Perhaps no one is more involved in turning Ethereum into a new way of doing business than Joe Lubin, an Ethereum cofounder along with Vitalik Buterin and others, and the founder of ConsenSys, a company that largely consists of interconnected startups building every aspect of what they call the Global Computer. After skyrocketing to a leadership position in 2015 in the blockchain world, thanks to the founding of ConsenSys and his willingness to see potential in far-fetched ideas, Lubin and his amorphously-governed company suffered a setback at the end of 2018 when he had to lay off more than 10% of his staff thanks in part to longer than expected time to build the technology, and slower than expected adoption.
Now Lubin says ConsenSys has returned to a state of equilibrium and is slowly starting to hire again. In a rare in-depth interview with Forbes Crypto & Blockchain Advisor, Lubin waxed poetic about his willingness to work with the Chinese government to teach them the benefits of a public blockchain, shared his thoughts on Facebook’s Libra, chatted about blockchain consortium Hyperledger’s largest project to date, and meticulously laid out his master plan for the next phase of Ethereum, which he and others working on the open-source project have dubbed Ethereum 2.0. Lubin’s work could end up laying the foundation for a new world order or prove to be a pipe dream.
Excerpted from Forbes CryptoAsset & Blockchain Advisor.
Forbes: How much of your work is focused on enterprises?
Joe Lubin: ConsenSys or my personal work? Well, my personal work is ConsenSys, so ConsenSys itself is probably 65% focused on public mainnet. But almost everything we do is applicable in private permission context. We really see the distinction falling away increasingly over time. We’ve been saying that for a long time, so that’s been the vision.
I spend a lot of time on the enterprise side in different nations, speaking to different businesses about business blockchain networks that we are standing up in ways that we can build on the public mainnet, or ways that we can link a business blockchain network into another business blockchain network. Such as Komgo—a group of companies using blockchain to streamline trade commodity finance and other applications—and some other network down into the base trust layer for collusion resistance or increased trust levels. I pay lots of attention to Ethereum 2.0. So, we’ve got a lot of people at ConsenSys, and are very close with many of the other groups around the world that are driving that effort.
Forbes: What is Ethereum 2.0?
Lubin: It is the natural extension of the Ethereum 1.0 platform. It will be realized as a separate network, but there will be a smooth evolution from Ethereum 1.0, both in terms of developer experience and in terms of how activity will flow from Ethereum 1.0 directly onto Ethereum 2.0 in the form of moving tokens and having smart contracts across the two systems that speak to one another. Pretty soon after phase zero of Ethereum 2.0 is stood up, the proof-of-stake mechanism for Ethereum 2.0—what we call the beacon chain—will be able to finalize blocks on Ethereum 1.0. So, there will be this cross linkage and a bunch of interdependency early on.
Forbes: Can you give us specifications for Ethereum 2.0?
Lubin: Ethereum 2.0 will be composed of three major phases: phase zero (the beacon chain), phase one where you hang 1,024 different shards off the beacon chain [this will allow transactions to settle in groups instead of on the entire Ethereum blockchain], and phase two where you turn those shards into not just storage but execution environments, just like the smart contract machine systems on Ethereum 1.0.
Phase zero and phase one are not driven by user or developer experience. It’s a bunch of incredibly smart people solving very deep, distributed computing issues. Phase two is very much driven by developer experience. We have a team that’s building something called Quilt, which is focused first on what the users might want to see in a development environment.
There’ll be different kinds of execution environments so Ethereum 2.0 won’t be homogeneous in its execution environment—we’ll build some of the early execution environments essentially, and they will be very pleasant to use because we’re focusing on that early. It’ll enable us to build a much more scalable system in time and enable us to build different kinds of focused execution environments for different kinds of problems. Different architectures are more efficient for different problem domains.
Forbes: Who are the users?
Lubin: Software developers. But we also have many software developers that build products and services, and so their users are actual customers, whether they’re enterprise, or government, or bank, or central bank customers, or whether they’re game players or people working on journalism platforms or music platforms.
Forbes: How is enterprise demand changing things at the ones and zeros level?
Lubin: Enterprise demand is just starting to change things at the ones and the zeros level. Ultimately this is all being built in the context of building out the decentralized worldwide web—evolving web 2 to web 3. That involves public permissionless blockchains and it involves lots of other blockchains that link into those things.
