Ethereum DevCon 1:
“Welcome to SkyNet,” it says on the projector screen.
Some people laugh.
I wonder. What the hell is going on here?
We are in the opulent Grant Hall in London for Ethereum DevCon 1 and watching the future laid out to us by groups of engineers and mathematicians and scientists. I’ve been to many of these types of conferences before. Each one espouses a great vision of the future, and this one espouses one of the most daring – a complete revolution in technological services. I look around and wonder. Are we witnessing the evolution of the internet and the next great leap in human achievement? Or are we simply sitting inside a great echo chamber, patting one another on the back? I notice, in attendance, that I am surrounded by men, which supports the latter question. The community has yet to break into the mainstream. Few women abound, but representatives from the banks are there – that always means something … Even venture capitalists are here, hungry for the next prime deal. Maybe at another conference they would be more popular, but here, they are like circling vultures and no one wants to talk to them.
In fact, no one is pitching. Not tonight or tomorrow night or at all this week. Everyone is here to celebrate Ethereum’s latest success. The London/Berlin (and even Swiss) organization with over 100 engineers, led for the past 2 years by a now-20-yr-old wunderkind by the name of Vitalik Buterin, has been hard at work at building the infrastructure that (in their own words) will support unlimited technologies in the near future – the frontier of digital technology. Currency as we know it will be abolished. Work will take on new meaning. Even banks, our most indomitable institution, may crumble when all of our institutions are decentralized into ether. Assuming, at least, that this frontier doesn’t become a ghost town. What makes all of this possible? It’s not political or social theory. It’s a development in cryptography and network computing technology.
Ethereum is a blockchain company, and blockchain is a new technology whereby a network of computers uses cryptographic number crunching to establish an immutable consensus between all of the machines. Not sure how this is revolutionary? Well, for the past however many millennia of human-social interaction, services have been construed via central powers. The government, the bank, the stock market, and even internet services (Google, Yelp). Ethereum is part of a movement in tech to create a decentralized infrastructure that will allow people to organize in completely new ways and rely on an uncontrolled network of computers to be the arbiter between them, rather than a central service or agency. Its called a trustless system. Critics are unclear if this is doublespeak or not.
This celebration is financed by Ethereum’s new partnership with Consensys (pun intended) and Microsoft. In fact, Ethereum has just been purchased by Consensys, an umbrella group out of New York and Toronto that is placing a huge bet on the Ethereum blockchain and has been purchasing massive amounts of Ethereum talent and human capital. The group, led by a man named Joseph Lubin, has rounded up many of the original Ethereum developers, Ethereum offshoots, and related platforms in a series of massive deals. Now they have Ethereum itself. The organization is flush with cash, talent, intellectual property and is dead set on creating the new internet standard. The banks and IT companies have taken notice – Deutsche Bank, UBS and IBM are all represented here. Microsoft has even graciously sponsored the conference as part of their new partnership. Are they completely buying in? Do they really see these upstarts as a threat to their institutions? The radicals (re: conference attendees) think so; but maybe these institutions are just hedging their bets and keeping an eye on the kids.
However, as I listen to the goings on around me, I overhear excited chatter regarding how IBM is investing millions of dollars and dedicating a hundred engineers to testing the Ethereum system. I’ve personally read countless articles about banks around the world investing in Blockchain companies or experimenting with decentralized tools. Microsoft is launching Ethereum Blockchain as a Service (EBaaS). Clearly institutions are seeing something in all of this. Even the Nasdaq is putting private market shares and trading into Bitcoins blockchain – already the old Goliath in the blockchain industry that surely Joseph Lubin sees as enemy no.1. Does Ethereum stand a chance? Are the institutions actually taking this seriously? Do any of these ideas on display here even make sense? This conference seems to think so. But that SkyNet image on the screen is in rather bad taste. Is that the future they are building for me? Or is this whole event the result of our previous generations artistic fascination with dystopian techno-futures? Where is my Turing test?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m here looking for the next thing, too, and researching Ethereum blockchain to see if this is it. But also deeply concerned with the Skynet jokes – what you can imagine, you can build. I came for a reason, though. Maybe to discover the answer to that question of science fiction tastefulness in some sideways fashion. But more so, to ask: what do these people see in the future?
Ethereum DevCon 1 turns out to be an oasis of futures – a safe place for extreme ideas. But these are talented and serious people who have some serious and talented financing and power behind them. Their ideas sound like sci-fantasy. But as fantastical as some of what I see and hear sounds, I’m firmly aware that some of these people could actually succeed and that all technologies begin within this mystical realm. Within this conference, the mystical realm is presented as a great balustrade for the engineering elite. It’s a party. A pat on the back. Futures are impossible to predict, and even harder to build. It takes a certain madness to do this: witness the support group.
I managed to track down the leaders of some of the most interesting projects in attendance. Matan Field is working on decentralized reputation protocol called Backfeed. Matan and his team of (mainly) graduate students and scientists believe this technology will help our societies organize and explore information in entirely new ways and challenge and defeat traditional centralized institutions. Christian Lundquist is an engineer at the center of all of this. He’s working on the main Consensys components within the Ethereum system that makes all of these fantastical futures possible, at least, I think that’s right.
You can check out the full interviews in the following posts.