Who is Vitalik Buterin? A lonely genius & “crushing” centralized power

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Despite facing numerous challenges from childhood to adulthood, Vitalik never gave up and always devoted himself to his work. So how did Vitalik Buterin build his Ethereum empire? What did this math genius have to go through to get to where he is today?

Who is Vitalik Buterin? 

The lonely math genius

Vitalik Buterin is a Russian-Canadian writer and programmer. Before turning 20, he gained notoriety for founding Ethereum – an open source, distributed computing platform based on blockchain technology that can execute smart contracts . At the time of writing, Ethereum has a market capitalization of more than $367 billion.

At an early age, Buterin had already revealed a natural aptitude for mathematics. When Buterin turned 4, his favorite toy was… the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet software. Buterin was then placed in a gifted class in elementary school and had since developed an aptitude for mathematics, programming, and economics. He, in particular, could mentally add three digits twice as fast as his peers.

Loneliness was never something Buterin chose, but more a way of life he learned to live with. Because of having a high IQ and natural talent for math, Buterin became eccentric and isolated from his friends. After school, when his friends hang out and have fun, they never invited Buterin. He had gone through a long time without even being aware of the existence of something called extracurricular activities.

When I was in grade five or six, I just remember quite a lot of people were always talking about me like I was some kind of math genius. And there were just so many moments when I realized, like, okay, why can’t I just be like some normal person and go have a 75% average like everyone else?” – said Buterin. 

Warcraft and the “evil” face of centralized power

So, instead of having fun with his friends, he played World of Warcraft. And it was in this virtual world that Buterin realized the viciousness of centralized power. In the game Warcraft, Buterin “swept to tears” to win the spell Siphon Life for his witch character. However, the company excluded this spell in a game update. That night, Buterin remained awake and cried through the night.

“I saw everything to do with either government regulation or corporate control as just being plain evil. And I assumed that people in those institutions were kind of like Mr. Burns, sitting behind their desks saying, ‘Excellent. How can I screw a thousand people over this time.’”

Buterin’s worldview is very similar to early Bitcoin adopters. Buterin believed that some people are holding too much power, and in order for the society to be balanced, power needs to be divided equally among the weak. These are the foundations that led to the creation of the Ethereum decentralized platform.

From Bitcoin to Ethereum

The high school student who wrote articles for Bitcoin (2011-2012)

At the age of 17, while searching for a direction of life, Buterin learned about Bitcoin through his father – a computer scientist. Bitcoin was only 2 years old at the time.

Initially, Buterin was skeptical of Bitcoin’s value as it is unsupported by any side. (For example, when the government prints money, it requires an equal amount of gold to protect the value of the money). But the more he learned, the more enthralled he became. He wanted to officially participate in this new economy. Regrettably,  Buterin did not have a powerful enough computer to mine Bitcoin, nor did he have the funds to purchase one. He decided to look for a Bitcoin-related job, and was fortunate to become a writer for Bitcoin Weekly with a salary of 5 BTC per article (equivalent to 3.5 USD at that time).

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Buterin’s articles caught the attention of Mihai Alisie – a Bitcoin enthusiast in Romania. He invited Buterin to co-found Bitcoin Magazine in 2011, and became the magazine’s main writer.

vitalik timeline

While working here, Buterin approached Jed McCaled (Ripple Co-Founder) and got accepted to work at Ripple. However, the wish was unfulfilled when Ripple could not support Buterin’s legal documents.

Buterin accomplished all of this when he was just a high school student.

Dropped out of college to go all-in to cryptocurrency (2012 – 5/2013)

In 2012, Buterin graduated from high school and started studying at the University of Waterloo, majoring in computer science. Here, he worked as a research assistant for the cryptographer Ian Goldberg, former Chairman of the Tor Project’s Board of Directors (a non-profit Digital Privacy Organization).

