Ethereum co-founder sees role diminishing as blockchain becomes increasingly decentralized

As the layer-1 blockchain Ethereum continues to focus on a road map toward greater decentralization, its co-founder, Vitalik Buterin, thinks that moment might come sooner than expected.

In the early days after Ethereum’s launch in 2015, Buterin said he was doing development and research, but now there are more than a dozen researchers and multiple development teams that have taken control of the project, giving him and others a chance to step back from a prominent role over the blockchain.

“I think even today, we’re at the point where the Ethereum project can function completely without me.” Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin

“The amount of stuff that I have to do just keeps on decreasing more and more every six months,” Buterin shared in a press meeting with TechCrunch during ETH Seoul and BUIDL Asia 2022. “We’re definitely getting to a point where Ethereum is just far more decentralized now than it was three years ago, and I expect it to be far more decentralized three years from now than it is today.

“I think even today, we’re at the point where the Ethereum project can function completely without me,” Buterin said. “And I think it’s only going to go more and more that way.”

As more developers and researchers contribute to the project, their role will grow and [mine] will shrink, he said. “They deserve to have more and more of a say in where the project goes from here.”

Buterin said he’s always felt like it’s “the correct decision” to step down from a CEO-like position over the blockchain because Ethereum is supposed to be a decentralized project.

Ethereum is one of the best-known entities in crypto, aiming to be a community-led, decentralized, open source blockchain that powers its cryptocurrency, ether, and allows developers to program and build on its network. To date, thousands of decentralized applications (dApps) have been created using its blockchain technology, and Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, trailing right behind Bitcoin.

“Its value comes from decentralization. … If Ethereum keeps going and keeps growing with myself having a kind of really strong controlling role in the project, that would really harm Ethereum’s value,” Buterin said. “I just don’t feel like I have the personality type to be a good, centralized CEO long term.”

Buterin is not the only person in crypto who feels this way. Last month, Dan Finlay, co-founder of MetaMask, the largest non-custodial crypto wallet, shared similar sentiments with TechCrunch.

“MetaMask is trying to be less opinionated and get out of users’ way,” Finlay said. The team is focused on allowing users to add things to their crypto wallets, even if it hasn’t been designed internally, Finlay said. “We’re working on letting the user connect applications with the minimum required permission, and that’s going to be a continued theme.”

Greater possibilities for the network

As thousands of dApps are deployed onto the Ethereum network, Buterin indicated that there are still underexplored areas of opportunity for new technology developments on top of the layer-1 blockchain.

“Recently, I think the things that I have been excited about are what people call the ‘identity space,’’’ Buterin said. “This includes the sign-in with Ethereum effort. So being able to use an Ethereum wallet to sign in and authenticate to Web 2.0 services.”

Development in the identity space also involves efforts to improve crypto wallets and add account recovery and social recovery and do account abstraction, Buterin noted. “It includes projects that tried to give more, and put more on-chain and off-chain information about specific accounts.”

In addition to that sector, Buterin sees greater potential around decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), which are community-led groups with no central leadership.

Today, there are over 3.8 million governance token holders across 4,833 DAO organizations, according to data on DeepDAO. Across these entities, there’s over $11.6 billion wrapped up in DAO treasuries, up $3.5 billion month over month, the data showed.

“There are a lot of DAOs for different projects, countries and even for cities. So look for any topic that a group of people is passionate about — you could make a DAO for it,” Buterin said. “I think there is still this question of what version of a DAO actually is a viable thing that really makes sense in the long term for people to do, but I think we will slowly figure that out over time.”

10-year outlook for crypto

Although it’s hard to predict the future — especially in the fast-changing crypto ecosystem — Buterin thinks the next decade is going to be pivotal.

“I think in general, the next 10 years, crypto has to transform into something that is not based on promises of being useful in the future but is actually useful,” Buterin said. “I expect scaling to be the trigger for that because I think a lot of applications really are applications that are promising in theory, but they’re just completely not viable because of scaling issues today.”

There are a number of crypto projects dedicated to improving the scalability of both Ethereum and other blockchains. Earlier this year, Paradigm and Andreessen Horowitz backed Optimism, an Ethereum-focused scaling startup, in a $150 million Series B round, bringing the company’s valuation to $1.65 billion at the time.

Eliminating those major scaling issues will remove the biggest barrier to growth, Buterin said.

“If an application fails after — as we solve scaling, and after we have proof of stake and even after we have zero knowledge proofs — then chances are that application probably just doesn’t make sense for a blockchain at all,” Buterin said. “We’re going to get to the point where that final trial for many kinds of applications actually is going to happen. And we’ll see what blockchain applications actually manage to pass through that.”