenge he faced was recruitment. Essentially, he was competing with the established career narrative of MIT graduates being pipelined from school to a big name tech firm. He struggled to convince others at first that making an impact through building Conduit would be better than just earning a paycheck at an established tech firm. The prior teams he built beforehand didn’t take the startup seriously, and they also lacked the skills to bring their idea into reality. Robinson learned that he had to make better choices in picking a core team to build the product. His struggles in the beginning taught him critical lessons and made him aware of his own deficiencies. He know going forward, he would have to build a team to cover for his own weakness and combine together for their collective strength.
Now that Robinson has graduated from MIT, he is free from the constraints that academics placed on his time. Conduit is making progress in its goals as he’s managed to build a great team around him. He finds that his MIT experience has toughened him mentally and has taught him how to work as efficiently as a machine. The problem solving skills he’s honed over four years at the Institute has helped him in solving immediate issues in bringing quantum computing to the masses. One day, Robinson will be able to help companies afford cheap, distributed computational power via quantum computing, and allow individuals to make money by loaning out their spare processing power and mining for cryptocurrency. With this kind of technology in everyone’s hands, everyone can be a conduit to power a better future.
By Fredrick Daso (www.forbes.com) 10/12/2017