In May 2013, as a Bitcoin Magazine writer, Buterin flew to California to attend a conference in San Jose and met Bitcoiners from around the world. For the first time, Buterin witnessed how the crypto community is thriving and growing in the midst of this new economy: Investors from the dotcom era compared cryptocurrency to the dawn of the Internet, exhibit hardware wallets, Bitcoin trading platforms, Bitcoin ATMs…

That moment really crystallized it for me. It really convinced me that, hey, this thing’s real and it’s worth taking a risk and jumping into. So I did,” he remembers. He dropped out of college at the end of the semester and began looking for ways to contribute more significantly to this growing cryptocurrency movement.

Travel around the world to find a new path for crypto (5 – 10/2013)

Buterin started traveling around the world and learning about cryptocurrency projects in various countries. He noticed that all of these projects were attempting to build layers on top of Bitcoin. It appears logical at first, but it causes serious security issues as Bitcoin’s construction language is designed to limit transaction complexity.

Buterin discovered that by using the Turing programming language and creating a new version of Bitcoin, he could provide historically unprecedented digital services such as reinventing Facebook, aggregating the stock market, establishing decentralized autonomous organizations… Because nobody wanted to work with Buterin, he decided to build the project on his own.

Ethereum – The Great Successor of Bitcoin (11/2013 – 2015)

In November 2013, a month after returning home, Buterin perfected his idea with the Ethereum whitepaper. He sent it to his friends and waited for feedback. 

When I came up with Ethereum, my first first thought was, okay this thing is too good to be true and I’m going to have five professional cryptographers raining down on me and telling me how stupid I am for not seeing a bunch of very obvious flaws,” Buterin remembers. “Two weeks later I was extremely surprised that none of that happened. As it turned out, the core Ethereum idea was good, fundamentally, completely, sound.”

About 30 people contacted Buterin to discuss this opportunity. On January 26, 2014, Buterin announced Ethereum at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami. He describes it as a global computer operating on a decentralized network that could be used for insurance, decentralized exchanges, DAOs… As he stepped off the podium, Buterin was applauded by a group of people – those who believed Ethereum would be the great successor of Bitcoin.

Gavin Wood, Ethereum’s co-founder, later published a yellow paper describing how the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) works. This is Ethereum’s main technology, which allows the programming language to reach its full potential.

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A few months after the conference, Ethereum successfully raised 31,000 BTC through an ICO for Ether, the network’s native token (equivalent to 18 million USD at that time). The Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland, was formed to oversee the development of Ethereum’s open source software.

In 2015, the development team continued to release Frontier, the first fully functional version of Ethereum. The platform’s rapid success has piqued the interest of tech behemoths such as IBM and Microsoft.

Buterin’s reputation also grew with the development of Ethereum. In 2017, he was in the top 10 rankings of “40 most influential young people under 40” by Forbes magazine, as well as among the “600 brightest people under 30”. But then there were the rumors – school history was repeating itself for Buterin.

Some said he had autism, that his entire life fits in a suitcase, and he once swallowed a whole lemon without removing the peel. Even those who worked closely with Buterin described him as an enigmatic and incomprehensible figure.

Historical Incident: The Ethereum DAO was hacked for 150 million USD

Ethereum enables users to create decentralized applications (DApps) and autonomous organizations (DAOs). In 2016, an unprecedented incident occurred: Ethereum’s DAO was hacked due to an error in the codebase after raising over $150 million in ETH from over 11,000 members. However, the hacker could not immediately “disperse” this money because the DAO smart contract required the money to be locked in the wallet for 28 days.

Confronted with this situation, Buterin at first planned to use a soft fork (upgrade the software while retaining the original blockchain) with a snippet of code, blacklist the hacker and prevent the stolen funds from being transferred. However, the hacker claimed that his money was obtained legally because he knew how to exploit a technical flaw in the DAO, anyone tried to recover the Ether would face legal consequences.

