At 23, the Russian mathematics genius holds the key to the world’s most popular electronic currency after bitcoin.
On a damp Sunday in June 2017, Vitalik Buterin broods on the shape of a violet curve. At afternoon’s end, the Ethereum founder waves about $320 from his computer screen. The 23-year-old Russian computer programmer, who lives in Singapore, savors it. The electronic currency he created two years earlier is quickly becoming the most used in the world of its kind, after bitcoin. But the mild fluctuations of the evening soon bend into a fall and then collapse. And at 11:00 pm, the encephalogram of this ordinary man, so at peace in the cold world of finance, is racing.
The Internet thinks he’s flatlining. “Vitalik Buterin is dead. Insiders are selling their ETH,” reads one 4Chan forum. “Deadly road accident,” it even says, and the programmer has rarely been so agitated. When he finally understands that his death has circulated the Internet, Buterin makes the case for his life. On Twitter, they see Buterin holding a paper with strange gibberish: “Block 3,930,000 = Oxe2fife56dald.” A normal person might be content to pose with today’s newspaper instead of with the combination corresponding to the most recent etherium bloc put into circulation. But then again, Vitalik Buterin is not a normal person.
Another day, another blockchain use case. pic.twitter.com/OyHzdhEeGR
— Vitalik Buterin (@VitalikButerin) June 26, 2017
At 23, this cryptocurrency prodigy was recruited by Estonia to create a virtual currency for it.
When bitcoin came into the world in 2009, Vitalik Buterin was still playing World of Warcraft in his boyhood bedroom. Despite a clear inclination toward math, the son of a Russian programmer who had arrived in Canada at the age of 4 was wary of the operation of the first cryptocurrency. Even afraid of it.
“Between 2007 and 2010, I was quite happy to play World of Warcraft,” he says. “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.” Free as air and talented, Buterin, then 17, needed something to do. His father, who founded the startup Wild Apricot, would talk about bitcoin around him. Vitalik told himself a currency without intrinsic value was destined to fail.
An internet user named Satoshi Nakamoto had just released the first units of an electronic currency after explaining how it worked in an article titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” It allowed international purchases to be made quickly, without bank fees. But how to build enough confidence in its value for people to accept it? Thanks to its fluidity and to a stocking system called blockchain, bitcoin slowly made a name for itself.
“At first, I was a skeptic, but little by little, I got interested,” Buterin admits. “I’d begun writing for a blog called Bitcoin Weekly for $1.50 an hour.” A Romanian cryptocurrency amateur, Mihai Alisie, discovered his articles and offered to found Bitcoin magazine with him. In 2012, the two teenagers launched the project while the virtual money was still relatively unknown.
By the end of the year, it grew strong in the tentacular network of WordPress. Website designers in Haiti, Ethiopia and Kenya, who were excluded from PayPal, were able to access to its payment services. “Our mission is to make publication democratic,” states the American company. Like any other currency, bitcoin gained in value at the rate that it spread. Simple math. A mind like Vitalik Buterin’s immediately grasped the function.
The Encyclopedia of Bunnies
Vitalik Buterin’s talent for numbers was clear early on. Born in 1994 in Kolomna, near Moscow, Vitalik emigrated to Canada at the age of 6 with his family, searching for a better life. The son of the programmer Dmitry Buterin, he developed an early passion for computers. His teddy bear? Microsoft Excel. At 7, he set out to write a document he called Encyclopedia of Bunnies.
“In fact, the idea came to him of a universe entirely populated with rabbits, governed by very strict formulas,” his father remembers. “It was rich in mathematics, graphics, and calculations.” A year later, in his third year of primary school, Vitalik was placed in a gifted class, like the little geniuses in the sitcom Malcolm. Every connection to his friends was severed. But this imposed path allowed him to realize his talents: a natural familiarity with mathematics and programming, a pronounced interest in the economy, and a superior capacity for mental calculation. Genius, that singularly lonely gift, is generally unpopular in American schools.
