Today we are talking with Emin Gun Sirer who is the founder and CEO of AVA Labs.
- AVA Labs is responsible for AVA, which is a high performance, scalable, customizable, and modular platform for creating, discovering, and trading digital assets frictionlessly.
We’d like to kick things off by asking you a couple of questions regarding your formative years.
1) Firstly, can you tell us the things which interested you the most throughout your childhood and teenage years, and what brought you the most happiness?
Without a doubt, the amount of time I spent with my family eating at the family table.
I grew up in a very big family with like four generations in the same household, which even included extended uncles etc. That would be the memory, as well as constantly having lots of visitors. So it was wonderful to have such a social network, and I genuinely liked it when I was growing up.
2) Who were your biggest influences growing up, and why did they have such a profound effect on you?
That's an interesting question, I think as an author, Kurt Vonnegut and his humanism affected me greatly. I read a lot of modernist authors, and they all affected (and still affect) me greatly. Certain poets have also affected me greatly, and it is generally people who wrote about the plight of humanity, and anything that has a sort of a social aspect to it, which have had a profound effect upon me.
3) Teenage years are often a turbulent time for many, so on this note, can you name a time which was tough for you, and how you managed to overcome it?
I think the greatest challenge I faced as a teenager was when I left Turkey (I grew up in Istanbul) and came over to Princeton, New Jersey, to study. I received a very nice scholarship from them that allowed me to study there, but remember the change being rather immense. Dealing with people's misconceptions of what Turkish people are like was quite challenging. I remember moving into my dorm room and my roommate's father turning to me holding a VCR “Do you know what this is?”. That was odd. So yeah, probably the biggest, most stressful point for any young person growing up is leaving home and building a new life somewhere else.
But I managed to manage the shift. If you are in this situation you're just going to have to make new friends. However, looking back, it was mostly computer science that kept me going.
4) If there was some advice you could give young aspiring individuals, advice which you would really have liked to have heard yourself as a young person, what would it be?
I give advice to young people all the time, and there's so much to say.
I would say the short of it is to read voraciously, find something that really tickles you, gives you happiness, and something that really resonates with you. Then put your heart and soul into it. Do not search for yourself. Do not wait for some magic moment. Find any old thing that engages you and engage fully with it. Too many of the students I talked to are waiting for some magic connection or some movie moments. You don't have movie moments. We just have to take ourselves and our resources and apply them to problems, and the world is full of problems.
We are now going to ask you some questions which will hopefully give our readers something to go on regarding you as a person.
5) Firstly, what are the particular strengths that you feel have made you successful in your field (don’t hold back)?
That’s probably my perseverance. I think I do have a unique gift for finding simple solutions to the problems that other people have missed, problems which raise the questions of how, why, what? I've had a long career full of these moments where, you know, there's an open problem which I feel needs further thought, so I love going into open problems that are well identified - problems that a lot of other people are already working on. This is quite different in science where you could also go into areas where there is no problem; you simply define your own problem, discover a new thing to do, and then discover a solution for it. I like to go into highly contested areas, and I'm not afraid of competition. I really love tackling the hardest problem in any given area. So in distributed systems, that could be anything from a consensus protocol in operating systems, whether it's out to make them extensible and changeable on the fly or what have you.
Over my career, I've gone into these highly competitive areas, battled it out, and generally emerged as having contributed in my own direction.
6) What would you say is your most controversial opinion as regards to blockchain or the crypto space?
At the moment it is very much in vogue to invest in BTC and bank on it going up. Regardless of its price, I think that if a coin is unable to function as all three aspects of money in my book, as a technologist, it's worthless. It's just not interesting. Another controversial opinion is that digital scarcity is never valuable by itself. Just the fact that something is scarce doesn't make it wanted.
So I think what is really exciting are systems that accommodate people, systems that appeal to a broad base of users that carry out an interesting function. And that's where the action is. That's what my entire career and my entire set of interests revolve around.
