round Sept. 15, the blockchain Ethereum will make a crucial software update known as “the merge,” which will significantly reduce Ethereum’s energy usage and set the stage for the network to become faster and cheaper. The significance of the merge can be read here.
To learn more about the merge’s importance and its rollout, TIME spoke with Justin Drake, who is one of Ethereum’s key researchers leading the transition. Drake is well-known within the Ethereum community. He is located in Cambridge (UK) and coordinates the work of others Ethereum developers and researchers all over the world. The merger will reduce the cost of cyberattacks against Ethereum and make it cheaper to make building blocks. And while he expects glitches on the day of the merge, he’s not worried about them having widespread damaging effects.
These are extracts of the conversation that have been edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: You’ve been working on the merge since 2017. What made you decide to devote five years of your entire life to Ethereum and the transition?
Justin Drake: I’m extremely passionate about Ethereum. Its mission is to be the settlement layer of internet. This low-level infrastructure helps people coordinate value.
The idea of permissive innovation is something I really like. It’s the idea of Ethereum being made of Legos that can be assembled by anyone to build their own structure. This is quite different from traditional corporations. In order to present an idea for Uber improvement, I would need to dress up, travel to California and meet the executive team.
You can create a single Lego-building project with an Ethereum account by giving it to a randomly selected 12-year old in India. It’s exciting to see the removal of intermediaries who charge fees or keep track of transactions in one country, as well as those that operate worldwide.
I also like the idea that we’re building World War III-grade infrastructure that is not built on top of the internet, but is actually the internet itself. You’ll be able to build an application that will last for decades and centuries.
You’ve talked about wanting Ethereum to be “World War III-resistant” in past interviews. Is that what you mean? And how can the merger help to get closer to your goal of creating Ethereum that is “World War III-resistant”?
Internet lovers love the idea of World War III infrastructure. It was created to survive nuclear war.
People who love to create things also find it appealing. Many famous examples of businesses built on Twitter or Facebook are of those who have seen their platforms change their APIs and see the businesses disappear. That’s led to the concept of platform risk: when you build on something, you risk that the platform changes the rules on you.
One of the rules of World War III-grade resistance is that even the most powerful nation-states can’t co-opt Ethereum and impose their rules upon you. If Ethereum became the settlement layer for value online, then it could be one the main targets of a war. It could also be targeted by a nation-state, which could make it the China or Russia chains, depending on its ability to attack it. It wouldn’t be a neutral piece of infrastructure.
The security of Ethereum is dramatically increased by the merger. An attacker needs 51% of the blockchain’s value to [take control]. With proof of work [the previous mechanism that powered Ethereum]You will need $5 billion to purchase enough computers and transformers to connect them all to the grid and carry out an attack. You can prove your stake with Proof of Stake [the system Ethereum is transitioning to in the merge], we will have about $20 billion in economic security today—and this is a number I expect will grow dramatically.
Another interesting thing about the merger is the Proof of Stake. If we are subject to a 51% attack we can identify and expel the attacker. We can also penalize them by degrading all of their stakes. They must repurchase if they wish to carry out a second attack.
So not only is an attack temporary, but it’s also extremely expensive. This is unlike Proof of Work, in which there’s no way to eject a hacker once they have taken control of the system.
You and many others in the crypto community have stressed the importance of Ethereum being a “neutral piece of infrastructure” that is resistant to government censorship. Is there any way to preserve that neutrality and stop hackers laundering billions in stolen cash?
Ethereum represents the establishment of an internet-native new jurisdiction. Balaji Srinivasan [the former CTO of Coinbase and an influential crypto thinker]Talks about the idea of a “network state”, which is the digital equivalent of a nation-state.
You must play by both the rules for each system when you cross a border between them. Coinbase, for instance, is a cross-section of the network state and nation-state, so it must play by both.
But if you are interacting solely within the realm of Ethereum as a network state and not crossing that boundary, then now you’re playing by Ethereum rules. You’re no longer by nation-state rules. As a network state, Ethereum is committed to being credibly neutral.
It almost doesn’t make sense to be compliant with a nation-state. First, each nation-state may have contradictory requirements to other nations. Is it possible for one country-state to ban you from using an address, while another states that all transactions must be made through this address? There’s no way you can be compliant with both at the same time.
The boundaries of Ethereum continue to expand as a network state. We now have decentralized exchanges, which live only within Ethereum and must follow the Ethereum rules. It dramatically lowers friction.
We’ve seen huge amounts of innovation around Uniswap, which is now a building block for vast swaths of decentralized finance. As a general trend, I believe that we will see decentralization of everything just like we have decentralized financial exchanges.
Think of Uber as a decentralized version. We need multiple building blocks to create a decentralized Uber: stablecoins and scalability via rollups. Identity, storage, privacy, security, and identity are all elements we already have in varying degrees. However, reputation and insurance may not be available. Before we can unlock this complicated application, all of these blocks must be decentralized. And that’s something we’re going to see in the next few years, after the merge.
Are you ready for September 15, the date of the merger? Which are the things you’re most concerned about or cautious?
The dynamics surrounding the merger and its effects are beyond my control. This is a significant way. It’s now in the hands of the developers who have written these clients and the operators running the clients. [“Clients” are software applications that verify the status of the network via different programming languages.]
There’s a lot of clients and a lot of code, and quite a bit of complexity. There will be bugs. Most likely it won’t be 100% smooth. However, we are able to offer client diversity.
That’s important because if two-thirds of validators are running a client with the same critical bug, that can lead to a bad Ethereum chain being finalized. This is a very costly process. It’s messy, it needs to be done manually at the social layer [human users coordinating together to take actions upon the blockchain]It might also involve rolling back transactions. The mere thought of it makes me anxious.
But the good news is that there’s no single client that’s close to 50% of the validators. So if we have a bug in one of the clients, that is not a systemic risk: it’s not like Ethereum will suddenly crash. The participation rate will drop as a result. Most likely, a small number of validators won’t be able to produce or verify blocks. The developers of the bug client will issue a patch within hours, or even days. Operators can adopt these patches to keep the software updated.
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