I Spent 80 Minutes Inside Vitalik Buterin’s Brain. Here’s What I Learned

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A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Subscribe for a weekly guide to the future of the Internet. You can find past issues of the newsletter here.

On Friday, TIME released my cover story with Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum. If you’re unfamiliar to him or new to crypto, you should definitely start there; it explains who he is and why he’s such an influential leader in the crypto space.

Vitalik Buterin Ethereum Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

I interviewed Buterin last month, the day after the crypto conference ETHDenver ended. I flew to Denver not even knowing if I would be able to speak to him. While he was scheduled to give several talks, he’s an introvert and notoriously hard to track down. He walks around without a press team or security, and even donned a mascot costume during the conference to evade detection.

But a day after the conference ended, I was able to secure an 80-minute interview with him in his hotel room, where he answered my questions with patience and enthusiasm. Buterin gave far too many interesting answers during our interview to fit in the actual article, so I’d love to share some insider details and musings (including the highly technical ones) here.

Buterin’s responses have been edited for clarity and length.

You met with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at ETHDenver. What did you guys talk about?

Gov. Polis is my favorite governor in the U.S. He has consistently supported a very progressive approach in a lot of areas. He is trying to find some way for cooperatives to be able to adopt DAO ideas and use DAOs as labor organizing. I’m definitely hopeful and looking forward to seeing if something interesting can come out of that.

Can you tell me about the breakthrough developers at ETHDenver made in blob data transactions this weekend?

So this is part of our rollout of sharding, the scaling solution that’s coming after the merge and after Proof of Stake, but in my opinion, is just as important. Fees are a huge problem for Ethereum’s usability, especially for things other than some of the financial applications that have dominated recently.

There’s a vision of full sharding where you don’t need a single computer to download more than a small portion of all of the data. Doing things that way could make the blockchain scalable the same way that BitTorrent is scalable, in that there’s no single computer that downloads every movie.

That full vision is still years away, because there’s a lot of hard peer-to-peer network stuff that needs to be solved. We need to make something that’s really secure against attacks and is extremely stable. And these are things no one has really done before. But at the same time, we can’t wait years. So we’re trying to come to things that give us half the benefits of sharding but without having to do most of the hard parts.

Rollups have already done a lot. They’ve advanced a huge amount since the same time last year. The security of rollups is improving, their readiness to accept lots of users is improving. But at the same time, rollups are still not cheap enough.

How much truth is there to the Ethereum origin story that you started it because your warlock in World of Warcraft lost some of its powers?

That definitely did push me out of World of Warcraft. This character I had worked so hard for was not able to do what I was so excited about him being able to do anymore. It definitely pushed me back to focusing on my own programming and making my own games.

I don’t think I was actually thinking of that in particular when I started down the Ethereum and decentralization tracks. But I’m only starting to kind of be conscious of the influence that World of Warcraft might have had on me many years down the line. Even things like my love of going on long walks: maybe that started from the long virtual walks I was taking through Elwynn Forest back in the day. There’s definitely parallels between game design and blockchain design, and there was even Alliance versus Horde geopolitics.

How much of a culture shock was the first few years of Ethereum for you?

Definitely quite a bit. I definitely projected a lot of my values on other people in the crypto space because they said things similar to the things that I believed. But I didn’t realize the extent to which people can say things that totally vibe with you in one area, but end up being completely different from what you’re thinking in different areas.

I deeply believed in decentralization as kind of this holistic vision, even wanting the Ethereum Foundation to be as decentralized as possible. [Ethereum co-founder] Charles Hoskinson, on the other hand, believes in crypto decentralization, but thinks that companies should be very conventional. And a lot of other people think that way as well. They ended up moving on and founding their own projects, and you can see how those projects are different from Ethereum in ways that reflect their own values.

At least two other co-founders of Ethereum—Charles Hoskinson and Joe Lubin—were at ETHDenver. Did you talk to either one of them?

I did not meet Joe, I met Charles. That was short but friendly. [Buterin asked Hoskinson to leave Ethereum in 2014, and the pair have a history of taking swipes at each other on social media.]

In 2014, you wrote that “experiments are what cryptocurrency is all about.” As crypto has grown in importance and scale, can this still be true?

In some ways, it’s even getting even more and more that way. In 2014 or 2015, you had to build everything from scratch. You still could build radical things: MakerDAO and Augur were built in that era.

But today, there’s a lot of infrastructure pieces to build on: auctions, markets, uniswaps, things like Proof of Humanity if you want to have human-based governance. You also have a much larger number of existing users. In 2015, the intersection of people who cared about Ethereum and cities was probably like two people.

The main thing that prevents Ethereum from being used for cool stuff today is just the fees. It feels like a boring answer; there’s this big social problem in Ethereum and the biggest reason for it is one technical thing that hasn’t been done fast enough. But the difference between an Ethereum where you pay 8 cent fees versus $18 fees is a really big deal. It really gets to the point where the financial derivatives and the gamble-y stuff start pricing out some of the cool stuff.

To be clear, I do still think a lot of good things can come out of it. NFTs that fund charity are an amazing thing, or NFTs that fund artists that would otherwise not be able to get funded, like Yatreda in Ethiopia, and a bunch in Latin America. If public goods are being funded or people are being empowered who tend to not really get empowered by more centralized ways of doing things, then great. But at the same time, there are definitely also monkeys being sold for $3 million that are great Twitter entertainment but otherwise not doing much.

If you want to look at what could happen if we have sharding and fees go back down, you can see a lot of that in pre-2017 Ethereum. There was some Decentralized Uber project in Switzerland. It ended up not getting very far, but it was able to get started because there was this assumption that transaction fees could be 5 to 8 cents.

