A month after the hack—and mere days after presiding over a controversial vote to initiate a “hard fork” process that would recover the DAO’s stolen funds and make whole its backers—Vitalik Buterin is listening impassively to a guy wearing a beanie cap shaped like a Pokémon dragon. “This is a really tricky game,” says the man in the hat, an assistant professor of computer engineering, as he excitedly begins to lay out a complicated logic puzzle. But before he can get too far, Buterin quietly interrupts with a clever solution. “Oh,” says the Pokémon prof, crestfallen. “That’s actually pretty cool.”
Buterin (No. 31 on 2016 40 Under 40 list), a 22-year-old coder, is visiting the Cornell University campus for a boot camp organized by IC3, or the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies Contracts, an academic consortium that researches peer-to-peer payment systems. Roughly two-dozen programmers are gathered around a long conference table inside Gates Hall (as in Bill and Melinda), the brand-new, steel-plated home to Cornell’s computing and information science departments. The air is thick with talk of “stochastic dominance,” “Merkle trees,” and “zk-SNARKs.”
Although he’s among the youngest in the room, Buterin is indisputably the star of the group. He is, after all, the wunderkind creator of Ethereum, the network on which Ether runs. And Ether is now the biggest rival to Bitcoin, the $10 billion cryptocurrency that mysteriously burst onto the scene less than a decade ago.
Since its launch last year, the total value of Ether has rocketed from nothing to nearly $1 billion, easily outpacing every other virtual-coin contender. (There are hundreds.) Yet the promise of the technology Buterin has built extends far beyond its possibilities as a speculative digital currency. Ethereum’s boosters believe the network could someday power a host of decentralized applications—censorship-free social networks, public utility ride-hailing apps, crowd-sourced prediction markets and investment firms, even governments.
Buterin’s creation is already making inroads beyond the coder set. Fortune 500 companies have begun trials with the technology. Last year Samsung and IBM
launched a project to coordinate Internet-connected devices, like washing machines and lightbulbs, over an Ethereum-based network. At the beginning of this year 11 banks—including Wells Fargo
, Credit Suisse
, and HSBC
—ran a financial services pilot program using Ethereum. Microsoft
and Deloitte have been facilitating experiments on the network too.
“I’m very excited about Ethereum,” says Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that got into the Bitcoin game early on. “It’s probably the most exciting thing that’s happened in the whole space in a couple of years.”
Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer of Microsoft Azure, the tech giant’s cloud arm, echoes Dixon’s enthusiasm. “What’s great about Ethereum is that it is open, flexible, and can be customized to meet a customer’s needs,” he says.
If it sounds as if Ethereum is destined to be Silicon Valley’s latest billion-dollar startup, however, think again. Because Buterin isn’t your typical entrepreneur. He isn’t backed by VC money and he isn’t even based in the Valley—in fact, he’s a vagabond who more or less lives out of a backpack and crashes on couches wherever he happens to be coding. Rather than setting himself up for an IPO payday in the future, he has structured his “startup” as a nonprofit foundation based in Zug, Switzerland. In his role as Ethereum’s chief scientist, Buterin looks to Linus Torvalds, the firebrand inventor of Linux, an open-source computing system that powers many operating systems today, as inspiration.
In that sense, Buterin represents a challenging archetype for the banks and investors lining up to invest in the potentially world-altering technology underlying cryptocurrencies: the unprogrammable programmer.
He certainly doesn’t come across as Wall Street’s ideal business partner. On the day I meet him, Buterin, tall and skeletally thin, is wearing a wrinkled T-shirt promoting open-source software and a pink-and-purple-striped Swatch wristwatch with a smirking Cheshire cat on its face. He tends to reply to questions in a voice so measured that it almost sounds computer generated.
But if his affect is flat, Buterin’s ambition is anything but muted. He says his ultimate goal is to use Ethereum to radically re-architect the web—taking power away from traditional brokers and delivering it to the masses. Of course, if his revolution succeeds and Buterin’s technology achieves mass adoption, his plan will have the added benefit of enriching him and other Ether holders.
Before he can upset the world order, though, Buterin must prove that developers can use his technology securely—a legitimate question in the wake of the hack of the DAO, which was constructed on his network. Much of the excitement in the tech community has been shifting toward Ether in recent months and away from other digital monies, like Bitcoin. But in the volatile, idealistic world of cryptocurrencies and their creators, allegiances can change rapidly.