When you ask him about the challenges of the blockchain system he founded five years ago, Vitalik Buterin often launches in a rapid fire conference with a specific Ethereum jargon. But ask him about his role in the future of technology, and he quickly becomes more cautious.
There is no doubt that Buterin, 24, is still the guiding light for the idealistic community that has arisen around its creation. This week was in the center of Prague, where thousands of developers, investors and entrepreneurs gathered for Devcon, the annual "family reunion" organized by the non-profit Ethereum Foundation.
The most popular topic of discussion is Buterin's vision for "Ethereum 2.0", a future version designed to be able to operate efficiently on a much larger scale and attract a much larger user base than that can today. But in a conversation with Review of MIT technology on the sidelines of Devcon, Buterin said it is time for him to fade into the background as "a necessary part of the growth of the community".
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Why? Put simply, a truly decentralized system does not have a single component whose failure could bring down the whole system, and this is probably Buterin's historically grueling influence on the decision-making process. But it is changing, he said, partly because of the natural growth of the community, but also thanks to a deliberate attempt to reduce its importance. "I think people really feel it," he said, citing the Twitter chat that he had seen since Devcon's first day. "There was also a comment that explicitly said that, like, wow, it seems like the community is actually working together and not just relying on some people in charge."
In fact, Buterin is already "out of the decision-making process in many ways," said Hudson Jameson of the Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports the development of the Ethereum protocol, during a discussion on Devcon focused on how the community it can get better in making decisions collectively. "This is something that I think is really very important for the ecosystem to thrive and become more decentralized."
The transition comes at a critical moment for Ethereum, whose developers are struggling to overcome a series of complicated technical obstacles that they believe are hindering its most widespread adoption. At the top of the to-do list is an ambitious plan to go from the test of labor – the energy-intensive process that Ethereum, Bitcoin and other similar blockchain systems use to reach an agreement among network participants that the information they have stored in their blockchains is valid. For years, Buterin has led a research project aimed at developing an energy-efficient alternative to demonstrating work, based on a different algorithm called proof of stake.
He also played a leading role in the design of new methods called sharding and plasma, which would allow the network to handle much larger transaction volumes by allowing users to execute certain transactions without having to write each individual on the blockchain. (Ethereum can process only about 15 transactions per second, while Visa handles an average of 2,000 transactions per second and has the ability to manage tens of thousands.)
All these improvements are designed to be present in Ethereum 2.0, the specifications for which Buterin has been fundamental for writing and fine-tuning. Nonetheless, he says, his involvement in the project amounted to "a significantly lower share of work than two or three years ago", adding that resizing his influence is "something we are making a lot of progress".