Top Ethereum developer on the risks and benefits of the merger

Aon September 15th, the Ethereum blockchain will make a major software update known as the “merger” that will significantly reduce Ethereum’s energy consumption and start the network becoming faster and cheaper. (You can read more about the meaning of fusion here.)

To learn more about the significance of the merger and its spread, TIME spoke with Justin Drake, who is one of the key Ethereum researchers leading the transition. Drake is well known in the Ethereum community. He is based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and coordinates and leads the work of other Ethereum researchers and developers around the world. He says the merger will make cyberattacks on Ethereum more expensive and make its building blocks cheaper and easier to use. And while he expects trouble on the day of the merger, he’s not worried they’ll have widespread ill effects.

Here are excerpts from the conversation, which has been shortened and edited for clarity.

TIME: You’ve been working on the merger since 2017. Why did you decide to dedicate five years of your life to Ethereum and this transition?

Justin Drake: I am extremely passionate about Ethereum. I see its mission as becoming the settlement layer of the Internet: a piece of low-level infrastructure that helps people coordinate things of value.

I also really enjoy the idea of ​​permissionless innovation: the idea that Ethereum is made up of Legos and that anyone can put them together with other Legos and build their own structures. This is very different from traditional companies. If I have an idea to improve Uber, I have to put on a suit, fly to California, meet with the executive team, prepare a deck and pitch them an idea.

In Ethereum, you can have a random 12-year-old kid in India with a bright idea and some coding skills, and he can start building on his own with these Legos. I find this quite exciting: cutting out middlemen who charge a fee or security or operate in one country rather than around the world.

I also like the idea that we’re building a World War III-grade infrastructure that’s not built on top of the Internet, but actually is the Internet itself. You will be able to create an application that will last for decades and centuries.

You’ve talked about wanting Ethereum to be “World War III-proof” in past interviews. What does this mean and how does the merger bring you closer to this idea?

The idea of ​​World War III infrastructure is an appealing narrative for internet enthusiasts. The the internet is designed to be that system that would survive a nuclear war.

It also resonates strongly with people who want to create things. There are these famous stories of entrepreneurs building businesses on Twitter and Facebook, and those platforms change their APIs so the businesses just disappear. This led to the concept of platform risk: when you build on something, you risk the platform changing the rules against you.

One of the World War III-grade rules of resistance is that even the most powerful nation-states cannot co-opt Ethereum and impose their rules on you. If Ethereum were to become a settlement layer of value on the internet, then it would be one of the main targets to attack in a war. And if it can be attacked, a particular nation-state can impose its rules on the chain, and it can become the Chinese chain, the Russian chain, or the American chain. It would not be a neutral piece of infrastructure.

And the merger dramatically increases the security of Ethereum. An attacker needs 51% of the value of the blockchain to [take control]. With proof of work [the previous mechanism that powered Ethereum], you need on the order of $5 billion, which allows you to buy enough computers and transformers, connect them all to the network, and then launch an attack. With proof of pledge [the system Ethereum is transitioning to in the merge]we would have about $20 billion in economic security today – and that’s a number I expect to grow dramatically.

The other interesting aspect of the merger is that with Proof of Stake, if we suffer a 51% attack, we can accurately identify the attacker and kick him out of the system. Moreover, we can punish them, including by destroying their entire share. And if they want to make a second attack, they have to make a rebuy.

So an attack is not only temporary, but also extremely expensive. This is unlike Proof of Work where there is no way to kick out a hacker once they have taken control of the system.

You and many others in the crypto community have emphasized the importance of Ethereum being a “neutral piece of infrastructure” that is resistant to government censorship. But is there a way to maintain this neutrality while stopping hackers from laundry billions of dollars in stolen money?

Ethereum is the creation of a new, native internet jurisdiction. Balaji Srinivasan [the former CTO of Coinbase and an influential crypto thinker] talks about the concept of a network state, which is a digital counterpart to a physical nation state.

Whenever you have a boundary between two systems, you have to play by the rules of both systems at the same time. Coinbase, for example, spans nation-state and network-state, so they have to play by the rules of both.

But if you only interact within the Ethereum realm as network state and don’t cross that boundary, then you’re now playing by Ethereum’s rules. You are no longer under the rules of the nation state. And one of the pillars of Ethereum as a network state is to be reliably neutral.

It makes almost no sense to conform to a nation-state. First of all, each nation-state has conflicting demands with other nation-states. What if one nation state prohibits you from using a certain address and another says that every transaction must go through the address? There is no way to observe both at the same time.

And Ethereum’s frontier as a network state continues to expand. We now have decentralized exchanges that live solely on Ethereum and only have to play by Ethereum’s rules. This dramatically reduces the amount of friction.

We’ve seen a huge amount of innovation around Uniswap, which is now a building block for huge chunks of decentralized finance. I think what will happen as a general trend is that just as we have decentralized exchanges, we will have decentralized everything.

Imagine a decentralized equivalent of Uber. To get a decentralized Uber, we need several building blocks: we need stablecoins, scalability with aggregations, identity and storage, all of which we have in varying degrees. But insurance and reputation may be missing building blocks. We need all these building blocks to be decentralized before we can even think about unlocking this complex application. And that’s something we’re going to see over the next few years, post-merger.

How are you planning for Merger Day, which is scheduled for September 15th? What are you most cautious or worried about?

In a very meaningful way, the merger and the dynamics surrounding it are out of my control. It is now in the hands of the developers who wrote these clients and the operators who manage the clients. [“Clients” are software applications that verify the status of the network via different programming languages.]

There are lots of clients and lots of code, and quite a bit of complexity. So I expect there to be bugs. It most likely won’t be 100% smooth. But the good news is that we have a variety of customers.

This is important because if two-thirds of the validators are running a client with the same critical bug, it could result in a bad Ethereum chain being finalized. Recovering from these bad finalization circuits is extremely expensive. It’s messed up, it has to be done manually on the social layer [human users coordinating together to take actions upon the blockchain]and may involve rolling back transactions. Just thinking about it makes me uncomfortable.

But the good news is that there is not a single client that comes close to 50% of the validators. So if we have a bug in one of the clients, it’s not a systemic risk: it’s not like Ethereum suddenly crashes. Most likely, some validators will have problems producing or validating blocks and the participation rate will decrease. The developers for that particular client with bugs can then release a fix in hours or days and it can be accepted by the software update operators.

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