In an industry filled with shouting voices, fierce partisanship and big personalities, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin is a breath of fresh air.
The softly spoken 25-year-old Canadian-Russian would be entitled to brag louder than most if he wished to. The blockchain platform he founded at age 17 was a central tenet of the 2017-18 cryptocurrency boom, with a market capitalisation of more than $US19.3 billion ($27.1 billion) and countless projects built on its infrastructure.
The Ethereum Enterprise Alliance boasts members such as Intel, Microsoft, JP Morgan and Samsung, and the project’s current development includes implementing a new proof-of-stake consensus algorithm and data-management method known as ‘sharding’, designed to fix some of Ethereum’s scalability issues.
But despite all this, Buterin chooses to stay humble, and outside of the occasional, well-articulated fight on Twitter, the founder seemingly avoids the hyper-partisan debates which can dominate the cryptocurrency space. However, the blockchain pioneer has said he’s unlikely to be the founder of a project again any time soon.
Speaking to StartupSmart in a rare interview, Buterin said while the big personalities in the industry did make it more difficult to operate, others being unprofessional “make you stick out by being professional”.
“The crypto space is definitely very unique because it brings all the most honest and idealistic, but also the most scammy people out there into one pot,” Buterin says.
“There’s definitely an extreme contrast between different parts of [the industry]. Within the Ethereum space, I try to promote people who are being good, and encourage people to be the best they can be.”
2019 a big year for Ethereum development
Buterin is in Australia for the second time ever, heading to Ethereum development conference EDCON in Sydney this week, from the 11th to the 13th. While the conference is broadly focused on all aspects of Ethereum’s development, Buterin says he’ll mainly be speaking about Casper CBC, a new consensus algorithm in development for the platform.
This new development is part of Ethereum’s ‘2.0’ roadmap, which Buterin says is coming along well, despite some readjustments and setbacks since the initial plans were set in 2017. The development team, which includes a number of Australians, have launched testnets for its new proof-of-stake network, and isn’t far off rolling out the 2.0 protocol.
“The actual protocol for Ethereum 2.0, which includes proof-of-stake and sharding, is very close to finished. We’ve had a lot of progress on the research and development front,” he says.
“I think developments actually sped up over the last year or so. Before then, we had a lot of technical uncertainty around if these things were actually possible to build efficiently, and around a year ago all those issues were finally resolved, so development has really been picking up steam since then.”
Buterin says there’s a number of interesting things happening in the broader blockchain space currently, pointing to projects such as Maker and Augur as decentralised finance applications people are “getting excited about”.
Outside of the finance-focused space, Buterin says some projects are on the way to seeing mass-market adoption, referring to Etherisc, a project which looks to use smart contracts to automate insurance payouts.
Scalability, security biggest issues
However, the founder acknowledges scalability is still one of the biggest issues facing blockchain developers today.
“I think, especially for applications which are not narrowly crypto- or finance-focused, people are just waiting for scalability,” he says.
“If all you’re doing is trading crypto, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying 57c per transaction, but for regular users who want to use the blockchain for things that don’t have to do with money, we need to get costs down.”
“That’s a big part of what doing with Ethereum 2.0, and it’s a big part of what we’re doing with some of our other scalability efforts, so we’ll see what happens when they come out.”
But scalability isn’t the only thing holding back the blockchain space. Buterin also points to issues with safety and usability, with things such as block times still dominating industry debates. Buterin says he’d like to see block times down to the point where sending a transaction happens as quickly as confirming a credit card payment.
On the safety front, the founder notes that the issue of lost or hacked private keys is a massive problem in the cryptocurrency space, one which is under-reported as “usually people are too embarrassed to talk about it.”
Buterin mentions some projects are looking to help fix the vulnerabilities with private keys, something he welcomes and says has even saved his crypto stash at times.
“My favourite solution that has come out recently is the HTC blockchain phone project, which has a trusted hardware chip so your blockchain wallet is protected from some of the security risks in Android,” he says.
“It also has a social recovery mechanism, where you spread out parts of your private key between three trusted contacts, so they can help you recover it if you lose it.”
“It’s early days, but it seems to be working better and better. It’s already rescued me once.”
The chief executive life is not for him
At age 25, Buterin has already accomplished what many founders take years to do, but asked what his next moves might be after he’s done working on the platform, he’s unsure.
“It’s hard to tell. Ethereum itself will definitely keep requiring more work for at least the next couple of years, and then there are things that could show up on top of Ethereum,” he says.
One thing he is sure about, however, is not wanting to be the founder of a project again, saying the ‘CEO life’ isn’t for him.
“I’m not sure if being a project founder is exactly my thing. People try to put me in a CEO bucket, but I feel at heart more of an intellectual than a CEO,” he says.
“The world is a challenging, interesting, and unpredictable place, so there’s definitely lots of different things to work on.”