“I understood then, over a long period of time, that I was abnormal,” says Buterin. “The following year, in CM2, I remembered that a good number of people spoke about me as a mathematics genius. Several times, I wondered why couldn’t I be a normal person?” Not invited to parties, Vitalik Buterin stayed in his room. Like any self-respecting nerd, he played World of Warcraft. Until the day when his father uttered the word “Bitcoin.”
With Bitcoin magazine‘s launch in 2012, Vitalik Buterin was a busy man. He took courses at the Candian University of Waterloo in Ontario, and he took an odd job. Odd, at least, for a teenager who just turned 18. He served as a research assistant for the cryptographer Ian Goldberg, who in 2004 co-founded Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR), still used today to encrypt instant messages.
“In 2013, I realized that the projects I was working on outside my classes took up around 30 hours a week, so I decided to quit school,” says Vitalik. He began to dedicate himself to bitcoin, traveling the world to learn more about cryptocurrency and to feed the columns of his magazine.
An ambitious plan, a surprising reaction. Rather than worrying, his father, Dmitry Buretin, encouraged him. “I told him, ‘You know what? If you pursue your studies, you’ll end up with a very good job at Apple or Google,” he says. “You’ll earn $100,000 a year and maybe more. If you stop now, it’ll be different, your life will be less easy. But you will learn more than staying in school. It’s fine with me if you take that path.’ And he did it.”
Vitalik packed up and began his pilgrimage. He travelled to Israel, where he worked on the project ColoredCoins. And he wasn’t the first at such an enterprise. Around this time, bitcoin fascinated him. Its supposed inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, was considered a living god who was going to totally revolutionize the planet. But once again, Buterin didn’t do as others did; he did better. Despite the promises of riches that could come from bitcoin, he preferred imagining other evolutions in cryptocurrency as well as in blockchains.
Interviewed by Les Échos, he announced that “Bitcoin is a blockchain designed specifically for currencies. That’s its only function.” This said, he then began to write the white paper of a new cryptocurrency, which “allows you to create all types of applications: a currency, but also for example a system for recording domain names, security systems, a lot of things, for the Internet is very centralized today, and that could change.”
This cryptocurrency was ethereum. His “virtual” team was comprised of Mihail Alisie, d’Amir Chetrit (one of his ColoredCoins collaborators), the mathematician Charles Hoskinson, and the well known entrepreneur Anthony Di Iorio. They finally met in January 2014 before launching, on July 30, 2015, an early version of ethereum.
The currency was particularly distinguished by its high level of security. As soon as conditions were met, the clauses activated automatically, giving both parties assurance that the “smart contract” would be respected. Contained within the blockchain, this anti-fraud measure allows it to avoid using a third party security system.
Another advantage of ethereum: its currency unit, the ether, is infinite, while the total number of bitcoins was fixed at 21 million. Of course, that allows the cryptocurrency superstar to conserve its value and to assure its liquidity. But it also indicates that there will be, one day, an end. And when the bell does ring, a limitless currency, such as ethereum, will be ready to carry the torch.
The site CoinMarketCap, which tracks cryptocurrency activity in real time, valued the market capitalization of bitcoin at 57.6 billion euros on August 24, 2017. Ethereum was firm at 25.2 billion euros. That distance seems striking. But when you look at the growth rate of both, the cryptocurrency co-founded by Buretin stands out.
In a comparison dated April 10, 2017, Forbes estimated the total value of bitcoin at $19.4 billion (and, since then, a 200% growth) and ethereum at $3.9 billion (733% growth). And if ethereum seems to be in full-on expansion mode, so is Vitalik. He has quickly become a digital celebrity, with a similar prophetic aura as Satoshi Nakamoto. In 2016, Fortune magazine listed him 31st in its 40 under 40, which examines the most influential young people in the business world, before bumping him to 10th in 2017. His star does not seem to be fading. As long as he avoids road accidents, anyway.