Devcon, the annual Ethereum developer conference, has been pretty subdued this year.
Compared to the previous episode in the tourist resort of Cancún, the rally held in Prague from 30 October to 2 November 2018 has reflected the temperate exuberance as the prices of the cryptocurrency have returned to the earth this year. The unbearable and attacking ICO promoters are over. Unfortunately, no one offered $ 400K salaries to amateur blockchain developers this year. Beginning November 23, Ether (the token used for the transaction on the Ethereum network) reached a low of 2018 of $ 120, falling from a high of $ 1,400 at the beginning of January.
At Devcon4, "scalability", or how to improve the speed and robustness of the Ethereum Project, dominated the conversation. Speakers have also addressed topics such as how Ethereum can get on board its next million users? And how can designers and developers improve user interfaces? (They are notoriously terrible in the encrypted world).
On the sidelines of Devcon 4, the co-founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, spoke with Quartz. He discussed what is on his reading list, because he is distressed by the blockchain of IBM and on what blockchain could be good, that is, beyond the cryptocurrency.
Quartz: what are you reading?
Buterin: In my flight here, I read a book on democracy in Mongolia. I was visiting the Santa Fe Institute last month and that was one of the interesting books they had on their bookstore. Let's see. I also received a copy of [George Mason University economist] "Stubborn attacks" by Tyler Cowen. In practice it says that we must have more confidence in the ideas of economic growth and progress.
Rather than calling Ethereum the "world computer", research scientist Ethereum Foundation Virgil Griffith has suggested calling it "an arena where we can play positive-sum games". How would you describe Ethereum today?
Hm … They are both. I still think that the "computer of the world" is a good analogy. The idea of having a shared computing environment on which anyone can create and perform stuff is still an absolutely legitimate and valuable thing to stress. Ethereum – and blockchain in general – are basically based on enabling cooperation, which is basically saying the same thing about "positive sum games".
Today, many organizations use Ethereum for marketing hype in places where blockchain does not make much sense (or where a database will suffice). For example, the United Nations World Food Program. What do you think of those applications?
Sometimes it's for hype marketing. Sometimes it's just people who are genuinely enthusiastic about blockchains and want the thing I'm personally excited about and their work to align more with each other, which is a totally legitimate and human thing to want to do. In some cases, I think it leads to a lot of lost time.
What was particularly wasteful?
Many of the big business blockchain things. I read this article on CoinDesk on some IBM blockchains. I do not understand it deeply, but the detail that has come up is that they are saying "Hey, we own all the IPs and this is basically our platform and you're getting there." And how, it's … totally not the point …
[Read more about IBM’s blockchain developments at CoinDesk and Forbes.]
What do you think of the IBM blockchain for food?
The potential value of tracking food on a blockchain is that you would get the QR codes printed on it [food] at every step [along] the way in which, as a user, you can scan the code and get confirmation about "here is where the stuff comes from". How can I check if it complies with my moral values or quality standards and so on.
There's definitely something there, but regardless of whether any of the actors are doing it remotely, they're much less secure.
What happens if the person at the beginning – the farmer or anyone – is not putting the right information on the blockchain?
Yes, it's true. But blockchains make it definitely more difficult to contradict yourself. They certainly add the guarantees you have.
But blockchains are a neutral tool, not the arbiters of truth.
They certainly do not provide 100% guarantees on things, especially in the real world.
Does the incentive not have to be aligned for a company or group to set up a blockchain-verified process?
Yes, it's definitely a challenge. There are many companies trying to set higher standards.
From a marketing point of view, this makes sense.
Exactly, higher reliability standards as differentiators. But I am not saying that this model will be feasible in every sector.
For which industries do you think blockchain is more viable?
Cryptocurrency and facilitates international payments. All other ideas – be it self-sufficient products or identities – are clearly something that still needs a lot more time to be worked out before you can see [whether it] it makes sense on a large scale.
Going beyond the money, I think that the value is the creation of a token and the immediate access to portfolios, multi-signature portfolios, decentralized exchanges and only to use it as collateral: all this infrastructure that you would not have access to if you had just created a currency and tried to run it from your server.
I feel as if real utilities in space begin to approach things that are more purely digital.
Today, what blockchain-based applications – apart from cryptocurrency – do you think people prefer to use otherwise centralized alternatives or are simply not available elsewhere?
My favorite non-financial application is this thing in Singapore, which is trying to authenticate university degrees. The idea is when you get a degree or, potentially, a record from any institution, that record will be digitally signed, but if it is revoked, a message will be posted on a blockchain.
They have an application where you can basically send the JSON file that matches the certificate and check the signature, and check the blockchain to make sure it has not been revoked yet. Basically it means that all these institutions do not have to maintain their centralized infrastructure, there is no risk of them being hacked. It is a common platform where the way to verify it is the same everywhere. And this company is cooperating with a group of universities in Singapore and elsewhere to actually implement this.
What are you studying in the cryptographic sphere at the moment?
I am looking at the RSA accumulators very recently. I do not know if you've ever seen Plasma Prime, but there's this series of updates to Plasma Cash that can reduce the size of the history that clients need to store by another factor of 100 and use RSA accumulators to do this. In practice, reducing the need for people to keep track of a huge number of Merkle branches, so instead you have RSA witnesses that you can simply add together.
Note: In other words, the proposed upgrades to Plasma Cash – which apparently allow off-chain transactions for Ethereum – would require less storage space. In short, it could help make the Ethereum network more scalable. Here is an explanation in the background Plasma.
What non-cryptographic goals do you have for you in the next 5 years?
I'm thinking about what languages to learn. Improving Japanese seems a natural goal. Perhaps also Spanish.
This interview was conducted in person. It has been modified for length and clarity.