A blockchain-based decentralized Uber Eats is actually not that hard. It’s like a software package that you give to restaurants. The online menu is a Dapp [decentralized app]. And when you click order, it just creates a transaction that just directly sends them [stablecoins] or whatever. And then the transaction has a field of data that contains an encoding of what your order is. It’s actually not that hard to do! I want more people to do this sort of stuff. But the fee problem does have to be solved.

Do you ever think about yourself in the context of other pivotal tech leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk?

I feel like it’s hard to categorize people like that these days. The way I sometimes split up the role of the founder into three components: the tech founder, the organizational founder and the memelord. Different people have different parts. Elon Musk is strong on the memelord. Mark might be some of all three. For me, I’d probably say some technical, some memelord, and weak on the organizational, which was my curse for the first few years at Ethereum. I guess, in practice, I’ve been some kind of combination of developer, researcher, and blogger? I don’t know.

At the conference, your collaborator Nathan Schneider gave a speech in which he talked about the “dystopian dangers” of crypto. Do you agree with him?

I think it’s very real with or without crypto. The way I would describe the dystopian potential of centralized crypto is it allows governments and corporations to be authoritarian and lazy. In the past, laziness has been a check on authoritarianism. There’s a Chinese phrase: ‘Tian gao, Huangdi yuan,’ meaning, ‘The sky is high and the emperor is far away.’ That is the sort of thing that is true for most of history, but is becoming less and less true today.

The potential for centralized digital technology to reduce the costs of shutting down groups of people you find annoying is definitely very real. I do think crypto has a very important place in its ability to be a system without intermediaries. And being without intermediaries makes it harder to kind of like quietly shut people down without checks and balances.

But at the same time, crypto itself has a lot of dystopian potential if implemented wrong. One of the big risks is the total lack of privacy, if we get into an equilibrium where using crypto in privacy-preserving ways automatically flags you as suspicious. We would end up having much more visibility into people’s actions than before, and it’s not just governments: you could have internet mobs or journalists with that visibility.

There’s obviously some other risks. ‘What if DAOs start political revolutions?’ is an idea that some people bring up. Once things like that happen, it can definitely get very dicey. And also much more boring, pedestrian stuff: scams and hacks and ransomware. We’re definitely concerned about those kinds of things. I do know having lots of people in the crypto space do reduce the chance of those things happening. My general view is there’s a lot we can do to reduce the bad and to amplify the good. Sometimes amplifying the good can even crowd out the bad.

In general, my view is that new technologies always introduce the possibility for people to do both good and terrible things. Sometimes you just have to create new technologies to compensate for other technologies existing. If decentralization and crypto did not exist, the only kind of technology that would get better in the 21st century is centralized surveillance technology. That would really create a world that’s really, really unbalanced in a specific direction.

You recently said that you believe there’s a decent chance someone born today will live to be 3,000. Why do you believe that, and why is that an admirable goal?

The status quo is that we recognize this category we call diseases, where one particular and identifiable thing starts going horribly wrong. Then we treat diseases and keep people propped up on life support. Often, it’s extremely expensive, and the lives people have in their last two months are really horrible.

What the aging space is trying to do is to treat the causes of damage at a much earlier step. It’s basically saying, ‘What is going wrong in a 40-year-old that makes them 30 years away from being a 70-year-old, and can we treat that stuff now?’ Can we bring them back to being 50 years away from being a 70-year-old?

They’ve identified some categories of damage: Junk accumulating in and between cells; cells spewing garbage into the body. And they’re trying to identify ways to treat it. So far, it’s still at a very early stage. But they have identified what the big categories of damage are, and they haven’t really discovered new ones for a while. There are drugs starting to treat some of them. Then there are various substances, like Metformin. There are debates about whether it actually increases your lifespan by a few years. I actually have some Metformin in my bag right now and I do take it.

My impression is that the space is very far away from stopping aging damage. But at the same time, a lot can happen in 70 years. If you look at sci-fi in the 1970s, they often overpredict the ability to go to the stars, but their computers were still the size of a room. And now, we’re not going to Mars, although we might soon, but our computers are the size of our pocket.

Because people ended up really caring about computers, they put a lot of resources into making it happen. And I feel like biotech might be on the start of that 70-year leap of progress. I think COVID-19 has done a lot of good in legitimizing biotech and reminding people how it’s important. So I’m looking forward to hopefully celebrating my 200th birthday with my parents.

At the end of your Q&A onstage, a woman asked you about gender parity in crypto, and you gave a very vague answer. Taken with all of your other answers, it made it seem like gender diversity isn’t a priority for you compared to other issues.

That’s true. It’s definitely something that’s relatively outside my own expertise. I feel like I do a lot for international diversity, for example. Gender diversity is the one thing where, so far, it hasn’t been among the things I’ve put a lot of intellectual effort into. I don’t think everyone has a duty to have a deep perspective on every important thing.

At the same time, the ecosystem does need to improve there and should have space for people who care about women and who care about underbanked Black people. All of that is important. I do think the people that are best suited figuring out what actually makes sense to make the ecosystem better for those groups are people in those groups themselves. The Ethereum foundation has a female executive director [Aya Miyaguchi], who cares a lot about empowering women as well as global financial inclusion. I think putting one woman at the top can probably do more good than trying to cajole five men into following some fixed set of principles.

If we have to do more, I would say supporting more of these projects that help women create projects and communities within Ethereum is probably the best thing in the long term that can be done for the culture. But that’s probably my view right now. That was just one of the areas I’ve prioritized less, just like I prioritized Latin America much less until last year. So it could change.

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