Who is Blockchain’s Person of the Year?


Blockchain went mainstream this year with decision-makers. From household brands to one-person start-ups, regulators, intellectuals, dreamers, pragmatics, the young and old, all have been considering the potential of this new technology, but who had the most influence? Who created or destroyed? Who advanced this space and who regressed it?

We present the list below for your consideration and vote on who you think, for better or worse, deserves the honor or misfortune of being named Blockchain’s Person of the Year.

Vitalik Buterin

The 22-year-old child prodigy, who was placed in a class for the gifted in his third school year, has, with the assistance of many, in just one year, enabled a new vibrant and inspiring ecosystem.

Buterin saw a new world of opportunity with smart contracts in 2013, launched his vision of a world computer last year, and saw it gain widespread attention in 2016. Household name after household name declared they have forked the platform for their own permissioned blockchain. Developers flocked, launching one smart contract-based project after another.

The price kept rising and rising as we all began to wonder if the many opportunities are now available until we were all reminded that this is still very new and experimental, and, like the first planes that crashed, the first cars that barely drove faster than horses or the dreaded windows blue screen of death which continued well into the 2000s, it too could go wrong.

However, the influence ethereum has had this year, within the blockchain space and the wider world, can hardly be overstated, nor is there any doubt Buterin is one of, if not the, strongest contender for this year’s title. Beginning with a philosophical and ideological return back to the technology itself, a scalability roadmap that provides capacity while retaining decentralization, smart contract technology that promises to improve anything from social networks to goods authentication, ethereum has advanced this space more than anything else since the genesis block.

The Slockit DAO Hacker

“I’m not a hacker, nothing was hacked.”

“A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.” – Theft Act 1968

“I do not agree with the DAO fork” – said John McAfee, “it reverses time.”

“In what some may consider an incredible show of leadership and quick response while others may criticize as a dangerous precedent, Ethereum developers are proposing a soft-fork to be followed by a hard-fork.”

What began as an apparently unstoppable march towards a new future, was suddenly halted by a single hack. With almost $200 million on the line, as well as the DAO concept itself and smart contracts more generally placed in question, whether the theft should be prevented appeared to have an easy answer, but some disagreed.

Should the blockchain history never be changed or are there highly exceptional circumstances when an overwhelming majority can act as a fail-safe mechanism? Was the fork a one-off or a precedent? Is immutability more important than adaptability? Will forks even be possible in the future? Should one move fast and break things or be very cautious and stagnate?

Each question probably deserves its own dissertation, but in this case, ethereum was able to quickly resolve the issue and move on. The main effect of the hack, therefore, may be a slowdown in the DAO concept. While token holders are meant to release funds, few ICOs are doing so following the hack. None has yet risen to try and re-implement the DAO VC fund structure, this time hopefully in a much more secure way. The future may have been slightly delayed.

Jihan Wu

Matt Corallo, a Bitcoin Core client contributor and Core Tech Engineer at Blockstream, together with Johnson Lau, Bitcoin Core Contributor, and lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, are giving presentations to the Chinese bitcoin community this week on such topics as “the pros and cons of SegWit” and “what role corporations play in bitcoin’s development.”

Segwit would be the third scalability proposal put forward to miners, following Bitxoin XT and Bitcoin Classic. Bitcoin Unlimited is a fourth. However, the two proposals on the table currently, Segwit and/or Bitcoin Unlimited, have found little adoption. The reasons are unclear, but it may well be the case that most miners are of the view a maxblocksize increase to 2 or 4MB, plus segwit, should be merged in a Bitcoin Core client release first.

The lack of any such increase would place miners in a difficult position. They could adopt Bitcoin Unlimited and risk the abandonment of the project by some Bitcoin Core client developers or they could release their own client with segwit plus a maxblocksize increase as agreed by many Bitcoin Core developers, thus potentially retaining most of them.

They could, also, simply continue operating at 1MB, effectively indefinitely, further prolonging an apparent stagnation in the Bitcoin ecosystem which recently saw the most well-funded company pivot, following ChangeTip’s closure as well as Coinbase’s hedging of bets earlier this summer. Although bitcoin’s price has continued appreciating due to monetary mismanagement by numerous countries, the inconvenience of transacting with bitcoin during peak times may, eventually, drastically change overall sentiment towards the digital currency.

Their actions or inactions will have a significant effect on the trajectory Bitcoin follows, with their influence this year that of inaction which may have contributed to Circle’s closure of buying and selling bitcoins as the system has been operating at full blocks for most of the year, with no apparent conclusion in sight, limiting growth projections.

