Aron van Ammers, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of BlockStars.io, shares his thoughts on the final day of Ethereum Devcon1.
Theme: industry and social implications
After four days of learning about the underlying technology of Ethereum, the tools and strategies to build decentralized applications, and a showcase of what people have built already, the apotheosis of Devcon1 was a day filled with philosophical and strategic perspective.
The social impact of Ethereum
The keynote of the day was given by blockchain and smart contracts pioneer Nick Szabo. In his presentation he put the development of blockchains in a historical perspective of the previous attempts of digital and private currencies. Some important applications for blockchains that Szabo mentioned were seals, connected property in a paradigm he invented called proplets, and smart contracts within social networking. Currently, he is working on the second generation of financial assets on the blockchain, where current solutions like colored coins can be considered the first. The takeway of Szabo's talk was to secure everything of value, in a decentralized manner, using Ethereum.
Joseph Lubin, founder of Devcon1 sponsor ConsenSys, explained the need for humanity to take more ownership of the world around us in order to solve societal and environmental problems. He argued that a mesh structure of businesses and organizations, facilitated by decentralized technologies, can help achieve that. ConsenSys is itself realized as a mesh structure, but still a work in progress. Lubin highlighted how the cost of setting up a business has exponentially decreased in the past decades. When we reach the point that starting a new business is at 50 USD, this will enable a new level of taking ownership, Lubin argued.
To have any social impact, Ethereum needs to be widely adopted. In a panel discussion Vinay Gupta, William Mougayar, Joseph Lubin and Gavin Wood discussed the pathway to Ethereum adoption. Factors like a greater amount of developers, inflow of investment in startups and enterprise adoption were mentioned as important to adoption. The fact that many large enterprises have embraced Ethereum for experimentation and proof of concept purposes is encouraging.
An open question in the adoption strategy is to what extent Ethereum needs to be a brand at all. When Ethereum is compared to something as generic as "the internet" or "HTML", the case can be made that to end users the Ethereum brand is not important at all. A strategy suggested for the first stages of adoption was through integration in familiar technologies like existing browsers, for example by marking DApps with an Ethereum logo similar to the lock icon for secure connections. Mougayar later elaborated how communicating the Ethereum narrative is important for adoption, and gave insights to entrepreneurs in the field.
DApps with a social context
Martin Köppelmann presented Circles, a project with a goal to realize a world wide universal basic income. While at first this might sound highly futuristic, given trends in automation and the ongoing replication of humans by robots in hardware or software form, basic income is a widely researched strategy to return the wealth generated by technology. Köppelmann discussed the challenges in decentralized basic income and the strategies used in Circles to handle the stability and reputation challenges.
Elias Haase presented an approach to decentralized insurance. The insurance market is one of high numbers that has not been disrupted in a long time. Decentralized applications on Ethereum might change that. Haase described how the different factors in insurance like underwriting, risk analysis and claim processing currently are necessarily contained in a single centralized organization. Decentralization technology like Ethereum allows for putting each of these tasks in their own decentralized businesses working as a marketplace for insurance.
Jessi Baker of Provenance explained how supply chain traceability can only be solved in a decentralized manner, as it concerns all of the parties in a supply chain. Provenance is creating a platform to do just that, and have created an alliance with 40 brands to initiate it.
In a highly visual and hands-on presentation, Cyrus Adkisson demonstrated Etheria, a virtual world existing entirely on the Ethereum blockchain. As attendees learned in an earlier panel on gaming, the convergence of the real and virtual worlds will have a profound impact on society. To see a working early version of a fully decentralized world was very inspiring.
There is considerable interest in blockchains from the enterprise world. This was illustrated by a talk about Rubix from Deloitte yesterday, and further stressed by Taylor Gerring in his talk on enterprise blockchains. According to Gerring, blockchains are a tool for trusted computation, which excel at coordination. Aspects very interesting to the enterprise world are consistent and predictable execution of code and the auditability of the append-only, cryptographically tamperproof database that a blockchain is.
The panel on banking with smart contracts further demonstrated the interest in and possibilities of blockchain technology from the world of banking. Ideologically distant from the many independent Ethereum supporters, the presence of the panel and the matters discussed are another example of the diverse interest in and applications of Ethereum.
Blockchains and the world around us
Industry giant IBM is well known to be experimenting with Ethereum technology connected to internet of things. Hennig Diedrich gave an overview of their recent work in the MTN project. The main reason to include blockchain technology in their vision was to support the coordination and control of devices in an untrusted environment. With already 9 billion connected devices and an exponential growth expected, it's viable nor desired to require each device to "phone home" to a centralized infrastructure to coordinate its behavior with nearby devices. Ethereum blockchain technology is applied there.
Another take on the use of blockchain tech in the internet of things (IoT) was presented by Maarten Ecors. He presented the possibilities of signed applications in Ubuntu Snappy which can be given access to the Ethereum blockchain. As he described it himself, the "coolest" example of an Ethereum DApp would be a connected fridge powered by Ubuntu, running Ethereum DApps to collaborate with other devices and evolve into "coolness as a service".
Ethereum and the way forward
Closing the day was an insightful talk by cypherpunk, ConsenSys strategic architect and celebrated speaker Vinay Gupta. Gupta gave his view on why the cypherpunk movement succeeded in creating many tools for more secure and private computing, but failed in achieving broad adoption and societal change. He argued that blockchains do have the capability to achieve a sustained improvement, because they are "an endless swiss-army chainsaw for building metastructures," structures to sustain the development of the apps and technologies themselves. Contrary to previous open source projects, they allow for creating solid financial and governance structures for the development of the technology itself. According to Gupta, blockchain technologies including Ethereum should be seen as a public works process and be funded in a similar manner. He pleaded to the audience to work towards this future.
At several occasions in Gupta's talk, he teased the attendees with the mention of a special guest who was to arrive. At the official end time of the program, the audience was surprised by the appearance of singer-songwriter and composer Imogen Heap. Heap has worked with Ujo Musiс to release her new song on their Ethereum DApp presented earlier at the conference. She described the traditional way of rewarding artists and the problems this has caused her as an artist, and her positive experiences with the decentralized solution. She presented a vision of what the entire music industry could be if based on decentralized technologies.
In my personal experience and as I perceived it from many people around me, Ethereum Devcon1 was an amazing experience that highlighted the progress and possibilities of blockchain technologies. I will leave you with the closing words of Vitalik Buterin which were followed by a standing ovation of the crowd.
"The Ethereum community has grown. It's attracted people from all parts of the world, and one of my favorite parts about this space is the sheer diversity, the quality, the different kinds of people that we've attracted. This isn't just about a currency and this isn't just about even one particular platform. This is a movement. It's a movement of software developers, of mathematicians, of political activists, entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, banking executives, and I think this week we've seen just about everyone represented. The community to me is probably my favorite part of this whole thing. So thank you all, and I hope to see you next year."
All Devcon1 talks were recorded and they can be viewed in their entirety in the video stream archives.