By nature of his background as a mathematician by trade, as well as his history as one of the co-founders of Ethereum, Cardano founder Charles Hoskinson is uniquely positioned to understand the importance and interplay between theory and application when it comes to blockchain development. Finding the right balance between these two disciplines is very difficult, yet critical to achieving mainstream adoption of crypto. Whichever blockchain solves this puzzle first will likely become the dominant platform in the years ahead.
That said, these topics can seem overwhelming to the crypto curious, as well as enthusiasts that have been involved in the industry for some time. Therefore, I connected with Hoskinson to have a substantive discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of crypto, consensus mechanisms, and distributed computing and explore how their evolution falls within the canonical history of mathematics and computer science. This interview is a bit technical, but he does a terrific job of breaking down complex topics into simple terms, often through the use of examples.
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Forbes: You’ve made a concerted effort to include academic and scientific rigor into the development of Cardano and crypto as a whole. Can you please explain the process?
Charles Hoskinson: We’ve published 102 papers over a three year period. A big part of those 102 papers was creating strong theoretical foundations for cryptocurrencies as a whole, not just for Cardano. For instance, we wrote a paper called GKL15, which has been cited more than 1,000 times, and it’s the canonical way of looking at what is blockchain.
Another part of the portfolio is industrial research, where we said, “Okay, now that we have the theory, what can you do? Can you shard (partition) proof of work? Can you shard proof of stake?” Let’s go build a proof of stake engine. And that’s not necessarily protocol-specific but it gives you a sense of capabilities. For example, if I want to have anonymous medical records or if I want to build a global scale system with billions of settlements. What do you need to actually do with a protocol designed to make that happen?
And then the third part of our research portfolio is protocol-specific. How do we take those capabilities and actually put them into a system? Now, we go to engineers, a very special type of engineer called “the formal methods engineer”—they read a scientific paper and actually create the blueprint. It’s almost like an architect to a general contractor; the architect draws these blueprints up, shows you how to make the house, but they obviously don’t build it—the general contractor does that. That’s the hardest part.
Forbes: Many people coming to crypto and blockchain may not realize that the ideas of decentralized consensus and networks didn’t originate with blockchains. Talk a little bit about how that work, with roots in computer science, informs the research you’re doing as it pertains to blockchains?
Hoskinson: Distributed systems is one of the oldest areas of computer science—conceptually a very simple problem but, in practice, a very difficult one. One of the pioneers was Leslie Lamport. He wrote some of the foundational papers—for example, Lamport clocks, about how to keep time in a distributed system. That was back in the 1970s. He also wrote Paxos, which is a distributed systems protocol. That was the first one that was called “Byzantine resistance.” But the basic idea is that the minute you leave the comfort of your laptop or your cell phone or your computer and you go into the web—a distributed system—then your perception of events and reality is different than other people’s perception of events and reality.
For example, let’s say you’re closer to…