Blockchain’s Burning Issues: Governance, Shortage of Talent, Oligopolistic Competition
Blockchain technology is complex, emergent, full of challenges and short of talent. The problems like scalability, transaction costs, governance, security flaws, human error, legality, imperfect competition between blockchains seem to be piling up -- each taking their turn in the spotlight depending on their urgency.
Technological development never stops. It evolves through an endless cycle of crises -- attracting more and more bright minds at each critical juncture with the challenge of solving the world’s greatest riddles and unlocking the potential of the most disruptive technologies.
This is especially true for Ethereum and its team of developers and researchers. Back in 2014, Vlad Zamfir read about Ethereum for the first time, watched Vitalik Buterin’s youtube videos and met him in person at the Toronto Decentral Bitcoin Meetups. After realising that the blockchain tech story was about to take an exciting turn with Ethereum, he wanted to be closer to the action and started volunteering for them.
Currently, Vlad Zamfir is a Blockchain Researcher at the Ethereum Foundation. He is most known for his work on Casper, a "correct-by-construction" blockchain consensus protocol as well as proof-of-stake and blockchain sharding in the Ethereum ecosystem. He is also concerned about the ethics surrounding use and governance of blockchain technology.
We spoke to Vlad at Genesis Moscow Conference about his research agenda, the burning issues within blockchain technology, “Ethereum killers” and the future of blockchains in China.
Binary District Journal: What is blockchain governance?
Vlad Zamfir: “I’ve been interested in looking into blockchain, society, and the social questions around blockchain. And one of the natural progressions of that is to look at blockchain governance and how people can govern blockchain, and determine how it evolves over time.
But I’ve actually been interested in blockchain governance for a while, just from the point of view of technical development because, as you say, most of the time I’m wearing my technical hat. Sometimes, once in awhile, I’ll get the opportunity to give a talk about whatever I want and I usually choose to do something on the social side.”
BDJ: Is there a shortage of blockchain talent at the moment?
VZ: “There’s definitely a huge shortage of blockchain talent, both in terms of developers and researchers. I’m a researcher and I’m mostly looking for researchers, people with a certain kind of background. Basically, because blockchain is very multidisciplinary -- it’s kind of an intersection between cryptography, distributed systems and mechanism design. And also consensus protocol, which is also kind of its own little world in distributed systems. So, it’s very rare to find anyone who’s an expert in all these areas. Even if you find someone who is an expert in one or two, that ends up being a good start and a good candidate for basically contributing to the blockchain space. So there’s definitely a shortage of talent, but we’re doing our best to raise awareness and spread education so people can come up to speed and contribute.
There’s definitely a competition for blockchain talent in that, there’s too much competition for talent but not enough competition within the talent. There’s not enough talent, so anyone that’s talented doesn't really have to compete -- people compete for them. It’s kind of challenging, but I think the main thing is finding people who are available and have that relevant expertise. Most people who do have the relevant expertise end up being kind of unavailable due to the fact that they are professors and have a job. But every once in awhile you find someone who is able to contribute and is available.
I can only really speak for research and not for development. I mean the best way really is to reach out to me on the internet or in person, and tell me what your background is and what your interests are. If you tell me you have a background in like, mechanism design, methods and consensus protocols, then you’ve got my ear. But even if you don't have all that background and you just have a bit of it, it definitely helps.
Conversations are normally enough. A few conversations just to test knowledge, is usually enough for me to check someone’s background knowledge. Of course, everyone has to be tried out on the job, it’s not like if you have the background knowledge you’ll definitely be able to contribute. There’s like personality things, ability to work things, and stuff like that.”
BDJ: Are you in charge of decisions related to Ethereum blockchain development?
VZ: “No, I’m not in charge. Vitalik and myself together are kind of in charge. But he’s more in charge than I am. I mostly just pursue my research agenda and I try and get whatever help I can along the way. But I’m pretty much just focused on research, I’m not doing so much management or anything like that.”
BDJ: What’s on your research agenda right now?
VZ: “Basically consensus protocols, mechanism design for consensus protocols - basically proof of stake and sharding -- the same things that have been on the agenda for the last couple of years. Still working on it, still making progress. Proof of stake, I would say is coming to the point where I’m almost completely satisfied on the consensus side and I’m starting to work on the incentives a little more rigorously.
Trying to find more precise tuning of parameters for payouts and penalties, specifically for liveness faults, because it’s really easy to penalise safety faults because they’re perfectly attributable. So, if you know exactly who did the bad behaviour then you can penalise them a hundred percent, but if you can't really tell who did it then it’s harder to say who you should penalise and how much. These are fundamental tradeoffs, so it’s interesting.”
BDJ: When will the proof of stake be launched?
VZ: “I think that proof of stake will be launched soon. No particular date but soon.”
BDJ: How does your research fit in the Ethereum roadmap?
VZ: “Basically Ethereum research fits in the roadmap and the Ethereum improvement proposals which eventually feed into the call all devs call which determines the schedule for releases and exactly what features are going to be in the releases. At least for anything consensus critical. So, you know, there’s a pipeline and research eventually feeds into development. I don't really look at the Ethereum blockchain. I do research in theory, not boots on the ground. I have pen and paper not, you know, eyes and code.”
BDJ: Are you concerned about so-called “Ethereum killers”?
VZ: “The competition between blockchains is highly imperfect and highly oligopolistic. I’m super not concerned about, like, the Ethereum killers. Mostly I see them as like an outlet for the scalability issue, and also for people’s, kind of, need for an opportunity that they see. But in terms of technical merit, I’m not very excited about any of these projects. I’m totally a public blockchains person. Yeah, private blockchains are relatively very boring.”
BDJ: Are banks interested in Casper?
VZ: “Sometimes I have people who work at banks approach me for stuff but usually it doesn't go very far. We just find out that we don't have many interests in line. Mostly they’re interested in Casper for a non-economic consensus, which is fine and it does work very well but, you know, it’s not really why I’m excited about Casper. Also, it’ll be ready much faster than proof of stake. So non-economic Casper for consensus should be ready soon.”
BDJ: What is going to happen with blockchain in China?
VZ: “My understanding is basically that the regulators see blockchain as a potential risk to things like capital controls and want to regulate the blockchain...thoroughly. What they’re going to end up wanting is like their own blockchain, with their own rules. But I think it’s going to take a while before the tech to really be able to scale and meet their needs. So I think for a while, there’s probably going to be a mostly medium hard ban on cryptocurrencies for a while. We’ll see, I mean, cryptocurrencies are not very compatible with like capital controls.”
BDJ: How do you see the future of blockchains?
VZ: “There are a few interesting things about the future of blockchain but the main thing that I’d like to see and I expect to see is proof of stake and sharding. Which are the main things I work on, so I think that, you know, I will be there to make it happen.”
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Margarita Khartanovich at firstname.lastname@example.org