Vitalik Buterin Transcript: Inside Ethereum Founder’s Brain
A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Receive a weekly newsletter about the Internet’s future. Find out more. Here are past issues.
It’s been a momentous couple weeks in crypto. In the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions of dollars in cryptocurrency donations have streamed toward the Ukrainian government and relief efforts, providing a lifeline for those unable to access traditional banks. Regulators have also been concerned that cryptocurrency could be used by Russian oligarchs as a means to bypass sanctions, although no evidence is available. It was rumored that Joe Biden might issue an executive directive to curb crypto’s role in the geopolitical war.
Today, TIME published my cover story about Vitalik Buterin (the founder of Ethereum). If you’re unfamiliar to him or new to crypto, you should definitely start there; it explains who he is and why he’s such an influential leader in the crypto space.
Photograph taken by Benjamin Rasmussen in TIME
Buterin was my interviewee last month. This happened the day following the ETHDenver crypto conference. It was unknown if I could meet him in Denver. While he was scheduled to give several talks, he’s an introvert and notoriously hard to track down. To avoid detection, he walked around the conference without security or a press crew.
However, after the conference was over, I had an opportunity to interview him for 80 minutes in his hotel suite. Here, he responded with patience and excitement to my questions. Buterin gave far too many interesting answers during our interview to fit in the actual article, so I’d love to share some insider details and musings (including the highly technical ones) here. For the next few days, this is only available to Into the Metaverse subscribers.
Buterin’s responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Colorado Governor. Jared Polis from ETHDenver. Was there anything you talked about with your friends?
Gov. Polis is the U.S.’s favorite governor. Polis has supported progressive policies in many areas. He’s trying to figure out how cooperatives can adopt DAO ideas, and utilize DAOs for labor organizing. I’m definitely hopeful and looking forward to seeing if something interesting can come out of that.
Could you please tell me more about what ETHDenver’s breakthrough developers did in blob data transactionsThis weekend?
So this is part of our rollout of sharding, the scaling solution that’s coming after the merge and after Proof of Stake, but in my opinion, is just as important. Fees are a huge problem for Ethereum’s usability, especially for things other than some of the financial applications that have dominated recently.
There’s a vision of full sharding where you don’t need a single computer to download more than a small portion of all of the data. Doing things that way could make the blockchain scalable the same way that BitTorrent is scalable, in that there’s no single computer that downloads every movie.
That full vision is still years away, because there’s a lot of hard peer-to-peer network stuff that needs to be solved. We need to make something that’s really secure against attacks and is extremely stable. These are new things that no one else has done. But at the same time, we can’t wait years. So we’re trying to come to things that give us half the benefits of sharding but without having to do most of the hard parts.
RollupsThey have accomplished a lot. They’ve advanced a huge amount since the same time last year. They are becoming more secure and ready to take on many users. However, rollups remain expensive.
What truth can there be? The origin of Ethereum You started it after your World of Warcraft warlock had lost some of their powers.
This definitely drove me away from World of Warcraft. The character that I worked hard to create was no longer able do the things I wanted him to be able do. That was definitely what pushed me to focus on making my own programs and games.
I don’t think I was actually thinking of that in particular when I started down the Ethereum and decentralization tracks. But I’m only starting to kind of be conscious of the influence that World of Warcraft might have had on me many years down the line. It may have been the long, virtual walks that led me to my passion for walking. There’s definitely parallels between game design and blockchain design, and there was even Alliance versus Horde geopolitics.
Was the culture shock from Ethereum’s first year of existence for you?
Yes, quite a lot. Because they believed the same things as I did, I certainly projected some of my crypto values onto them. But I didn’t realize the extent to which people can say things that totally vibe with you in one area, but end up being completely different from what you’re thinking in different areas.
As part of the holistic vision I hold, decentralization was a fundamental element. Even my desire for the Ethereum Foundation’s decentralization. [Ethereum co-founder]Charles Hoskinson on the other side believes crypto decentralization is a good idea, but believes that traditional companies are better. That’s what a lot other people believe. These men decided to move on and create their own projects. You can clearly see that these projects differ from Ethereum in the way they reflect their values.
At least two other co-founders of Ethereum—Charles Hoskinson and Joe Lubin—were at ETHDenver. Have you spoken to one or both of them?
I did not meet Joe, I met Charles. This was a short, friendly meeting. [Buterin asked Hoskinson to leave Ethereum in 2014, and the pair have a history of taking swipes at each other on social media.]
2014. It was written by you that “experiments are what cryptocurrency is all about.” As crypto has grown in importance and scale, can this still be true?
In some ways, it’s even getting even more and more that way. You had to start everything new in 2014 and 2015. There are still radical ideas you can build. MakerDAO AugurBuilt in this era.
But today, there’s a lot of infrastructure pieces to build on: auctions, markets, uniswaps, things like Evidence of humanityIf you wish to implement human-based governance. A greater number of users is also possible. 2015. The intersection of people that care about something was greater in 2015 Ethereum and CitiesIt was likely that there were two of them.
There are only two main things that keep Ethereum from being useful for exciting stuff. It feels like a boring answer; there’s this big social problem in Ethereum and the biggest reason for it is one technical thing that hasn’t been done fast enough. It’s a big difference to have Ethereum with 8c fees instead of $18. This gets so bad that the gambling-y stuff and financial derivatives start to price out the best stuff.
It is important to be clear that I still believe there are many good things coming out of this. Funding charities through NFTs is a wonderful thing. Artists who are not able to fund themselves by NFTs like the one I mentioned earlier, can be supported with NFTs. YatredaIn Ethiopia and some in Latin America. It is great that public goods and people who are not able to be empowered through more centralized methods of doing things are being funded. However, you can also find monkeys for as low as $3 million who are entertaining but are not really doing anything.
