Vitalik Buterin, Creator of Ethereum, Talks Bitcoin’s Most Ambitious Successor

Ethereum has raised over $13m in a crowdsale to build a better version of bitcoin.


Vitalik Buterin is a 20-year-old software developer and Thiel Fellow.

He has a breathtaking plan to build a future full of decentralized systems called distributed autonomous corporations, or DACs. It’s called Ethereum, maybe you have heard of it.

But what does that really mean?

Buterin recently took questions on ZapChain about Ethereum, and here’s what he said:

1. Ethereum Could Not Be Built on Bitcoin

The Ethereum project is a next-generation distributed platform.

Bitcoin is already worth billions in market capitalization, so Ethereum is being built from the ground-up as a Turing-complete language.

“Making changes to protocols always has risks. Making changes to a protocol with $3 billion in capital and a hundred thousand transactions per day has a lot of risks, and the core devs would not have allowed it anyway.”

Because bitcoin is already so large, Buterin believes Ethereum must be a standalone platform.

“Bitcoin works decently well as digital gold, but as far as payment protocols go I’m inclined to believe that existing systems will continue to be replaced by better and better technology, and the platform that wins will be the platform that manages to guarantee maximal agility to continued innovation.”

2. Bitcoin Has a Boring Future

“It makes me sleepy.”

In Buterin’s eyes, bitcoin’s long-term future is simply as a staid asset — like gold or stocks. Advancing a more decentralized economy and society is what motivates him — and Ethereum is part of that vision.

“I do still think that Bitcoin has a substantial chance of becoming a pure asset class for investment, and I still hold a lot of it for that reason, but that’s a rather boring future and not one whose social value I find all that exciting, and so my emotional investment goes toward general-purpose cryptoeconomic computing platforms.”

3. Ethereum Has a Big Team

Some members of the Ethereum team.

Team Ethereum has more people than most early-stage startups.

“[About] 30 full-time, salaries ranging between $45k and $190k, and a bunch more part-time.”

There are a lot of expectations the technology is going to be successful. Because of this, many team members are investing their income in ether, the native currency of Ethereum.

“Employees also got the ability to purchase ether up to a maximum of 20% of their salary at a price of 2000 ETH per BTC up until Mar 31; 3m ETH got distributed in this way.”

4. The Ethereum Client Will Look Like This

The Mist browser.
“The Ethereum client, Mist, is a fully featured ‘browser’ for decentralized web applications; you can use decentralized applications (‘dapps’) from inside of Mist just like you can interact with websites in a regular browser.”

5. The Future Needs Decentralization

Decentralized systems are an important part of technology.

Buterin calls things like authentication and identity foundational aspects of technology that should be decentralized.

“I think decentralization is particularly valuable for what I call “base layer” services: stuff that everything else relies on.”

An example is VoIP service Skype; once a big company acquired that service it became an increasingly centralized platform.

“Skype is ripe for decentralization because the original version was decentralized; but in ~2008 after Microsoft bought the company they added mandatory supernodes.”

6. Holding Gatekeepers in Check

Most services in the world today are centralized.

It’s clear that with Ethereum, Buterin has ideals he hopes to achieve in solving the world’s problems via information.

“I also believe that many of the old dichotomies of politics are becoming less relevant in the 21st century, particularly because — and this is something that people often fail to appreciate — the problems of today are increasingly all fundamentally informational in nature.”

He cites specific companies that are more centralized than most people think.

“Nearly all major intermediaries today — or at least the newer ones — have to do with being gatekeepers and trackers of information. Google, Uber, Airbnb, etc, are nothing but.”

7. Technology Needs to Bridge a Gap

The cryptocurrency industry needs to work with businesses.

As technological innovation moves at an ever-faster speed, projects like Ethereum must work closely with existing industries, according to Buterin.

“We are focusing heavily on interfacing with groups “on the edge” of the decentralization space: banks, civil liberties groups, financial reform groups, local currencies, etc; our communications department in London is talking to such people almost every day.”

Engineers and others who build things that people use everyday must become better at explaining technology.

“I also think that in tech/math/crypto in general, there is a chasm between media for mathematicians, which tends to be highly dense and math-loaded, and media for the general public, which doesn’t even try to explain how things actually work and often makes glaring errors.”

8. Cryptocurrencies Must Cater to Masses

People like to see right away the true utility of a new technology.

Instead of talking to people about how powerful a cryptography-based system is, Buterin says platforms should show users why its powerful.

“I generally think that crypto-platforms should market themselves not in terms of the way their underlying architecture works, but in terms of the properties that they have and what you can do with them; that’s the only way to get mass adoption.

Buterin specifically points out one of the largest companies in the world as a specific example.

“Apple doesn’t try marketing iPhones by talking about their next-generation screen technology, they show how sleek and shiny it is and how it has apps.”

9. Ethereum Will Launch in 2015

It will be available sooner than you think.

While Ethereum has been known as an official platform since a year ago, it hasn’t launched yet. Buterin says that will change in the near future.

“Ethereum is doing a staggered launch over the course of this year, the first phase of which is coming very very soon.”

10. Being a Thiel Fellow is Fun (of course)

Under 20? Peter Thiel will give you $100k to skip school.

Buterin is the recipient of a Thiel Fellowship, which is a $100,000 grant from PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel. The idea is to enable smart young entrepreneuers the ability to pursue a project, forgoing college.

“The Thiel Fellowship is what you make of it. I’ve often said the fellowship only has three rules: (i) you can’t do nothing, (ii) you can’t do anything blatantly unethical or illegal, and (iii) you can’t go back to college.”

Networking is clearly one of the major benefits of being a Thiel Fellow according to Buterin.

“Beyond that, there is a community of people, mostly in the Bay Area, that are glad to offer you any help that they can provide, and it’s a great way to make connections if you don’t have any. I would absolutely recommend it.”

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