Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin says IBM’s corporate blockchain is missing the point

Not impressed.
Not impressed.
Image: Jackson Krule for Quartz
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Devcon, the annual Ethereum developers conference, was fairly subdued this year.

Compared to its previous installment in the resort town of Cancún, the gathering—held in Prague from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 2018—reflected tempered exuberance as cryptocurrency prices have returned to earth this year. Gone were the insufferable ICO promoters and hangers-on. Sadly, this year, nobody was offering $400K salaries to amateur blockchain developers. As of Nov. 23, Ether (the token used to transact on the Ethereum network) reached a 2018 low of $120, down from a high of $1,400 in early January.

At Devcon4, “scalability,” or how to improve the speed and robustness of the Ethereum Project, dominated the conversation. Speakers also addressed topics like how can Ethereum onboard its next million users? And how can designers and developers improve user interfaces? (They’re notoriously awful in the crypto world.)

On the sidelines of Devcon 4, Ethereum’s cofounder, Vitalik Buterin, spoke with Quartz. He discussed what’s on his reading list, why he’s distressed about the IBM blockchain, and what blockchains might be good for—that is, beyond cryptocurrency.

Quartz: What are you reading?

Buterin: On my flight here, I read a book about democracy in Mongolia. I was visiting the Santa Fe Institute last month and that was one of the interesting books they had on their bookshelf. Let’s see. I also got a copy of [George Mason University economist] Tyler Cowen’s “Stubborn Attachments.” It basically says that we need to have more confidence in the ideas of economic growth and progress.

Note: Shortly after Devcon, Vitalik tweeted a review of Cowen’s work.

Rather than calling Ethereum the “world computer,” Ethereum Foundation research scientist Virgil Griffith suggested calling it “an arena where we can play positive-sum games.” How would you describe Ethereum today?

Hm… It’s both. I still think the “world computer” is a good analogy. The idea that you have a shared computing environment that anybody can build and run stuff on is still a totally legitimate and valuable thing to emphasize. Ethereum—and blockchains in general—are fundamentally about enabling cooperation, which is basically saying the same thing as “positive-sum games.”

Today, a lot of organizations are using Ethereum for marketing hype in places where blockchain doesn’t make a lot of sense (or where a database would suffice). For instance, the UN’s World Food Programme. What do you think of those applications?

Sometimes it’s for marketing hype. Sometimes it’s just people who are genuinely excited about blockchains and want the thing they’re personally excited about and their job to align more with each other, which is a totally legitimate, human thing to want to do. In some cases, I think it leads to a lot of wasted time.

What’s been particularly wasteful?

A lot of the big corporate blockchain stuff. I read this CoinDesk article about some IBM blockchain thing. I don’t understand this deeply, but the detail that jumped out at me is they’re saying “Hey, we own all the IP and this is basically our platform and you’re getting on it.” And like, that’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’d get QR codes stamped on the [food] at every step [along] the way, and you as a consumer can scan the code and get confirmation about “here is where the stuff came from.” Like I can check if it complies with my own moral values or standards for quality and so forth.

There’s definitely something there, but whether or not any of the actors there are doing it remotely correctly, I’m much less sure.

What if the person at the very start—the farmer or whomever—isn’t putting the right information on the blockchain?

Yeah, that’s true. But blockchains definitely make it harder to contradict yourself. They definitely add on to the guarantees that you have.

But blockchains are a neutral tool, not arbiters of truth.

They definitely don’t provide 100% guarantees of things, especially in the real world.

Doesn’t the incentive have to be aligned for a corporation or group to institute a blockchain-verified process?

Yeah, that’s definitely a challenge. There’s plenty of companies that try to establish higher standards.

From a marketing standpoint, that makes sense.

Exactly, higher standards of reliability as a differentiator. But I’m not claiming that this model is going to be viable in every industry.

What industries do you think blockchain is most viable for?

Cryptocurrencies and making international payments easier. All of the other ideas—whether we’re talking about products or the self-sovereign identity stuff—that’s clearly something that still needs much more time to be worked out before we can see [whether it] makes sense at scale.

Going beyond money, I think the value is that you create a token and you immediately have access to wallets, multi-signature wallets, decentralized exchanges, and just using it as collateral—all of this infrastructure that you wouldn’t have access to if you just created a currency and tried launching it off your own server.

I feel like actual utilities in the space are going to start getting closer to things that are more purely digital.

Today, what blockchain-based applications—apart from cryptocurrency—do you think people prefer to use as opposed to 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 gets revoked, then a message will be published to a blockchain.

They have an app where you can basically submit the JSON file that corresponds to the certificate and it checks the signature, and it checks the blockchain to make sure that it hasn’t been revoked yet. It basically means all these institutions don’t have to maintain their own centralized infrastructure—there isn’t a risk of them being hacked. It’s a common platform where the way to verify it is the same everywhere. And this company’s cooperating with a bunch of universities in Singapore and elsewhere to actually implement this.

What are you studying in the crypto sphere at the moment?

I’m looking at RSA accumulators a lot recently. I don’t know if you’ve seen Plasma Prime at all, but there’s this set of upgrades to Plasma Cash that can reduce the history size clients need to store by another factor of 100 and it uses RSA accumulators to do this. To basically reduce the need for people to keep track of a huge number of Merkle branches, so instead you have RSA witnesses that you can just add together.

Note: In layman’s terms, the proposed upgrades to Plasma Cash—which seemingly enables off-chain transactions for Ethereum—would require less storage. In short, it could help make the Ethereum network more scalable. Here’s a background explainer on Plasma.

What non-crypto related goals do you have for yourself over the next 5 years?

I’m thinking what languages to learn. Improving Japanese seems like a natural target. Possibly Spanish, too.

This interview was conducted in person. It has been edited for length and clarity.