Vitalik Buterin is a Russian-Canadian writer and programmer. Vitalik was involved in the Bitcoin community since 2011, co-founding and writing articles for Bitcoin magazine. But he is primarily known as the boy-genius behind Ethereum, the world’s second-most valued and recognized cryptocurrency platform behind Bitcoin. At the time of writing, his visionary project boasts an enormous market cap of over $65 bln dollars, and it keeps growing. Meanwhile, Vitalik is only 23 years of age and has far-reaching plans for his creation.
- Photo by Rubens Ben
Vitalik was born on Jan. 31, 1994 in a town of Kolomna, Moscow Oblast, Russia. He lived in Russia until the age of 6, when his parents decided to emigrate to Canada in search of better employment opportunities.
When he was in third grade of a Canadian primary school, he was placed in a program for the gifted. And while getting a place in this program meant more learning opportunities, he was basically abruptly sundered from his friends. While in the program, Vitalik quickly realized that his particular set of skills and talents made him somewhat of an oddity to his peers and even teachers. He was naturally predisposed to math and programming, possessed an early and strong interest in economics and could add three-digit numbers in his head twice as fast as an average human being of his age.
Buterin was a stranger to social gatherings and extracurricular events. As he recalls, quite a lot of people talked about him like he was some kind of a math genius. At that time, Vitalik started wondering why can’t he be a normal person with a 75 percent average just like everyone else.
Some might say Vitalik had a hard time getting used to a new country and culture, with his uncanny mind and incredible talents setting him even further apart from his peers. Consequently, he dived deep into learning process as well as the Internet, where he forged most of his professional and personal relationships.
He then spent four years at the Aberald School, a private high school in Toronto. Vitalik describes his time there as some of the most interesting and productive years of his life. The school changed his perception of education, with both his attitude and results changing drastically almost immediately after he started studying there. It was in Aberald where he developed his trademark hunger for learning, essentially making learning his primary goal in life.
Vitalik has always had reasonably good grades, but for a while his priority was in earning extra levels playing World of Warcraft, instead of putting time and effort towards his homework. He was happily playing WoW since he was 13, until one day in 2010, Vitalik’s character had some properties changed due to a Blizzard update. He cried himself to sleep that night, subsequently realizing how horrible can decentralized services be and quitting World of Warcraft altogether.
Perhaps, it was his search for a new passion in life that led Vitalik to the world of cryptocurrencies. He first heard of Bitcoin from his father, who himself had a software startup back in 2013. He didn’t get into it straightaway. Moreover he initially thought that the cryptocurrency is inevitably going to fail, as it has no intrinsic value. However, later on he heard about it a few times more and started to develop interest. As he said himself, if you hear about something twice, it might be a good idea to invest some time and find out more.
Already at that time, Vitalik viewed everything to do with government regulation or corporate control as just something plain evil. Naturally, the decentralized and uncontrollable nature of Bitcoin attracted his interest. Even though his policy on good and evil has been substantially updated since then, Vitalik is still motivated by his conviction that the powerful have way too much power in their hands.
Buterin ended up spending his time on various Bitcoin-related forums, researching the network. In the beginning, it was purely the cryptocurrency element of the network that attracted his attention, but as he was getting more and more involved in the community, he started gaining an understanding of the virtually unlimited potential of the technology behind Bitcoin.
He wanted to formally join this new and experimental economy by getting his hands on some tokens, but he had neither the computing power to mine them nor the cash to purchase Bitcoins. So, he looked for work paid for in Bitcoins on various forums and eventually began writing articles for a blog, which earned him around five Bitcoins per article.
Through his forum work and articles, Vitalik strived to get more understanding and experience of Bitcoin, as well as get some exposure in the community. At the same time, he was looking into all the different economical, technological and political aspects of the cryptocurrency. His articles attracted the attention of Mihai Alisie, a Romania-based Bitcoin enthusiast, which lead to the two actively corresponding and eventually, in late 2011, co-founding Bitcoin Magazine. Buterin took the job of head writer for the magazine while doing another part-time job as a research assistant for the cryptographer Ian Goldberg. Moreover, Vitalik was taking five advanced courses at the University of Waterloo at the same time.
