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Vitalik Buterin: The Mastermind Behind Ethereum

Vitalik Buterin: The Mastermind Behind Ethereum

Explainers Cryptocurrencies

14 Mar 2022

If you have spent only a week in the cryptocurrency space, there is still a very likely chance that you have already come across Vitalik Buterin's name.

And for a valid reason.

Before he even turned 20, Buterin co-founded Ethereum, a smart contract blockchain project that kickstarted the development of decentralized applications (dApps). Ethereum fueled the ICO craze in 2017, the DeFi boom in 2020, and the rapid adoption of NFTs last year.

At the same time, the platform's native digital asset Ether (ETH) has consistently managed to maintain its second-highest rank by market cap among all coins throughout its history.

In addition to being the mastermind behind Ethereum, Vitalik has participated in multiple projects, collaborated with industry professionals, supported the development of innovative ideas and initiatives, as well as shared his opinion on many key issues in crypto, economics, and even politics.

Today, we will explore Vitalik Buterin's life as well as his exciting career in crypto. Let's get started!

Early Life

Vitalik was born on January 31, 1994, in Kolomna, Russia, where he lived until the age of six. His parents then decided to immigrate to Canada in search of better employment opportunities.

Interestingly, Buterin stood out of the crowd even in his early life. In grade three, his elementary school in Canada placed him into a class for gifted children.

During the course of this program, his peers and teachers saw him as an "odd" genius who had a natural talent for mathematics, economics, and programming. Funnily enough, Buterin even once said in an interview that it took him a long time to find out that extracurricular social events "were a thing" in his school years.

While his childhood talent program put him on a path of solitude at the time, Vitalik leveraged this opportunity to improve his skills as well as learn more in the field of computer science and economics. Later on, Buterin attended Abelard School, a Toronto-based private high school that significantly changed his views on education and made knowledge his primary life goal.

After graduation, he became a student at the University of Waterloo, where he took five advanced courses and worked as a part-time research assistant to Ian Goldberg the cryptographer. The latter co-created the Off-the-Record-Messaging (OTR) protocol (and also served formerly as the board of directors chairman of the privacy-focused Tor Project).

During his university years, Vitalik won a bronze medal at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) in 2012, an annual contest in programming.

Starting a Career in Crypto

One of the funniest parts of Vitalik's biography is how he started developing his views on the dangers of centralization as well as the benefits of individual sovereignty and decentralization.

While he was a high school student, Buterin was a hardcore player of the World of Warcraft MMO game, that he later quit due to a new patch that drastically changed one of his characters' talents:

"I happily played World of Warcraft during 2007-2010, but one day, Blizzard removed the damage component from my beloved warlock's Siphon Life spell. I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring. I soon decided to quit," he explained in his public bio.

Interestingly, Vitalik first heard about Bitcoin in 2011 from his father, Dmitry Buterin, a computer scientist who had a small software startup of his own at the time. Like many others during the early years of crypto, he initially dismissed the idea of Bitcoin (BTC), arguing that a currency with no intrinsic value is "doomed to fail."

However, Vitalik's second encounter with Bitcoin convinced him to join the industry. While he doesn't know how exactly it happened (he said it's likely he needed to find a new obsession after quitting World of Warcraft), Buterin received his first payment in the crypto industry in 2011, for writing articles for the Bitcoin Weekly crypto-themed publication where he got 5 BTC (worth $3.50 at the time) for each piece.

Later on, Bitcoin Weekly shut down its services due to insufficient revenue. However, that didn't stop Buterin from writing about crypto. In September 2011, he was approached by the Romania-based digital asset enthusiast Mihai Alisie. Alisie, Vitalik, and three other entrepreneurs co-founded Bitcoin Magazine together.

As the head writer, Vitalik spent 10-20 hours a week during his university years on writing articles for the publication, which launched in 2012 as both an online and print magazine dedicated to BTC. Many consider Bitcoin Magazine as one of the first serious crypto-themed media outlets, which he and his partners sold to BTC Media LLC in January 2015 for an undisclosed sum.

But before that, in 2013, Buterin approached the global payments-focused blockchain project Ripple, looking for an internship with the company behind the initiative. However, while Ripple Labs decided to hire Vitalik, the firm only existed for nine months at the time, and it failed to meet the regulatory requirement of a minimum of one year to sponsor Buterin's visa in the US.