The Ethereum team then decided to use a hard fork (a software upgrade that allows the old and new blockchains to coexist) to recover the stolen funds. This caused the Ethereum network to split into two separate blockchains: Ethereum/ETH (new blockchain) and Ethereum Classic/ETC (original blockchain). The decision sparked outrage because blockchain was intended to be immutable and resistant to censorship. The scenario raised technical difficulties as well as questions about the foundations technology’s ethical and philosophical – and the Ethereum project team’s resilience.

The Hard Fork is a delicate topic and the way we see it, no decision is the right one. As this is not a decision that can be made by the foundation or any other single entity, we again turn towards the community to assess its wishes in order to provide the most appropriate protocol change,” Ethereum Co-founder – Jeffrey Wilcox shared. 

The Chinese “V God”

2017 was a successful year for Ethereum when the price of one ETH increased from 40 to 826 USD. Currently ETH still holds the “runner-up” position on the market capitalization rankings with the price of 2,800 USD/ETH. However, it had a rough start.

In 2015, after the launch of Ethereum, Buterin’s wallet was running low. It was then that he met Feng Xiao, the CEO of Wanxiang Blockchain and a big influencer in both the investment and political world. Seeing the potential of Ethereum, he agreed to purchase 500,000 USD in ETH and helped to save Ethereum from “premature death”.

When Ethereum was looking for funding, Wanxiang bought $500,000 worth of Ethereum. That was its lifeline” – Buterin said. 

Buterin started to have enough money to pay for developers, which helped the platform grow significantly. In addition, Xiao introduced Buterin to his extensive investment network, establishing the world’s first Ethereum community.

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Buterin is also an advisor to the China Ledger Alliance, and a General Partner at Fenbushi Venture Capital. All these contributions made him famous and dubbed a “God” in China.

The Great Child of Russia

As a Russian native, Buterin made countless contributions to his homeland and is loved by the people here. In August 2017, more than 5,000 people gathered at Moscow’s Skolkovo Innovation Center to hear Buterin speak. Here, he claimed that Russia, along with the United Kingdom and Singapore, is one of the top three countries for Blockchain technology research and development. Furthermore, Moscow is home to one of the Ethereum network’s largest node clusters.

Due to Ethereum’s worldwide influence, Buterin had the opportunity to meet many leaders from other countries, including the United Kingdom, Estonia, Singapore, and Thailand. However, after speaking with the world leaders, Buterin believed they are nothing more exceptional than ordinary people:

Part of the success comes from hard work, part comes from talent. Another comes from finding the right people. The world is not created by the most intelligent people, and that everyone can participate and change it“ – Buterin asserted. 

Vitalik Buterin and Ethereum 2.0

Ethereum is being upgraded to Ethereum 2.0 (also known as Eth2/ Serenity) by switching from Proof Of Work to Proof Of Stake. This upgrade will allow Ethereum to better meet the needs of its users by executing fast, efficient, and scalable transactions. Furthermore, Proof Of Stake consumes 99.95% less energy than Proof Of Work.

The Ethereum network upgrade is comprised of three distinct releases, each occurring at a different time:

  • Beacon Chain: Launched in 2020, this technology added staking to the network and paved the way for future improvements. 
  • Merge: The Ethereum merger is due to happen in Q2/2022. The Beacon Chain will be linked with Ethereum’s mainnet and allow staking on the Ethereum blockchain while putting an end to mining.
  • Shard Chain: This reflects the breaking of the Ethereum network into stages, which will result in increased capacity for processing transactions and storing data. Sharding chains are scheduled to be implemented in 2023.

Nonetheless, the Ethereum upgrade is constantly being postponed. One of the main reasons why Ethereum upgrades take longer than expected, according to Buterin, is that the project team frequently clashes:

One of the biggest problems I’ve found with our project is not the technical problems — it’s problems related with people,” said Buterin.

However, Ethereum is gradually approaching the 2.0 level. With Ethereum, Buterin not only wrote his own future, but also invented a platform which allows millions of people to build, grow, and achieve their dreams – people that he has never met.

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