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Ethereum DevCon1 – let’s play around on the Blockchain ground.

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Last week I went to Ethereum’s DevCon1 conference which was held in central London. I enjoyed the talks, atmosphere and public and quite frankly was surprised by the size of the audience. Having attended events and participated in discussions with both financial organisations and the developer community, I saw noticeable differences in perceptions, terminology and attitude towards Blockchain-related tech.

Non-crypto fintech firms and traditional financial sector players are still trying to make sense of Blockchain and Bitcoin: “What? Wait, what again? How? Really?”. The terminology grows around this subject culminating in sacral “shared ledgers”, “distributed / replicated shared ledgers”, “private / permissioned Blockchain”, “inspired by Blockchain” (Our Director of Innovation, Dave Birch, recently encountered a new amusing way to say this – “Blockchain type of technology”).

In the “world” delved into on Friday, the developers’ and crypto enthusiasts’ world, this foundational layer has long been understood (to the extent it was assumed needed) and built upon. They don’t need that “shared ledger” terminology because they know from the context what they are talking about using good old “Blockchain” word. And they actually do not seem to be discussing it much. Smart contracts – that’s where the thinking concentrated on the event. Ethereum is their platform of choice and there does not seem to be any viable alternative because of the promised “Turing-completeness” (how “complete” is Ethereum’s “Turing-completeness” I am still going to investigate).

Where a lot of people describe what they have been doing about this topic as “playing around with it” to understand the full potential of the technology, Ethereum is considered by many a good play ground. Stephan Karpischek from UBS’s Crypto 2.0 lab emphasized on the DevCon1:

Ethereum… is a powerful technology that we can use. We like the flexibility that it provides so we can basically implement arbitrary complex business logic, we can put a lot of different types of assets on the blockchain and model the whole lifecycle of financial instruments.

– Stephan Karpischek, at DevCon1, Nov 2015

As evidenced by the size of audience, there are many “kids” on this playground – Ethereum’s community is evolving and as many predict will be increasing further. Someone told me at the tea break that we are at the right place at right time. I know what they meant – if this thing flies, we are here to make sure we will contribute to and benefit from it. And most of the people at the conference (around 400 at a glance) seemed to be absolutely confident Ethereum will fly.

Briefly touching on the detail, my thinking refocused from ledger hierarchies, transparency and efficiency implications (all the stuff around reconciliation/non-repudiation/data integrity across organisation etc.) to challenges of provisioning best-suited consensus protocols, creation of interoperability environment (or tools) and at the tech around zero-knowledge proofs and decentralisation of sensitive identity data.

… because otherwise it’s almost inevitably wind up with biometric panopticons where somebody’s bank is hacked and they release half a million DNA records. There are unthinkable privacy implications as that kind of stuff goes onwards. … There is really no other way of doing this. We have to accept we are going to build these systems, but we have to do it with the expectations that they are robust.

– Vinay Gupta, at DevCon1, Nov 2015

I think Gavin Wood, co-founder of Ethereum, noted that “we need to implement in order to understand the full potential of this technology”, and I agree. Let’s brainstorm and play around and someone will probably eventually find the (or most likely – “a”) formula.

Oh, and of course! One of the most exciting things was to see Nick Szabo talking about the history of Blockchain. He started from Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch, Tim May’s idea of Galt’s Gulch in cyberspace using cryptography and Friedrich Hayek’s ideas around “protocols” underlying societies that require property, contracts, money etc. So here we are, if it was not for these brilliant people, we would probably not be talking about Blockchain today. And I know how I feel about these words:

We wanted to apply computer science, apply the new technology, take advantage of Moore’s law to minimise vulnerabilities to strangers and maximize security and in doing so solve the ambitious problems of hierarchy in nature such as to privatise money and non-violently enforce property and contracts. And so that’s where the ideas like smart contracts, the first blockchain designs and the first cryptocurrency designs came out of.

– Nick Szabo, at DevCon1, Nov 2015

I guess by “we” Nick meant computer scientists but I don’t know… may be a modest confession? 🙂

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