Kickstarting and Guiding Ethereum's Journey in Crypto

Bitcoin Magazine and the potential job opportunity at Ripple were not the only plans Vitalik had in the crypto world. As he was actively involved in the BTC space, Buterin discovered the limitations of the cryptocurrency's scripting language.

Later on, he contacted Bitcoin core developers about the issue, suggesting that the industry needs other applications besides money along with a more robust language for app development that could be utilized for even moving real-world assets like property and stock to the blockchain.

After contributing to the Colored Coins and Mastercoin projects that are built on top of the Bitcoin network, Buterin decided that he needed to create a separate platform from BTC. And this is when he started working on Ethereum's concept.

In short, while its core foundation was mainly inspired by Bitcoin, Ethereum utilizes a Turing-complete programming language (a language that allows a machine to solve any problem given that it has enough resources) to generalize the platform and use it to replace the specialized functionalities offered by other projects.

While Ripple focused on facilitating inexpensive and fast cross-border payments and Bitcoin was centered around the concept of decentralized money, developers could build all kinds of apps directly on the Ethereum main chain, from virtual cat-themed collectibles and blockchain games to digital identity and tokenized asset platforms.

On November 27, 2013, Buterin created the Ethereum whitepaper, in which he described the concept of the smart contract blockchain he envisioned. Initially, he only shared this document with his friends in the industry, who sent it to more community members.

Interestingly, while Vitalik was expecting heavy criticism from professional cryptographers, the initial feedback on the core idea of Ethereum was overwhelmingly positive. Between December 2013 and early 2014, he officially founded the project with many others, including:

  • Cardano founder Charles Hoskinson
  • Mihai Alisie
  • Web3 Foundation's and Parity Technologies' Gavin Wood
  • Decentral founder and CEO Anthony Di Iorio
  • ConsenSys founder and CEO Joseph Lubin
  • Mastercoin's Jeffrey Wilcke

In January 2014, Buterin officially unveiled Ethereum at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami. He described his project as a global computer that operates on a decentralized, permissionless blockchain network. Buterin also elaborated on the potential use cases from decentralized exchanges (DEXs) and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) to crop insurance. As a side note, all of these have become a reality later on (even crop insurance).

After formally starting the work and creating the Ethereum Foundation non-profit organization to manage the project, Vitalik and the team decided to hold an Initial Coin Offering between July and August 2014, collecting over 31,500 BTC worth $18 million from investors to kickstart development.

Finally, after the open testnet's launch in May 2015, Ethereum mined its genesis block in July 2015 via the platform's early build called Frontier.

Later on, developers introduced more functionalities throughout several upgrades. One notable event in Ethereum's history is the DAO hack in which a hacker exploited a flaw in the decentralized autonomous organization's code that allowed him to steal $70 million out of the $150 million funding the project received for its development.

To fix the issue, developers (including Vitalik Buterin) agreed to initiate a hard fork (a software upgrade that is not compatible with previous versions) that would fix the vulnerability and potentially recover the funds stolen by the perpetrator by modifying records on the distributed ledger. While the upgrade was successful, it split the Ethereum community, as some opposed the changes stating that "code is law" and that the blockchain should remain immutable.

Those sharing this view remained with the old, unchanged chain known today as Ethereum Classic (ETC), while the majority of the community adopted the upgrade and moved to the new Ethereum blockchain.

Throughout the history of Ethereum, the smart contract blockchain Vitalik co-created served as a crucial platform for significant cryptocurrency trends, including:

  • Early dApps
  • The ICO craze in 2017
  • The rise of the DeFi space
  • The NFT boom
  • The Play-to-Earn revolution in blockchain gaming

In the last few months, Vitalik and Ethereum developers have focused on improving the blockchain network's scalability, which was compromised as a trade-off for achieving higher levels of decentralization and security for the ecosystem.

While cryptocurrency projects are building scalability protocols on the second layer of Ethereum to increase throughput, core devs have been working on rolling out ETH 2.0. The long-awaited upgrade will shift from the current PoW consensus mechanism to the PoS algorithm and set the project's foundations to enhance the network's scalability via sharding and other methods.