It also involves decentralized storage, bandwidth and heavy compute, among other things. We started with the toughest thing—the public permissionless blockchain, where anybody could attach byzantine environments. We solved that problem in effectively a not very scalable way, but it’s turning out to be remarkably scalable because we can build interesting solutions at layer two. This basic trust foundation so revolutionized trust on the planet, from subjective trust to automated trust, and guaranteed execution of agreements or objective trust upon that layer, that we’re now building what looks like the financial plumbing for the emerging decentralized economy. So, all that stuff is going on while at the same time all these businesses figure, “hey, we have this new trust tool so that we can collaborate much better.”
Projects like PegaSys (formerly Pantheon)—it’s really the only project that spans that whole range where it’s implementing the enterprise specs. It’s an excellent client at the public mainnet level. And it has all the permissionless, or the permissioning systems, and the privacy confidentiality that businesses need. So, we now have this component that’s situated in three really interesting places. It’s situated in the public Ethereum space; it’s situated in the enterprise Ethereum space; and now it’s situated in the Hyperledger space. Now enterprises are driving the evolution of the product.
Forbes: Are you seeing enterprises getting comfortable with the idea of having to spend gas (pricing value required to conduct a transaction or execute a contract on the Ethereum blockchain platform) to take advantage of these decentralized systems?
Lubin: Whenever you build out a revolutionary new technology you don’t focus on ease of use, you focus on demonstrating the principles and showing why it’s revolutionary. The Ethereum public machine has a whole bunch of gears and pulleys and sharp edges exposed, and you have to get in and turn cranks manually, etc.
Paying gas as a user is not a good element if you care about onboarding a whole bunch of users. But if I’m a software developer and I’m releasing a game or any other application, I’d pay a huge amount for infrastructure. And so, somebody’s paying for that. There is the potential for certain use cases for users to pay miners or validators in the future for the infrastructure. Businesses already incur lots of those costs in the form of paying gas.
Forbes: What is the Ethereum gas station network?
Lubin: It’s a tool that’s getting a bunch of usage now, which basically flips things. It makes use of a technology called metatransactions, where you can just interact with a decentralized application (dapp). Anytime anything needs to be sent into the network and gas would have to be paid, the gas station network basically takes care of that. And that would usually be paid so there’d be a bunch of people who set up software to monitor those things and send them in and they would usually be paid by the developers. So, it gets smoothed, and it avoids the scourge of the internet, which is relying on advertising to power all these applications.
Forbes: Five years ago, did you think gas was going to be such a big obstacle to adoption?
Lubin: I think we knew that user experience was problematic. We were looking at long strings of hexadecimal digits, so we knew we had to build the machine before painting it and covering it over with nicely shaped enclosures.
Forbes: Has it been more difficult than you expected?
Lubin: I’m kind of a stunned by how much progress has been made in such a short time. If you look at all the previous massive societal revolutions—mobile phones, the internet itself, the web, cars, electricity—they all took a lot longer. We’re not really ten years into the decentralized web revolution or evolution, we’re more like five years into it. Because bitcoin was a very narrow implementation and smart contracts were really invented about five years ago. And so, it’s astonishing how many big companies, startups and just people care and think it’s going to be important.
Forbes: Can you unpack the business component of reimagining the web on a blockchain?
Lubin: It’s not just on a blockchain; it’s on decentralized protocols. Blockchain is just one of them, but you need other ones like storage and bandwidth. What is the decentralized worldwide web? It’s all the services we care about realized in collaborative networks that we can trust. Because they’re not owned by a single or subset of actors that are controlling the whole thing.
Forbes: How important is the burgeoning network of 5G support going to be?
Lubin: It’s really important. We’re looking into decentralized bandwidth. There’s WiFi Aware, which is a technology that can enable us to link our phones to one another without anybody being able to shut down over pretty sizable distances now. Blockchain networks and tokenization will enable us to build those networks and enable us to share resources and pay each other with different tokens.
Forbes: When you see what’s going on with the global race to 5G and China’s willingness to build a firewall to try to prevent its citizens from using competing cryptocurrencies, where does Ethereum fit into this sociopolitical turmoil?Lubin: It depends how good deep packet inspection gets; it depends how focused places like China are on controlling its digital borders because it can do it if it wants to. It may get more interesting as we have these satellite constellations—OneWeb, SpaceX and a couple others—and as we can do mesh networking, across borders, potentially. Ultimately, I feel like the ideas are so powerful. Essentially the internet woke up so much of the world by just enabling free access to information. I think it’s been complicated, but very largely positive for the planet.
