At a recent blockchain-focused conference, software developer and member of the Ethereum Foundation, Hudson Jameson, gave a presentation in which he discussed Ethereum’s roadmap and the future of the blockchain ecosystem.
Jameson started the presentation by going over the history of Ethereum, beginning with the formal announcement made by Ethereum brainchild, Vitalik Buterin, at the North American Bitcoin Conference in January 2015. Following this public announcement, the Ethereum blockchain went through two phases:
The initial release of the Ethereum network that went live in July 2015. It was a bare bones beta release that allowed developers to learn, experiment, mine Ether (ETH), and begin building Dapps and tools.
The second major version of the Ethereum platform and the first production release of Ethereum, which was made public in March 2016. It included several protocol revisions and a network change that provided the ability for further network upgrades and sped up transactions.
Jameson made the point that Ethereum is essentially two years old. However, within this timeframe, much has occurred within the ecosystem and community. Light-clients, such as Status, a mobile Ethereum Dapp that will soon be available for iPhone and Android, are advancing consumer adoption by allowing users to access the usage data they need without downloading the entire Ethereum blockchain.
Smart contract safety and formal verification were mentioned as “hot topics” in the blockchain space, due to exploited flaws in blockchain projects that have garnered media attention. Jameson stated that developers within the Ethereum community “are doing groundbreaking cryptographic research on how to secure smart contracts.”
Businesses and enterprise use of Ethereum in banking, energy, and tracking use cases have also exploded onto the scene, with many independent consortiums forming outside of big bank initiatives, such as R3.
Where Ethereum Is Going
ETA: 3-6 Months
The next phase of Ethereum development will be “Metropolis,” which is intended to provide greater flexibility to smart contract developers. According to Jameson, smart contracts will eventually be able to automatically pay their own fees, eliminating the need for users to externally fund smart contracts themselves.
Current Ethereum users must download the Ethereum client that contains the blockchain, logic layer, storage layer, and consensus layer, which are all packaged together. In order to modify any of these components, users must deploy softforks or hardforks, while enterprises must “mutilate the code,” as Jameson put it, to input their own consensus mechanisms.
According to Jameson, “Ethereum abstraction is the ability to swap out consensus protocols within Ethereum – the ability to have different types of account security.”
Currently, users must access the account security mechanisms of the bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains to create public or private keys. In the near future, users will be able to use Lamport signatures or RSA for specific use cases, like private settings or consortium blockchains. According to Jameson, this interconnectedness makes Ethereum incredibly powerful.
zk SNARKs (zero-knowledge Succinct Non-interactive Argument of Knowledge), or “zero-knowledge proofs,” provide a method for anonymous transactions of value. As previously reported by ETHNews:
“The idea of zk-SNARKs is that they allow verification of the correctness of computations, without a verifier having to execute those computations, or even learn what was actually executed. Using zk-SNARKs, a verifier can confirm that a computation happened correctly, with ‘zero-knowledge’ of the computation.”
Because of the public nature of a distributed ledger, many businesses are reluctant to deploy blockchain solutions for fear of exposing confidential or sensitive information. The use of zk SNARKs would essentially solve this dilemma.
Jameson went on to say that Zcash is the first financial system with a widely known public blockchain (zk SNARKs system), and that these features will be included with the release of Metropolis. Ethereum abstraction will help support possibilities surrounding zk SNARKs, as much of the groundwork has already been explored and accomplished by Ethereum developers.
Post-Metropolis And Serenity
ETA: Not Finalized
Although Jameson made no predictions for the release of “Serenity,” he did state, “this is going to be when you know the really big stuff hits.”
A key goal of this phase will include the transition from proof-of-work (mining) to proof-of-stake (virtual mining) using the Casper consensus algorithm. One of the benefits of this transition is the reduction of external resources required for mining, as well as reducing the large amounts of electricity consumed in the process.
With the release of Serenity, Ethereum abstraction will offer developers more flexibility, such as the use of UTXO tree token management on the Ethereum blockchain. The ability to have advanced-contract execution schemes will allow smart contracts to become more autonomous, reducing the need for smart contracts to be externally activated.
Blockchain sharding, the process of ‘cutting up the blockchain into thousands of pieces,’ will allow each running node the ability to approve only their piece (or shard) of the network. Ethereum developers are currently building solutions to provide every shard with Merkle proofs “that can compare across each other and make it so that is has a strong sense of consensus.”
Other milestones will include decreased block times that will speed up transactions exponentially as the technology advances. It is theorized that blockchain sharding will aid in the decreasing of block times and much research is currently being conducted in this field.
Jameson also discussed the various categories of software that have been influenced by or built using the Ethereum blockchain. These categories include enterprise, clients, developer tools, Dapps, and the community.
The final section of the presentation, “What Makes Ethereum Different?” discussed the benefits and unique qualities of Ethereum that have spurred much of the innovation within the blockchain space. Focusing on the growth of developers, alpha testers, and amount of Dapps built on the network, Jameson conveyed his passion and belief that the Ethereum community is both special and inclusive.
“A lot of people in the Ethereum community really like ‘doge.’ To me, that kind of shows a sense of laid-backness, a sense of being able to take humor in things – you can make jokes about state channels and make jokes about silly things going on in cryptocurrency battles and stuff.”
Readers are encouraged to follow ETHNews for developments within the Ethereum ecosystem.
Edit: Correction made to dates of the announcement of Ethereum and deployment of Frontier.