In May 2013, he took a trip to San Jose, California to attend a Bitcoin-related conference as a representative of Bitcoin Magazine. It was the first time Buterin witnessed that the community that was appearing around the cryptocurrency was alive and kicking, which convinced him that this is a project really worth getting into. Later that year, Vitalik dropped out from the University and spent some of the Bitcoins he amassed to travel around the world and meet the people who were trying to extend the capabilities of the Bitcoin network and make it into a bigger, more capable version of itself.
During his travels, he saw a lot of different Bitcoin-related projects, from the little shops in New Hampshire and restaurants in Berlin accepting Bitcoins, to Bitcoin ATMs and various little communities around the world. However, all of those were still mostly focused on how to improve and promote Bitcoin’s function as money.
In October 2013, he visited Israel, where he met people behind the projects called ‘CovertCoins’ and ‘MasterCoin.’ Those projects were exploring the use of Blockchain for various other applications, i.e., issuing tokens on top of Bitcoin, enabling users to use financial contracts and so on. Even though they were still using the underlying Bitcoin Blockchain, they were assigning new properties to Bitcoin transactions.
After looking at the protocols those projects were using, Vitalik realized that it’s possible to massively generalize what the protocols were doing by replacing all their functionality with a Turing-complete programming language. In computer science, a Turing-complete programming language is something that enables a computer to solve any particular problem, given the appropriate algorithm and necessary amounts of time and memory. Initially, he presented his idea to the already existing projects, but everyone told him that even though it’s an interesting idea, it wasn’t yet the right time to execute such grand things. So, he decided to do it himself.
In late 2013, Vitalik Buterin described his idea in a white paper, which he sent out to a few of his friends, who in turn sent it out further. As a result, about 30 people reached out to Vitalik to discuss the concept. He was waiting for critical reviews and people pointing out critical mistakes in the concept, but it never happened.
Even then, the concept of Ethereum was still very much about the currency. The idea changed and shaped over time, during meetings and discussions with the people fully on board with the idea. Once they had the programming language, they were just coming up with new ways to use it every week. By the end of January 2014, the team has realized that it is relatively easy to create a decentralized file storage, and concepts like name registry can be brought to life with just a couple of lines of code. As those use cases piled up, they slowly changed Vitalik’s idea and gradually shaped it into what Ethereum is today.
The project was publicly announced in January 2014, with the core team consisting of Vitalik Buterin, Mihai Alisie, Anthony Di Iorio, Charles Hoskinson, Joe Lubin and Gavin Wood. Buterin also presented Ethereum on stage at a Bitcoin conference in Miami, and just a few months later the team decided to hold a crowdsale of Ether, the native token of the network, to fund the development. Around the same time, Vitalik himself received the Thiel Fellowship grant in the amount of $100,000.
Through the crowdsale, during which Ether was sold for Bitcoins, the team raised more than 31,000 BTC from the cryptocurrency community, which amounted to about $18 mln at the time. However, during the crowdsale Bitcoin was trading at around $650, but soon after its price plummeted, and the team had to face an entirely avoidable loss of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, with the money raised the Ethereum team established the Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland, which was tasked with overseeing the development of Ethereum’s open source software.
Despite some turbulence, Ethereum’s crowdfunding campaign was the third most successful to date, and it earned the platform coverage in many major financial publications, including The Wall Street Journal.
Prior to the official launch of the network, the Foundation developed and tested several codenamed prototypes of the Ethereum platform. A version called ‘Olympic’ was the last one of those prototypes, as well as a public beta pre-release. Numerous early users hunted for bugs and errors of the system, as the Ethereum team decided to introduce a ‘bug bounty’ of 25,000 Ether for stress-testing the network.
On July 30, 2015, the first publicly-available version of Ethereum called ‘Frontier’ was released. It was still very much a test launch, as it came in a ‘bare bones’ format with just a command line, it still enabled developers to live test the environment by building decentralized apps. Once the platform was deemed stable enough by both the developers and auditors it migrated to a ‘Homestead’ version.