And if you see the potential of a new trust infrastructure and a new collaboration infrastructure and tokenization because you can have digital scarcity—and again, that’s dependent on trust—companies within nations like China are going to start to build on that, and it’s a powerful concept. Lots of people will say, “What if?” and “Why not?” and “Why isn’t this?”
So, I think in terms of getting the ideas out, the ideas are pretty powerful. Ultimately, unless everybody owns decent amounts of the infrastructure on which they live their lives, things will be unstable. So, if we can build a society maybe in the Western world where it’s an ownership society, a stakeholdership society—and proof of stake is interesting, because we will be holding all these tokens that power the networks we live our lives on. You’re going to have to erect some pretty opaque, tall walls to keep that promise out. And unstable societies where a broad swath of the population isn’t benefitting probably won’t last.
Forbes: Years ago, there was this mentality that there was almost no such thing as bad adoption. Like, anybody using anything blockchain or anything crypto was good. Companies that were committing horrendous crimes on the weekends were dropping press releases on the weekdays about how awesome blockchain is for transparency. Are you worried that China could subvert the benefits of blockchain?
Lubin: I would love to help China get expert in Ethereum technology. One reason is if the Belt and Road Initiative [a program trying to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks] uses one of the weaker technologies and it sort of mandates that those networks be built in that technology, maybe it won’t be as interoperable. But the main idea is that Ethereum is the strongest of the blockchain technologies and it’s a very positive virus to implant in people’s minds.
Forbes: China has made it very clear that it wants to increase transparency and wants to prevent anti-money laundering. It’s saying all the things we’ve been saying for years about what blockchain could do. But when it’s a notoriously oppressive regime talking about it, we start wondering, “How is it going to define money laundering, and what are they going to do with that transparency?”
Lubin: China is a business that writes its own rules and has an enormous customer base—1.4 billion people. That’s a tough economic force to compete with. I do think there’s an instability. I think leaders are constantly terrified of revolution, so they have to keep the people relatively happy at some baseline level.
Forbes: Do you assume that China’s cryptocurrency is going to be interoperable with other cryptocurrencies?
Lubin: I assume it is going to be exactly what Chinese leadership thinks is most beneficial to Chinese leadership. Hopefully that’s also open and we can interoperate with it, but I don’t know. The country could do the calculation and decide there needs to be a firewall around it, or it could do the calculation and decide, “hey, this is an incredible vector for destroying the American reserve currency status,” which is probably my guess.
Forbes: Do you see a world where people might be spending crypto yuan on bread in Nebraska?
Lubin: Have you seen Alipay in American airports?
Forbes: Yes, I have. But isn’t it still U.S. dollars? I think that’s an important difference, isn’t it?
Lubin: It is. But what’s it going to be next year and five years from now? China has the vector and it will do what it can as quickly as it can.
Forbes: Is there a technological development that is not blockchain that is capturing your attention right now?
Lubin: Lots of decentralized stuff is really interesting. Many years ago, I had deep expertise in neural nets or deep learning. It should have been called shallow learning back then. So, I’m paying much more attention to that again. I’ve been in the financial world. I was pretty well-read on finance and economics 10, 15 years ago, and haven’t been paying too much attention there until recently.
In the last year or so it’s become clear that what I’ve been saying for a long time, that our global financial and economic systems are essentially bankrupt, and the central bankers have been kicking the can down the road for a long time, and now that yield curves are flattening we may not have enough dry powder in the central banks to kick the can down the road and this recession could be really problematic. So, I’ve been talking about potential cascading collapses if certain contagions happen.
Forbes: What happened that got your attention to your old career in finance again?
Lubin: We’ve been building and hoping that central bankers could keep kicking the can down the road so that we could build alternative infrastructure—sounder foundations that enable more-sustainable growth on these systems. We’re not there yet; we need more time because the technology isn’t mature enough. Hopefully we get out of this one and it isn’t a horrendous recession; no matter how deep it is, it’ll be called a recession, I think.
What I’ve been paying attention to is the intersection of our ecosystem with the transition from the current economic regime on the planet, and the current monetary regime on the planet, because our monetary systems are end-of-life’ing right now. Facebook’s Libra is an interesting project—not based on who’s going to run it—if it does end up launching. But the idea that we could have cryptocurrency essentially with underlying baskets of currencies or nation-state bonds or commodities—that’s really, really interesting.