Stephan Tual

As the face of the Slockit DAO, he promised a new world of the machine to machine payments through an ethereum computer operated by a smart contract-based decentralized and autonomous organization controlled by thousands dispersed all over the globe.

Image from Slock.it

The Slockit team brought us the DAO concept in an attempted implementation. They made us think of a world where we hold funds and make decisions, rather than giving them to a management class. They made us dream of a world where new organizations form without CEOs, without boards. Where VC investing is opened to all. Where the wisdom of the crowd is live tested. As I wrote back then:

“Imagine a platform where you log in and like the CEO catch up with today’s latest reports on how funded businesses are doing, whether they are up to target, vetting of the latest proposal, some recommended points on the latest negotiations, a daily and weekly one-paragraph summary of the entire ecosystem.

Most of the time, the thing runs itself, with no CEO, and with anyone at risk of being fired, everyone is kept in check. Sometimes, everyone needs to decide. That’s when the DAO token holders, the decentralized CEOs, and board of directors, exercise their wisdom of the crowd.

The above scenario is not one of a world where the code runs all aspects by itself, a world which is at best 20 years away, but it is futuristic in its own way. It may set an example for other companies to follow, allowing systems of an organization where shareholders or employees physically hold all the funds, potentially bringing in much more fairness and equity as well as increased production and well-being.”

The future was ours to dream. Millions poured in. Frenzy took hold. The New York Time’s front page and much of the mainstream media told all about this new world, but the Slockit DAO smart contract had hardly been tested in a live environment. The code was just weeks old and, apparently, no one had even looked at it, save for a paid audit firm no one had heard of. Yet, somehow, we thought it could not be hacked.

Emin Gün Sirer

“There are so many [Slockit DAO] attack vectors some of them cancel each other out.”

It wasn’t just a day or two before the hack that Sirer and his team at Cornell, together with Vlad Zamfir, an Ethereum developer, sounded the alarm regarding the Slockit DAO smart contract. It was weeks. No action was taken, with Tual seemingly criticizing the messengers at the time and declaring that the recursive bug “is NOT an issue that is putting any DAO funds at risk.”

It’s broken, Sirer and Zamfir said, but their clear conclusions and warnings were not headed by the Slockit team with emergency action to secure the contract. Had they done so, perhaps the whole thing could have been avoided.

Despite their warnings not being heeded, the Cornell team assisted towards the proposed solutions, with their findings on the soft or hard fork option conclusive. As I reported back then:

“DDos vulnerabilities were found in Ethereum’s soft fork which allows an attacker to exploit the gas limit (comparable to bitcoin’s transaction fees) and, in effect, bring the whole network to a halt. Therefore, the ‘[s]oft fork is out'” says George Hallam, spokesman for Ethereum’s foundation, speaking to CCN.com.

They further introduced the Bitcoin Vault, a mechanism of added security for bitcoin storage and Bitcoin-NG, a way to increase Bitcoin’s scalability as well as publishing findings that a 4MB blocksize for bitcoin does not affect decentralization. Making them strong contenders for this year’s title.

Gregory Maxwell

His e-mail to the Bitcoin Mailing List on the 7th December 2015 became, without any modification, the official roadmap of the Bitcoin Core client. Likewise, it appears that his public insult of Adam Back, Peter Todd, Matt Corallo, Luke Dashjr, and almost all miners seemingly threw cold water on the Hong Kong agreement.

As the CTO of a company that employs many Bitcoin Core developers, Maxwell has much direct or indirect influence, but for this year, his influence may be primarily regarding what he has failed to achieve. After a year in development, on top of previous developments for the Elements Alpha sidechain, segwit appears to be in limbo with bitcoin continuing to lack further capacity.

It appears that the wider ecosystem wants both a maxblocksize increase as well as Lightning, but Maxwell has indicated that the chance of a maxblocksize increase if segwit is not adopted, are “[r]oughly zero.” The debate, therefore, may continue well into 2017.

Bitcoin Unlimited

The grassroots client developed by many early bitcoin adopters and launched before Bitcoin Classic has attracted much attention as an alternative to segwit. Some miners have adopted it as their exclusive Bitcoin client, with others, according to suggestions, considering its adoption.

It purports to provide a long-term solution to the scalability debate by moving the centralized maxblocksize limit to a GUI interface where nodes and miners can choose the maximum size of blocks they are willing to accept. It has attracted half a million dollars in donations by an unknown entity, plus a $1.2 million fund set up for alternative bitcoin development.