The migration happened on March 14, 2016, when the Ethereum network saw its first official production release. Its arrival began to demonstrate the next generation of the Blockchain technology, it gave more freedom to developers and it was significantly easier to use. There were also numerous technological improvements happening under the hood.
By this time, Ethereum has already made a strong introduction to itself on the cryptocurrency market. The number of Ethereum’s active nodes, for example, sat at around 5,100, which is especially impressive when compared to Bitcoin’s 6,000 at the same time. Moreover, a growing number of major cryptocurrency exchanges began trading in Ether, which itself saw a rapid increase in valuation. Despite being a first production release, massive companies like Microsoft and IBM have been already doing projects on Ethereum platform as well as approaching Vitalik and his team directly to collaborate.
The next big update called ‘Metropolis’ is set to come out in two parts. Its first part, ‘Byzantium,’ was meant to be released in September to October 2017, but has been postponed several times. The update is meant to make the network completely user-friendly, as well as faster, lighter and more secure than it’s previous versions. Eventually, the final stage of Ethereum called ‘Serenity’ will be introduced, but there isn’t even an approximate date set for its roll-out yet.
Read more: What is Ethereum
The hacker, The DAO and the hardfork
Apart from building decentralized applications and various other uses, the Ethereum platform enables users to set-up and run DAOs — Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. They’re basically entire long-running entities that hold on to digital assets and use them in various ways according to a fairly complex set of pre-defined rules. Those rules are set in smart contracts written by a person or a group of people. There is an initial funding period, during which users can purchase tokens that represent ownership, adding funds to the DAO. Once the crowdfunding period is over, the DAO begins to operate. Users can make proposals on how the DAO should spend its funds, and the members who have bought tokens can vote for or against that proposal. It is important to note, though, that purchased tokens don’t actually equate ownership rights. Instead, they give people voting rights on different matters. Bitcoin was basically the very first DAO ever created, as it’s governed by a consensus among its core team and its mining network. All the other DAOs have been created on the Ethereum platform.
‘The DAO’ is a name of a particular DAO, which was created by a team behind a German startup Slock.it, which offered ‘smart locks’ that let people share their things such as cars, apartments and so on in a decentralized version of Airbnb. Somehow, The DAO managed to become the largest crowdfunding project in history, having raised over $150 mln from more than 11,000 members. Needless to say, that was a lot more money than its creators could ever hope for and were prepared to handle.
Then, the DAO got hacked. It is important to notice that the bug that was exploited by the hacker wasn’t found in the Ethereum network, as it has been working perfectly the entire time. All networked systems are to some extent vulnerable to hacker attacks, and even the hacker himself said that he was simply taking advantage of a technical loophole in The DAO.
Nevertheless, on June 17, 2016, someone started siphoning money from The DAO into a ‘child DAO,’ which copied The DAO’s structure. By the end, the hacker managed to drain The DAO off $50 mln worth of Ether. The Ether price has immediately dropped from over $20 to under $13. And while the Ethereum team had nothing to do with The DAO and its hack, they were left to deal with the mess.
They managed to stop the draining of funds and move them into another smart contract, but this was only a temporary stopgap. Because of the way The DAO code was written, there was a possibility that the hacker could still lay claims on the funds. Some sort of an intervention was required from the Ethereum team. In the cryptocurrency world, such intervention is called a ‘fork.’ Initially, a ‘soft fork’ was proposed, which essentially was a decentralized network’s reset button. It would mean rolling the entire Ethereum network back, which would’ve essentially eliminated The DAO and moved all the money into a smart contract that could only reimburse investors.
However, this proposal raised an existential question and caused a split within the Ethereum community. One of its primary and most important attributes is its decentralized nature, which means that all the decision making power lies within the community. Stepping in to fix this problem would’ve meant completely undermining that principle. Moreover, a soft proposal would entail a majority of Ethereum miners to vote on the rollback, but a security flaw in the voting process completely eliminated this option.