Forbes: Going back to the concept of, “there’s no such thing as bad adoption,” do you think this is progress or are you scared about Libra?
Lubin: I don’t mind Libra at all. I don’t think Libra will be implemented because its biggest asset is its biggest liability. Lots of people should be able to sit up there on business blockchain networks with their own currencies. JPMorgan’s doing it, Signature Bank, etc. That’s all good. But linking its 1.3 billion global Facebook citizens through Collibra into all this, is pretty scary.
And essentially giving Mark Zuckerberg control over monetary politics of lots of small nations is concerning. So, I do think that we should have lots of these systems; there should be choice and I think that lots of smaller countries would really benefit from the currency stability and being able to buy stuff frictionlessly across borders.
I think those are great systems and as long as we have a bunch of them, providing choice, providing different underlying baskets, I think that’s going to be our new dominating monetary regime. And I think governments are going to like that because they’re going to be able to sell their debt into those systems.
Forbes: You talked about the central banks kicking the can, is this an improvement, or is it just kicking the can down further?
Lubin: I think it’s an improvement. I think it’s borne of a really broken system that’s end-of-life’ing. But I think conceptually—if implemented well—it’s great. It’s optionality, it’s money. It is kind of dumb that a capitalist society controls the price of money. These systems will behave like businesses and they will succeed or fail based on how they serve their customers.
Forbes: In the time since Libra was announced, we’ve confirmed three interesting central bank concepts: the Libra concept, the People’s Bank of China concept and the idea that Mark Carney floated about a basket of currencies that the central banks willingly participate in. Do you have a favorite?
Lubin: My favorite is optionality. I’d like to see lots of different experiments.
Forbes: Is China’s cryptocurrency a threat to the U.S. dollar?
Lubin: I don’t think so. Lots of things are threats to the U.S. dollar. China and Russia are making lots of effort to do business without using U.S. dollars, and other countries following suit. There are lots of reasons why American influence is shrinking and will probably continue to shrink. That may not be a bad thing but in some ways, it’ll be a bad thing. China’s particular cryptocurrency I don’t think is a major factor.
Forbes: My colleague Jeff Kauflin wrote an article a while ago about ConsenSys and its job situation. How is the slightly more-slender version of ConsenSys, progressing? Are you hiring again yet?
Lubin: We’ve probably hired 100-150 people since December.
Forbes: Since the culling is there a net growth?
Lubin: Pretty steady state. We’re at 1,000.
Forbes: Where is the growth coming from with respect to zero knowledge proof?
Lubin: Our own Pegasus Group is doing some breakthrough work there. You’re aware of Ernst & Young’s activities on that front so it’s doing some cool stuff. And we have a portfolio company that we work really closely with called Aztec, which is building out a whole bunch of zero knowledge components that you’ll be able to stack together and compose in two different kinds of solutions, so like Lego blocks.
Forbes: What do you think about the work currently underway at Hyperledger where a number of giant companies are trying to work together to build the Trusted Compute Framework, which would move computational trust off-chain?
Lubin: That’s an even bigger stew of different technologies. Trusted computing involves hardware and software, and trusted execution environments and secure enclaves. Even within narrow categories like zero knowledge proofs, there are many different approaches, usually varying depending on the setup of the system—whether it’s trusted, or whether there’s one big setup where you have to do it a bunch of times. And how much computation is required to essentially do the encryption, and how much to verify it? It’s a very young technology, and lots of different groups are employing it.
Forbes: How is this going to be done successfully? There’s a lot of different people trying to build the Trusted Compute Framework at the same time. It’s open-source; it’s part of the foundation. It feels like a Frankenstein monster, but it might be beautiful.
Lubin: It’s a Frankenstein monster, just like the internet and the web are Frankenstein monsters. It’ll be built through merit, through lots of different really talented people exploring the solutions base, openly collaborating—not 100% openly—but collaborating a lot. And the best there won’t be one best technology because there will be different technologies that are suited to different use cases. It’s moving fast and if you read or are aware of the cathedral in the bazaar, it’s not being built in a top down, control-like fashion. That wouldn’t be as effective as a whole lot of brilliant ants scurrying around and getting collective work done.
Forbes: Thank you.