Pre-2017 Ethereum shows a lot what can happen with sharding, and lower fees. In Switzerland, there was a Decentralized Uber project. Although it didn’t get very far, the assumption was that transaction fees would be between 5 and 8 cents.
It’s not difficult to create a blockchain-based, decentralized Uber Eats. It’s like a software package that you give to restaurants. Dapp: The online menu. [decentralized app]. When you click on the order button, it creates a transaction which sends them directly. [stablecoins]You can use whatever. Once the transaction is complete, a field with data contains an encoded description of your order. It’s actually not that hard to do! This is something I would like to see more of. The fee problem must be addressed.
Have you ever thought about how your life is viewed in relation to other tech leaders like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg?
I feel like it’s hard to categorize people like that these days. Sometimes I break down the role of founder into three parts: the technology founder, organizational founder, and the memlord. There are many parts to a person’s role. Elon Musk has a strong belief in memelord. Mark could be one of these three. For me, I’d probably say some technical, some memelord, and weak on the organizational, which was my curse for the first few years at Ethereum. I guess, in practice, I’ve been some kind of combination of developer, researcher, and blogger? I don’t know.
At the conference, your collaborator Nathan Schneider gave a speech in which he talked about the “dystopian dangers” of crypto. You agree?
I think it’s very real with or without crypto. The dystopian possibilities of central crypto would be described as allowing governments and corporations the ability to be lazy and autoritarian. Authoritarianism has always been checked by laziness in the past. There’s a Chinese phrase: ‘Tian gao, Huangdi yuan,’ meaning, ‘The sky is high and the emperor is far away.’ That is the sort of thing that is true for most of history, but is becoming less and less true today.
There is a lot of potential in centralized technology for digital technology that can reduce costs and shut down people who are annoying. Crypto is a great system that can operate without the involvement of intermediaries. It’s almost like being without intermediaries, which makes it more difficult to shut down people without any checks and balances.
Crypto can also have a lot potential for dystopia if it isn’t done correctly. The biggest risk is the loss of privacy. If we reach an equilibrium in which crypto can be used to protect privacy, it automatically flags us as suspicious. We would end up having much more visibility into people’s actions than before, and it’s not just governments: you could have internet mobs or journalists with that visibility.
There’s obviously some other risks. ‘What if DAOs start political revolutions?’ is an idea that some people bring up. It can get extremely dicey once things like this happen. There are also boring and mundane things like ransomware, hacks, and scams. We’re definitely concerned about those kinds of things. I know that many people are involved in the cryptocurrency space, which reduces the chances of such things. My general view is there’s a lot we can do to reduce the bad and to amplify the good. Sometimes, amplifying good things can make the negative more prominent.
My view is that all new technology opens up the possibilities for humans to accomplish both good and bad things. Sometimes it is enough to just create new technologies in order to counter existing technology. The 21st century would be a better place if crypto and decentralization didn’t exist.StCentury is central surveillance technology. That would really create a world that’s really, really unbalanced in a specific direction.
You recently said that you believe there’s a decent chance someone born today will live to be 3,000. What is your reasoning behind this belief?
The status quo says that the only thing we do is recognize this group of illnesses, which are situations in which one specific and identifiable problem goes horribly wrong. Next, we take care of the patients and give them life support. Often, it’s extremely expensive, and the lives people have in their last two months are really horrible.
It is trying to prevent damage from happening in the first place. It’s basically saying, ‘What is going wrong in a 40-year-old that makes them 30 years away from being a 70-year-old, and can we treat that stuff now?’ Can we bring them back to being 50 years away from being a 70-year-old?
They’ve identified some categories of damage: Junk accumulating in and between cells; cells spewing garbage into the body. And they’re trying to identify ways to treat it. So far, it’s still at a very early stage. But they have identified what the big categories of damage are, and they haven’t really discovered new ones for a while. There are some drugs that can be used to address them. There are also many substances like Metformin. Some people debate whether this increases life expectancy. Metformin is actually something I have in my purse right now.
It seems that there is no way to stop the aging process. However, there are many things that can be done in just 70 years. You can see that sci-fi was not as advanced in 1970s science fiction. But their computers could still fit into a single room. And now, we’re not going to Mars, although we might soon, but our computers are the size of our pocket.
Computers are a passion of many people, so they invest a lot in making them happen. It seems like biotech is on the cusp of that seventy-year journey of great progress. I think COVID-19 has done a lot of good in legitimizing biotech and reminding people how it’s important. So I’m looking forward to hopefully celebrating my 200th birthday with my parents.
At the end of your Q&A onstage, a woman asked you about gender parity in crypto, and you gave a very vague answer. Taken with all of your other answers, it made it seem like gender diversity isn’t a priority for you compared to other issues.
That’s true. It’s definitely something that’s relatively outside my own expertise. For example, I believe I am a great advocate for diversity across the globe. Gender diversity is the one thing where, so far, it hasn’t been among the things I’ve put a lot of intellectual effort into. I don’t think everyone has a duty to have a deep perspective on every important thing.
However, it is important that the ecosystem improves and there should be space for those who are concerned about Black women as well as people who care about Black underbanked people. This is vital. It is my opinion that the best people to figure out how the ecosystem can be made better for these groups are the members of those groups. Ethereum foundation is led by a female executive director [Aya Miyaguchi]She cares deeply about the empowerment of women and global financial inclusion. It is more effective to have one woman on the top than try to get five men to follow a fixed set of principles.
If there is more to be done, supporting these women-led projects within Ethereum would probably be the most beneficial thing for culture in the long run. But that’s probably my view right now. That was just one of the areas I’ve prioritized less, just like I prioritized Latin America much less until last year. It could all change.
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