That left a ‘hard fork’ as the only option. Essentially, an entirely new version of the Ethereum network was created with slightly different rules than the original. After that, miners, exchanges, ordinary users and other major apps that were built on it needed to decide if they wanted to be a part of a new version of Ethereum, or stay with the original. The hard fork proposal was voted on by Ether holders, and the super majority of people, a whopping 89 percent, voted in favor and the hard fork took place on July 20, 2016.
This was the birth of Ethereum Classic. Essentially, it should be treated as a new cryptocurrency, as it has its own Blockchain and is independent from Ethereum. Both Blockchains are identical in every way up until block 1920000 where the hard fork to refund The DAO investors was implemented. Ethereum Classic still offers the same exact features as Ethereum.
However, this situation is quite problematic. First of all, the ‘double Blockchain’ creates confusion amongst investors and casual users. Moreover, it can also lead to replay attacks on both Blockchains. This means that a transaction can be replayed on the other chain without the user consenting or even knowing about it, as the cryptographic signature for said transaction is already recorded on the other Blockchain.
Vitalik Buterin and mass media
Vitalik Buterin was a co-founder and a head writer for Bitcoin Magazine. It started off as an online-project, with Buterin and another co-founder Mihai Alisie even resorting to selling individual articles for Bitcoins on various forums, when the magazine’s financial situation was at its low point. However, in 2012 they began publishing a print edition, which was often referred to as the first serious publication dedicated entirely to cryptocurrencies. It was mailed to subscribers worldwide, sold and Barnes & Noble and other bookshops and published online. Vitalik spends about 10 to 20 hours per week working on the publication. Vitalik was involved in the publication until 2014. Bitcoin Magazine is currently owned and operated by BTC Media.
Vitalik also contributed to Ledger, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes original research articles on cryptocurrencies and Blockchain technology, published by the University Library System, University of Pittsburg.
Enterprise Ethereum Alliance
In March 2017, various Blockchain startups, Fortune 500 companies, academics and technology vendors announced the establishment of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), which at the time had 30 founding members. At the time of writing, there are over 150 members in the alliance, including giant worldwide companies such as MasterCard, Cisco Systems, Samsung SDS, Microsoft, Intel and many more.
The purpose of the alliance is to connect its members with Ethereum subject matter experts in order to learn from and build upon the Ethereum platform to define enterprise-grade software capable of most complex, highly demanding applications. Many different companies are operating in the fields of banking, management, consulting, technology, entertainment and many other industries are working with Ethereum experts exploring the possibilities of implementing Blockchain technologies into their operations.
Buterin in China
Despite the Chinese government’s hard and often conflicting stance on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the Blockchain technology and the Ethereum platform are being actively adopted by businesses both small and large all across the country. Vitalik’s persona is playing a huge part in that development as well, especially considering that he managed to learn Chinese in just a few months using an app on his phone.
In China, Ethereum is being researched and integrated on institutional levels. For example, the Peking University, a #1 ranked university in China is creating an Ethereum Laboratory, which will work on protocol improvements and application use cases to be used Chinese supply chains and energy markets. The Royal Chinese Mint, which is a subordinate unit of China Banknote Printing and Minting, is experimenting with Ethereum’s ERC20 token standard and smart contracts to digitalize the Chinese Yuan. There are also numerous companies and startups, some of which are founding members of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, focusing a lot of their resources and manpower on researching and implementing various aspects of the Ethereum platform.
In May 2016, 11 regional commodity exchanges, equity exchanges and financial asset exchanges created a ChinaLedger Alliance. The aims to establish an open source Blockchain protocol that developers can further build upon in the future, in a way that complies with China’s rather unique regulatory requirements. The Internet Commission of the Securities Association of China is acting in advisory capacity, with prominent members of the Blockchain community, including Vitalik Buterin, acting as advisors.
Moreover, Vitalik is also a General Partner at Fenbushi Venture Capital, the first and the biggest China-based capital firm that exclusively invests in Blockchain-enabled companies.
