Today marked the start of the annual Ethereum Foundation Developers Conference, which this year is held in Cancún, Mexico. As I stated in my earlier blogpost, I will try to summarize the highlights of each day at the conference.
Disclaimer: There are more than 15 hours of talks every day, so I will not cover all topics, nor go super in-depth. This post is based on the talks I have seen — I have not conducted further research, so there might be a few small misconceptions due to the amount of information to process, so take this information with a grain of salt. Feel free to be inspired, and research on your own.
When I arrived to the Cancún International Conference Center this morning, I was happily surprised by the fact that I was met by a horde of people that were waiting outside the center and in the center lobby. I did not know beforehand how many people would attend Devcon, but an official told me that about 1,800 are attending this year, which is more than double the attendance of last year. The interest in Ethereum as a platform for blockchain applications is evidently still growing rapidly.
Today’s talks were mostly focused on future additions to the Ethereum ecosystem, research and developments to enhance the protocol. Especially issues of scalability and privacy of the current chain implementation was a hot topic, as talks on Casper, Sharding, Plasma, updates to the EVM and zk-SNARKs were on the agenda. A few talks on the legal aspects of tokens and crypto-economic incentive mechanics as well as a few product showcases however briefly interrupted the tech heavy talks of today. So let’s dive into it.
Topics of the day
The conference was kicked off with a presentation of the Ethereum development team, their responsibilities and a quick status of their current projects. The Ethereum project is still going strong, as the entire Ethereum stack is under heavy development as the work put into the Byzantium update was emphasized in this introduction. Notably, the goal for the Go-Ethereum client team is to be able to sync the blockchain in about two minutes — an optimistic goal according to themselves, but nonetheless a goal they are pursuing. In addition light clients are still on the way, as well improvements and formal verification to the Solidity language, as well as an updated EVM 1.5. Furthermore, the addition of zk-SNARK support in the Byzantium update was a focus point, as a whole breakout session on day three of the conference will focus on this. These touch points of the introduction were more or less the focus point of the rest of the main hall talks on day one.
Legal Aspects: Tokens vs. Securities
The next topic on the agenda was a regulatory outlook on the crypto ecosystem by Jerry Brito and Peter van Valkenbergh. More specifically, they talked about how tokens probably are going to be classified in the U.S., which might lead to similar definitions elsewhere. The main point to take away here was how tokens most likely are going to be classified as a security if the driver of value for the token is the issuer, or rather the company or development team behind the token. In order for a token not to be classified as a security it must have an immediate utility, such as Ether that is used to pay for computations, while the value of the token is being driven by the network and usage, rather than the team behind it. This means that if you for example have a token presale, it will probably be classified as a security, since the token do not have an immediate utility, as it cannot be spent in the pre-sale stage, thus making it an investment of which value is driven by the work of the issuer. In this case the token becomes more like a stock.
The Core Tech
As mentioned in the beginning, a lot of the talks covered the status and future developments of the core tech of Ethereum — specifically updates to the protocol that will solve issues of scalability and privacy. These topics are quite complex and extensive to explain, so I will not go into detail this time, but I urge you to follow the links and research for yourself at this point.
Vlad Zamfir gave a talk on the current status of the Casper proof-of-stake consensus algorithm, while Yoichi Hirai from the foundation is working on a formal verification of said algorithm. The main take-away is that the development of Casper is still coming a long, and that the Ethereum team is making progress in terms of implementing proof-of-stake to the network, thus enabling quicker block times, and greater scalability.
On the same topic of core tech research, Joseph Poon presented Plasma — a vision of how Ethereum can scale to billions of transactions per second, by introducing a Plasma blockchain consisting of tree hierarchies on top of the Ethereum blockchain.
Lastly, Vitalik Buterin gave a talk of his vision for a roadmap towards an Ethereum 2.0. His proposed solution to the scalability issues is to split up the blockchain into a set of universes, a method called “sharding”, in order to reduce the need of data replication of the entire blockchain state for all nodes.
Buterin implied that they are close to a proof-of-concept of the sharding concept, also expressing that only a soft-fork is needed in order to implement the changes. In addition to sharding, Buterin announced that they are working on upgrades to the EVM.
Day 1 also featured talks on new toolsets for Ethereum that improves development on the ecosystem. Piper Merriam presented a smart contract package management system that connects source code on IPFS to your solidity code, in order to reduce code duplication in smart contract development.
Jacob Eberhardt presented ZoKrates — a toolbox for making zk-SNARKs useful and easier to use on Ethereum, thus paving the way for privacy in smart contracts.
Karl Floersch gave a talk on how to design incentives mechanics through the use of crypto economics. Basically we should be aware of which tools to use from cryptography and economics when designing these mechanics to ensure good outcomes. Floersch emphasized how blockchain technology is the perfect storm of exactly these two fields in order to incentivize certain behavior in people as he quoted Mike Goldin:
“Blockchains give us programmable money. When you can program money, you can program incentives, and when you can program incentives, you can program people.”
It is thus very important to design the right incentive mechanics, when building blockchain applications, as creating the right incentive is the key to monetization.
Lefteris Karapetsas showcased his framework Sikorka that enables proof of presence by incorporating smart contracts with real-life sensors. Lefteris presented an app that showcased the possible use cases of interacting with censors in the real world that stamps to the blockchain, proving your presence. His vision is to tie Ethereum with outdoor life, by providing a way to program objects and locations to for example trigger awards on the blockchain. In my opinion, Sikorka also seems like a great way to prove your presence and identity at work if you are based remotely, or at the governments office to collect your benefits.
The first day of Devcon3 was packed with a lot of interesting and inspiring talks on the future of the Ethereum ecosystem. The focus was predominantly on the core tech and research into solving the hurdles that halts mass-adoption of blockchain as an application platform. It has been a great experience, and I am impressed with the event so far. The halls are packed with enthusiastic developers, predominantly young people as I estimate the average age to be around 30, who all share the same excitement for a decentralized future. This bodes well for the future of the ecosystem, as the community keeps growing in a rapid pace. Ethereum has certainly captured the spirit of a new generation of developers. Stay tuned for tomorrow!