Vlad Zamfir on Proof-of-Stake and Ethereum’s Challenges


Vlad Zamfir, a researcher and developer at the Ethereum Foundation, recently visited Odessa, Ukraine to take part in Blockchain Incredible Party (BIP 001), a major conference hosted by Distributed Lab.

He also took the stage at the Ethereum Meetup the next day speaking about various aspects of the computing platform. Despite his busy schedule, Vlad made time for ForkLog, telling us more about the current state of affairs at Ethereum and outlining some future plans.

ForkLog: Hello Vlad, I assume the community is quite eager to hear about what’s going on at the moment with Ethereum in terms of innovations and other groundbreaking things.

Vlad Zamfir: Sure, there are always some researches going on, and there might be innovations on the development side and other parts of our research work. I’m talking about things like consensus protocols, Proof-of-Stake and sharding. We also have a number of significant contributions to consensus protocols and in general field, Proof-of-Stake specifically.

FL: Right, can we hear more about Proof-of-Stake?

V.Z.: Generally, Proof-of-Stake is not very different from almost any other single project in the space. We focus on things like cryptoeconomics, which is the use of incentive mechanisms to secure distributed systems. So we spend of lot of time thinking about the economic security of our system. We assume that all of the nodes are run by the rational actors who respond to the incentives and are willing not to deviate from our expectations; still we want to make it really difficult for someone to effectively incentivize other participants in to order to undermine our protocol guarantees.

For example, something like a Long-Range-Attack is a huge issue for us. The same can be said about Nothing-at-Stake attack, because if you don’t lose anything for signing up to forks you have a certain incentive to vote for another protocol. So we use security deposits as a core mechanism, and we don’t trust signatures from people who don’t have such security deposits.

So, I’d say there’s a lot of work on economic incentivization, we have to try to figure out who has voted for protocol and who has not. If they voted we have to penalize them and take away the whole deposit. If someone was involved in voting and we cannot tell who it was, then we have to speak out who might be guilty and penalize those people. So, we have a very penalty-heavy approach, and it’s basically because the security deposit mechanism gives us a really high level of economic robustness.

In terms of Proof-of-Stake stuff another key thing that I focus on a lot is making sure there is no rational cartel information. We have to try to show that each of our protocol guarantees has some sort of economic security, so that it will cost a lot of money or as much money as possible to try to undermine it. But all these points can apply to any distributed system.

FL: Recently, there have been a number of contradictory statements regarding the timeframe of Ethereum’s switch to Proof-of-Stake. Could you shed some light on this matter for our readers?

V.Z.: There won’t be a single deployment; we are going to roll it out in stages. And I think it’s not unrealistic to expect to see the first stage within a year’s time. That’s almost for sure.

FL: And so far Ethereum is staying at Proof-of-Work?

V.Z.: Yeah, we’ll move to Proof-of-Stake when it’s ready. This means that we are having both implementation and significant level of education.

FL:  Will leaving Proof-of-Work make Ethereum stronger?

V.Z.: Oh yeah, in many many ways actually. One obvious thing is, maybe, transaction finality; another one is that we can hold cartels to account, something which is currently impossible in Proof-of-Work. Things like these allow us to make the system really robust against inner contacts between concentrations of wealth, since we’ll be able to catch cartels by the balls. We will see them and make sure they don’t act outside the protocol.

Other cool things with Proof-of-Stake include more predictable block time and lower cost of consensus. So basically, at the end of the day, there is a very large number of benefits, and that’s why we are interested in moving Ethereum to Proof-of-Stake.

FL:  Many people also complain about way too high transaction fees, specifically when participating in token sales.

V.Z.: I cannot promise that transaction fees will go down, but issuance-plus-fees will definitely go down.

FL:  How do you plan to make Ethereum more resilient to situations like the one we witnessed with the recent Status crowdsale which put a huge strain on the network’s ability to process transactions?

V.Z.: Yeah, we definitely have been looking at things like this, but that’s the question of scalability. And that’s more in the sharding angle of things, which is on top of our priority list. For example, we need to shard ASF, we can’t really wait with this.

I can’t really regard use of Ethereum as a threat to Ethereum, I regard it more like a serious inconvenience to users because they have to wait for transactions to be confirmed or to pay more. But all these numerous ICO’s it’s not something that undermines security of the protocol.

FL:  Soon it will be exactly one year since that controversial Ethereum hardfork after The DAO collapse. Looking back at things, was it a right decision?

V.Z.: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been ascertained of that at the time, and today I’m actually ascertained more than ever that the DAO hardfork was a right decision. It was a very significant step in many ways. One of them, which we discovered after a year, is that it has made the idea of coin split something that is not unknown anymore. Despite all the disagreements and split within the fractions of community, now it is known that it is possible.

Also, today we can see more diversity of clients, one part of them never wanted the DAO hardfork and the chain split, while the other wanted just the opposite.

But what is more important and something and that I am very excited about is that the DAO hardfork has shown that community is able and willing to take responsibility for what happens on blockchain. And this is super important.

FL:  How do you see Ethereum’s future on a mid-term horizon? What people can expect, say, by 2020?

V.Z.: The main thing that I see and focus on is the tech upgrades like Proof-of-Stake and sharding. Basically, what I want to see is a scalable application environment usable by very large number of people.

Vlad Zamfir was interviewed by Andrew Asmakov

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