"You should not see blockchains as just an add-on to existing systems, or as just a better kind of database."
Interview with Vitalik Buterin
Ten questions to the mind that built Ethereum
- What drives you today as you develop Ethereum?
Ethereum is a powerful technology that has the potential to make many things in the economy and society more inclusive, secure, efficient, trustworthy and free. I believe that decentralized technologies are a natural fit for many kinds of applications that currently have a central controller. Those are the limitations of yesterday. The decentralized economy is the natural continuation of the best parts of the sharing economy, Web 2.0 and modern IT. I believe in making it easier for "the bottom three billion" to participate in society – not just in their capacity as consumers but also in their capacity as producers.
- Do you foresee a convergence of blockchain technologies? Or the other way around?
I think a coexistence of different types of blockchains is inevitable; it's just impossible for one type of blockchain to satisfy all use cases and provide all desirable properties.
- Can you imagine the blockchain failing to become widely used? If so, how would that happen?
Depends what you mean by "the blockchain." There are many blockchains. Some Bitcoin-inspired technology will definitely find substantial use cases. On the other hand, there are many blockchain applications that will die off because they simply do not provide sufficient value to their users. In general, I think that bridging the gap between the blockchain world and the real world is a major challenge.
- Immutability is often cited as one of blockchain's main advantages. However, it can also be an obstacle. Are users ready to commit to immutable transactions, with the risk of making mistakes and not being able to correct them? And how does immutability restrict developers' ability to iterate on their programs (and smart contracts)?
In the long term, I think both developer flexibility and preventing and recovering from mistakes cannot all be handled by the low-level blockchain platform. In the future, blockchains will have very many users, and we cannot expect the users of a blockchain protocol to come to consensus every time a mistake happens and there is a choice of whether or not to revert it. Rather, I believe that such needs can be dealt with on a higher level, through a combination of having better programming languages and developer tools that make it harder to make mistakes. We also need "escape hatches" that allow faults to be identified and resolved, without turning control of the application over to a centralized party. In these early days, such techniques are not mature, so it sometimes is best to resort to other measures. But in the long term, this is the only realistic path forward.
- What are the implications of the DAO incidents in mid-2016?
I think a major implication is that the community has started to take security much more seriously, and many solutions are being developed to support safer smart-contract programming. I don't see the Ethereum Classic (ETC) token4 as being problematic in the long term. If that community can come together and agree on a coherent roadmap and vision, then it will find a place. Otherwise, it will fade. But in either case, that is a battle for them to fight.
- Especially in financial services applications, security is paramount. How would you ensure security on blockchain applications?
I think that security will always be a combination of various kinds of heuristics that each tackle parts of the problem. You can use automated verification tools to catch many kinds of bugs in computer code; you can design your code in such a way that it "fails gracefully" as much as possible; you can use "escape hatch" techniques that give a third party the ability to recover funds from a contract in the event that a fault is detected. I don't think there will be any one silver bullet. I think it will be a process of understanding the common classes of bugs.
- What are the key steps a bank or an insurer should take today regarding blockchain?
Start exploring what you can do with it. Ask yourself, "If there was a startup doing a blockchain-based application in my industry, how could it disrupt me?"
- Do you think the banking/insurance sector will be more heavily impacted by blockchain than others, since they rely heavily on data?
Already, there are many banking and insurance applications. Since finance is almost pure data, it is very blockchainfriendly.
- What is the biggest mistake a company can make regarding its blockchain strategy?
I'd say you should not see blockchains as just an add-on to existing systems, or as just a better kind of database. I believe that the most valuable blockchain applications will involve fundamental process reengineering. They will make business processes more decentralized and more of a natural fit to the benefits that blockchain technology can provide.
- If Ethereum belonged to someone other than yourself, what would you be doing?
Possibly other things in cryptography or internet protocols. If that was not an option, machine learning. And if anything in computer science was not an option, life extension. I put life extension in third place only because I am not as talented in biology as I am in computer science. I think life extension research is incredibly important. If we succeed, it can literally save billions of lives.
- What drives you today as you develop Ethereum?