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Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin says his creation can’t succeed unless he takes a step back

At Ethereum’s annual developer conference, its founder tells us why his technology can only be truly decentralized if it stops depending on him.
November 1, 2018
Matthew Monteith

When you ask him about the challenges facing the blockchain system he founded five years ago, Vitalik Buterin often launches into a rapid-fire lecture full of Ethereum-specific jargon. But ask him about his own role in the technology’s future, and he quickly becomes more circumspect.

There’s no doubt that Buterin, 24, is still the guiding light for the idealistic community that has sprung up around his creation. That’s been front and center this week in Prague, where thousands of developers, investors, and entrepreneurs have gathered for Devcon, the annual “family reunion” organized by the nonprofit Ethereum Foundation.

The most popular discussion topic is Buterin’s vision for “Ethereum 2.0,” a future iteration meant to be capable of operating efficiently at a much larger scale—and appeal to a much broader user base—than it can today. But in a conversation with MIT Technology Review on the sidelines of Devcon, Buterin said it’s time for him to start fading into the background as “a necessary part of the growth of the community.”

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Why? Put simply, a truly decentralized system has no single component whose failure could bring down the whole system, and that’s arguably what Buterin’s historically outsize influence over decision-making represents. But that’s changing, he said, partly because of the community’s natural growth but also thanks to a deliberate attempt to reduce his prominence. “I think people are kind of really feeling that,” he said, citing Twitter chatter he’d seen after Devcon’s first day. “There was even one comment that explicitly said that like, wow, it seems like the community is actually working together and isn’t just relying on a few people being in charge.”

Indeed, Buterin is already “out of the decision-making in a lot of ways,” said Hudson Jameson of the Ethereum Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the development of the Ethereum protocol, during a discussion at Devcon focused on how the community can get better at making decisions collectively. “That’s something that I think is really really important for the ecosystem to thrive and become more decentralized.”

The transition comes at a critical juncture for Ethereum, whose developers are struggling to overcome a number of complicated technical obstacles they believe to be standing in the way of its more widespread adoption. Topping the to-do list is an ambitious plan to transition away from proof of work—the energy-intensive process that Ethereum, Bitcoin, and other similar blockchain systems use to achieve agreement among network participants that the information they stored in their blockchains is valid. For years, Buterin has spearheaded a research project aimed at developing an energy-efficient alternative to proof of work, based on a different algorithm called proof of stake.

He’s also played a leading role in conceiving of new methods called sharding and plasma, which would let the network handle much larger transaction volumes, in part by letting users execute certain transactions without having to write every single one to the blockchain. (Ethereum can process only about 15 transactions per second, whereas Visa handles an average of 2,000 transactions per second and has the capacity to handle tens of thousands.)

All these improvements are meant to be featured in Ethereum 2.0, the specifications for which Buterin has been instrumental in writing and finalizing. Nonetheless, he says, his involvement in the project has amounted to “a significantly smaller share of the work than I had two or three years ago,” adding that downsizing his influence is “something we are definitely making a lot of progress on.”

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