Current Activity

It's no question that Ethereum is Vitalik's most important project to date, and he has been very active in the ETH community.

In addition to the smart contract blockchain's core development (e.g., ETH 2.0 upgrade, sharding, layer-two scalability solutions), Vitalik has worked on multiple technological initiatives, concepts, and innovations in the Ethereum ecosystem and the broader crypto industry.

Quadratic public goods funding via Gitcoin is an excellent example. In short, quadratic funding is a new and more efficient way to fund public goods, best described as non-rivalrous products and services everyone can access that can range from clean air and street lighting to open-source software and state healthcare. And Gitcoin is a platform that helps fund public goods projects within the Ethereum ecosystem.

Interestingly, Buterin co-published the research paper in September 2018, in which he introduced the quadratic funding model along with Harvard PhD candidate in economics Zoë Hitzig and E. Glen Weyl, the Microsoft researcher developing the quadratic voting formula on which the company’s new mechanism is based.

While quadratic voting has been utilized in numerous instances to optimize democratic decision-making and governance, the quadratic funding model Buterin advocates and Gitcoin utilizes incentivizes value creation. It also facilitates more efficient capital raising and distribution for Web3 projects.

Earlier in 2018, Vitalik co-authored another document with Weyl called "Liberation Through Radical Decentralization," in which the duo described and highlighted a common ground between their ideas to solve the most important social and financial problems of today.

In the manifesto, Buterin focuses on decreasing the authority of powerful monopolies and centralized entities via decentralized technology. At the same time, Weyl sees the solution in a concept called "Radical Markets" that would increase the efficiency of democracy by designing and implementing rules like quadratic voting to break up and reduce the need for concentrated centralized authority.

Due to his work on the above concepts as well as his involvement in the development of blockchain tech solutions, many in the crypto community see Vitalik as a "philosopher king." Although, he prefers to be called a "tech philosopher," as he doesn’t want to have to choose between technology and philosophy.

Buterin hasn't been afraid to share his opinion on controversial subjects, often going against what most digital asset industry players believe.

For example, he thinks that an upcoming crypto winter will do more good than bad for projects. Back in December 2017, he said the bullish trends that increased the market cap to $500 billion were not sustainable, and players did not "earn" it.

Furthermore, he shared his "unpopular opinion" on Reddit in which he criticized El Salvador's government for making it mandatory for businesses to accept Bitcoin, arguing that it is contrary to the ideals of freedom "that are supposed to be so important to the crypto space."

Recently, he was featured in the headlines of media outlets for bashing Russian president Vladimir Putin, saying he is very upset about “his decision to abandon peaceful solutions in Russia’s dispute with Ukraine and to start a war instead." After deeming it "a crime against the Ukrainian and Russian people," Buterin posted a follow-up tweet adding that Ethereum is neutral, but he is not.

Vitalik has been quite active in supporting initiatives related to the conflict, which includes promoting the Ukraine DAO decentralized charity project on his Twitter.

In terms of donations, Buterin has supported multiple causes, effectively giving away more than his current estimated $1 billion net worth to charitable organizations - around $1.5 billion. Recipients include the human life extension initiatives SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation as well as India's Crypto Covid relief fund.

Regarding the latter, Vitalik used the 50 trillion Shiba Inu tokens (worth $1.2 billion at the time) from the total 505 trillion SHIB the project's creators previously sent to his address to support the COVID charity in India and burned the rest of the coins.

Vitalik Buterin: Ethereum's Co-Founder and Crypto's Tech Philosopher

It's no question that Vitalik Buterin is one of the most important and influential people in the cryptocurrency industry.

As the mastermind behind Ethereum, Vitalik is very active in the space, constantly developing, collaborating, and supporting new initiatives, concepts, and projects as well as sharing his opinion on a wide variety of subjects related to crypto, technology, society, and economics.

Furthermore, he is a major proponent of decentralization, blockchain technology, and cryptocurrencies as well as their real-world implementation to solve some of the most important problems of modern human society.

In addition to the above, he dedicated a significant amount of his wealth to charitable causes and won some prestigious awards. These include the World Technology Network (WTN) prize for IT software in 2014 - where he defeated Meta's Mark Zuckerberg - and the Thiel Fellowship Award that allowed him to leave his university to focus on building Ethereum.

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