Its influence this year has been to provide competition, further decentralizing the power of developers and allowing the wider community to choose, rather than being left with just one option.

Satoshi Nakamoto

He has said nothing for six years, yet continues to influence bitcoin’s ecosystem through his absence. His name is called upon as validation of their views by both big blockers and small blockers, but his greater influence this year maybe through the apparent abuse of his name by Craig Wright, an alleged con artist who engaged bitcoin’s community in a bizarre show during May this year.

He somehow managed to convince Gavin Andresen that he is really Nakamoto, overshadowing the Making Blockchain Real conference. The mistake cost Andresen his commit access, but where is Nakamoto, the person or group?

Like the cries in Ayn Rand’s novel, “where is John Galt,” the question has been asked many times over the years, with no answer. Should he return, perhaps continuing as a pseudonym, the one million bitcoins he allegedly owns may lead to a market frenzy as speculators worry he might mindlessly crash the price. Many, therefore, would prefer he doesn’t, but why he would take such action, while others, who undoubtedly own plenty of bitcoins, do not, is not very clear.

On the other hand, there are many good reasons why he should return. His insight in arranging the many pieces of the puzzle in such a way as to solve a hard and decades-long problem indicates a high level of intellectual ability. He may have further such insights, to the benefit of bitcoin’s ecosystem and the wider blockchain space. His non-authoritative leadership may provide clearer direction and might re-united the bitcoin community once more, shifting attention to the future, rather than consuming all energy on an endless debate. Moreover, his return would end the influence of his absence which has affected many that have previously or currently been named as Nakamoto.

Zooko Wilcox

It took years for Zcash to be developed with some speculating it will never be launched, but Wilcox and many university researchers did finally release the newest digital currency earlier this year, leading to a trading frenzy as one of the most anticipated coins entered the market.

Using complex mathematics, Zcash allows one to trade with anyone in a way that many claims is fully anonymous. Moreover, it provides you with the option of revealing transaction data to anyone you please, while fully concealing it from anyone else, potentially solving a significant problem for blockchain technology, privacy.

The currency is however very new. A bug was found soon after launch and more should be expected as the code is live tested with the value it holds a global bounty for any smart hacker all over the world. Nonetheless, its solution to privacy makes it highly influential for this year, with Wilcox a strong contender for the title.

Angela Walch

The Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law has been trying to address complicated questions of governance in the blockchain space. In an influential article, she argued that public blockchain code developers have fiduciary obligations, opening them to potential court cases if any recommendation or lack of recommendation they make leads to losses.

More generally, she has been trying to answer such questions as how do we ensure developers do not abuse their position? If they are in a position of power, how can we set up checks and balances? Wider questions may be raised, such as who decides who has to commit access and how? Is consensus a practical way to operate or a method that hides real influence, as well as power, and thus makes it unaccountable? Is forking, either the code or the currency, a real governance method, or a highly exceptional mechanism comparable to a region’s secession?

These are difficult and complex questions with any answers that find general acceptance likely to be highly deterministic of the way public blockchains will develop. Making Angela Walch, who has been addressing some of these questions, a contender for this year’s title especially in light of the endless scalability debate and the resolution to the Slockit DAO hack.

The Contenders

There were many others that deserve mention, including Gavin Andresen for his failure to achieve an overall agreement regarding scalability, Jeff Garzik, for his critiques of Segwit, Pieter Wuille, for developing segwit, Luke Dashjr, for his responsibility to present the hardfork code, Gavin Wood for calling for an Ethereum hardfork to fix bug exploits, Perianne Boring, for her advocacy to regulators regarding blockchain technology, regulators in general, largely for not adversely interfering with blockchain development and, for some, for cheerleading blockchain innovation, monetary authorities whose influence arguably has led to much appreciation of bitcoin’s price, Wanxiang Blockchain labs for their organizing of Shanghai’s Global Blockchain Summit where many household brands gave presentations, and far too many more to mention.

The voting results are not decisive, but highly influential towards who or what is chosen as Blockchain’s Person of the Year. Your commentary below further assists others, so let us know who you think deserves this year’s title.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely that of the author and do not represent those of, nor should they be attributed to CCN.com.

Images from Shutterstock and Flickr.

Jonas Borchgrevink edited this article for CCN - Capital & Celeb News. If you see a breach of our Code of Ethics or find a factual, spelling, or grammar error, please contact us.

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