Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin was recently interviewed on Babbage, a podcast by The Economist. Buterin shared his long-term goals for Ethereum, which is a public blockchain that allows developers to easily deploy decentralized applications.
A Programming Language for Blockchains
When asked what inspired him to create Ethereum, Buterin first talked about how Bitcoin originally sparked his interest in blockchain technology. The open, permissionless nature of public blockchains is a key feature that attracted Buterin to the ecosystem. He noted, “I like the idea of 12-year-olds potentially being able to build the next financial system and so forth. That’s a large part of what attracted me [to] blockchain technology.”
With Ethereum, Buterin intends to allow those programmers (young or old) to build much more than the financial applications of the future. The Ethereum blockchain is Turing complete, which differs from how things have worked in Bitcoin up to this point ‒ Satoshi Nakamoto (Bitcoin’s creator) purposely limited Bitcoin’s scripting system for security reasons.
“I thought [those in the Bitcoin community] weren’t approaching the problem in the right way. I thought they were going after individual applications; they were trying to kind of explicitly support each [use case] in a sort of Swiss Army knife protocol.”
With a Turing complete programming language, the potential applications of the Ethereum blockchain are limited only by a developer’s creativity. Buterin used an analogy to explain how this compares with Bitcoin:
“Instead of creating a device that just does a specific number of things, you have a device that understands and supports this programming language and whatever people want to do [can potentially be implemented]."
Buterin mentioned shipment tracking and digital identity systems as two potential applications that could be built (or are being built) on top of Ethereum.
Is Bitcoin the Napster of Cryptocurrencies?
Although some claim Ethereum is not a direct competitor with Bitcoin and the two blockchain platforms could work well together, Babbage host Tom Standage asked Buterin if Bitcoin could be the Napster of cryptocurrencies (meaning that it would eventually be replaced by something better).
Buterin noted that a pure Bitcoin person (sometimes referred to as a Bitcoin maximalist) would say that other, centralized forms of digital currency from the past, such as David Chaum’s ecash, would be a better fit for the Napster analogy. However, Buterin continued:
“In practice, it’s not nearly so simple because ‒ I don’t think Bitcoin is going to fail, I don’t think it’s going to disappear, but at the same time, it’s very clearly not going to be the backbone for the entire world with absolutely everything decentralized running on top of it in some shape or form.”
Sidechains, a concept created and mainly developed by Blockstream, is an attempt to bring increased functionality to the Bitcoin network and add greater utility to the Bitcoin token. One sidechain project, Rootstock, is a smart contracts platform quite similar to Ethereum. At this year’s MIT Bitcoin Expo, RSK Labs cofounder and chief scientist Sergio Lerner claimed the project was partially put together by mashing together the Bitcoinj and Ethereumj clients.
Goals for Ethereum Are Practical
When asked about his long-term goals for Ethereum, the creator of this particular blockchain-based platform remained practical. In regard to whether Ethereum will become the one blockchain to rule them all, Buterin stated, “That could happen, but at the same time, we’re completely prepared for more realistic scenarios.”
In terms of developers creating a new blockchain for each use case of this new technology, Buterin said:
“There might be some applications that might get their own ledger, [but] there’s just so much different stuff that people are doing with blockchains ‒ you’re not going to create a specialized platform for each one.”
Buterin added, “That’s what people were doing in 2013, and they failed.”
Buterin said he would still be happy if Ethereum was simply used for all of the long tail use cases of blockchains that don’t have another specialized system to turn to.
Kyle Torpey is a freelance journalist who has been following Bitcoin since 2011. His work has been featured on VICE Motherboard, Business Insider, NASDAQ, RT’s Keiser Report and many other media outlets. You can follow @kyletorpey on Twitter.