Buterin in Russia
The basic concept of cryptocurrencies - their decentralized and uncontrollable nature - is somewhat rebellious and anti-establishment, which always tends to strike a chord with the Russians. Moreover, Russia is home to a large number of computer-literate people, with Buterin himself being the prime example, despite him moving away at the age of just six years old. All of those factors make him an extremely prominent and well-regarded person in Russia.
In August 2017, more than 5,000 people gathered in Skolkovo for Vitalik’s speech. Among other things he mentioned that Russia is among top-three states when it comes to research and testing of Blockchain technologies, alongside England and Singapore. Moreover, Moscow boasts one of the biggest clusters of nodes on the entire Ethereum network.
Vitalik also mentioned that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is aware of Blockchain, saying that this means that the hype around the technology is at its peak. Buterin met with Putin during his visit, with some media outlets claiming this meeting was one of Vitalik’s conditions for the trip. During the meeting, Buterin described the opportunities for using the technologies he developed in Russia, and the President has apparently supported this idea. It has been previously reported that Putin is extremely interested in the idea of digital economy and that Russia is currently investigating Blockchain-related opportunities for digital tracking of goods, personal identification and digital owner’s rights protection.
In October 2017, Russia’s largest bank Sberbank announced that it joined Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Prior to that, the only Russian company in the alliance was QIWI - an electronic payment service provider. Already, Sberbank reported that it has been working in cooperation with regulators, the minister of economy, other Russian banks and Russia’s International Chamber of Commerce and completed testing on a ‘smart’ letter of credit and a letter of guarantee.
During his visit to Russia in August 2017, Buterin has also struck a deal Vladislav Martynov, CEO of Yota Services, a Russia-based mobile communications and connectivity devices company. The deal entails a creation of a new entity - Ethereum Russia - which will provide education, events and architecture review for a Russian state-owned development bank Vneshtorgbank. Moreover, the bank is going to finance the development of the new center for Blockchain research at the National University of Science and Technology (MISIS), the development of which will also be supported by Ethereum Russia. The new center will be aimed at providing solutions to government services, collaborating with both government and corporate bodies.
Fake news about his death
On June 25, 2017, a fake news report claiming that Vitalik Buterin died in a car crash, caused Ether to lose $4 bln in market value. The story originated from 4Chan, an anonymous image board and a trolls’ paradise. Although Ethereum retained all of the lost value, the hoax has highlighted the importance of Vitalik to the platform and the whole cryptocurrency and Blockchain community. Perhaps, the complete anonymity retained by the creators of Bitcoin was a very smart move after all.
These days Vitalik is living in Singapore and working on his creation as hard as ever. In the very beginning, only three people were working on Ethereum protocols, but he is hoping that the team will soon reach the level when it will require less and less of his presence.
He remains optimistic about the future of the platform, saying that the only Ethereum killer is Ethereum. Buterin and his team are preparing for roll-outs of new, more stable, safe and efficient versions of Ethereum, citing scalability, optimisation, cost-effectivity and security as their biggest challenges.
- Thiel Fellowship Award, 2014
- World Technology Award in the IT Software Category, 2014
- Fortune 40 under 40 list
- Forbes 30 under 30 list
Quotes of Buterin about Blockchain and the future
“I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to work in such an interesting and interdisciplinary area of industry, where I have the chance to interact with cryptographers, mathematicians and economists prominent in their fields, to help build software and tools that already affect tens of thousands of people around the world, and to work on advanced problems in computer science, economics and philosophy every week.”
“I think a large part of the consequence is necessarily going to be disempowering some of these centralized players to some extent.”
“Bitcoin is processing a bit less than three transactions per second. Ethereum is doing five a second. Uber gives 12 rides a second. It will take a couple of years for the Blockchain to replace Visa.”
"The one thing that’s made me feel optimistic over the last year is that there is a lot of interest, not just on the cryptocurrency side and buying ether and holding it, but actually using it to build applications.”
“We just broke over 500 hundred thousand transactions per day for the first time. Which in case you can't divide is something like seven transactions a second.”