7) In the course of your day you can become under the most ridiculous pressures and stresses, what is your particular way of dealing with this?
I like to talk things out. I like putting everything on the table and I like laying out every single option and the stresses. Some people don't like to think about things that can go south. They don't like to think about the negative, you know, possible things that could happen. And I find that, you know, the more techy background somebody has, the more able I am to sort of handle situations with them.
So my way of dealing with things is simply to find some people whose opinions I trust, and just to hash out everything, play the probabilities and deal with things the best way I can.
8) Outside of crypto/blockchain, what is your favorite thing to do?
At the moment, I love to sail. I've always liked to sail. So I have some small boats and I love to sail them. I don't like big boats sailing all that much. It's very slow for my taste, but I like two person boats. They go very, very fast and they capsize a lot, and I find that challenging and a lot of fun.
9) What is the most humorous thing you have seen or experienced during your time in the crypto/blockchain space?
The meeting with the GHash crowd. GHash was a mining pool that held 55 percent of the Bitcoin hash power at some point. When that happened, a lot of us were very concerned. We were like “Look, you know, this is killing the entire decentralization story”. Bitcoin itself was at risk.
So we called a meeting, and there was a big meeting in London. Some of the core devs showed up, some of the start-ups showed up, and some of the big names in crypto funding showed up, including Naval. GHash was supposed to come, but of course nobody had ever seen these folks before. Suddenly a very tall fellow comes in. He looks like Ivan Drago from Rocky. He's wearing a very nice Armani suit and he has a second person in tow, dressed like Milla Jovovich from the Fifth element. The lady is wearing a yellow vinyl suit, and she has a very expensive handbag and so on. Suddenly, this guy sticks his hand out and with the heaviest Russian accent he says, "Hello, my name is Jeffrey Smith"! And it was just hilarious! Up to that point I am convinced that his name was anything but Jeffrey Smith. And it kind of, you know, brought to bear the simple fact that this was a funny space and he couldn't really divulge his real name because the Mafia would go after him or something.
So it's been a very interesting space. There's like a lot crazier stories, but this was my very first. Oh God, this space is full of bizarre people and bizarre customs and it only got more and more strange from there.
10) If you somehow managed to meet Satoshi Nakamoto (that is he is a male person in this scenario) on his deathbed, but only had time to ask him one question, what would it be? Bear in mind that you don’t have much time at all, so make it a good one.
So I would simply say thank him for what he's done. I'd likely ask for nothing else.
11) Can you give three policies you'd enact if you became the president of a country tomorrow?
I’ll keep this answer to policies regarding the financial sector only. While I am personally close with folks in the sector, the industry consumes a lot of resources and the function it serves is not worth the premium it collects. There are tons of inefficiencies, and many tasks can be easily automated. So my policies in this sector would all be heading towards keeping the financial system in check and opening up closed systems to the regular public.
The first change would be to accept blockchains as the foundational communication paradigm between companies. Companies should be using blockchains, and signed transactions on blockchains must carry the weight of law, and you know, thus opening up blockchain contracts to being equivalent to regular contracts in the eyes of the law. I think we are already headed there.
The second thing I would ask is that the systems that we use that handle high value have to all be correct by construction. They have to provide strong guarantees to their users. This is not something that we have or enjoy at the moment. At the moment, we're at the mercy of gatekeepers, who are not providing a strong service to anyone. These services have to provide a very strong guarantee to the user that there is no misbehaviour, there's nobody peeking at these orders, there’s no front running, and that the trades get the best execution at all times. A system that cannot provide that is a system based on trusting people and such a system is prone to failures.
Third policy would be that all government activities ought to be coupled into blockchain infrastructure. So your identity card should really be a certificate that you can use as the root of information for zero knowledge proofs about you. It shouldn't be something you show someone. It should be something you use to prove a factoid about yourself.
Communities are often an important backbone for many crypto/blockchain projects, so we’d now like to get some personal thoughts on the community side of things.
12) What do you feel makes the AVA community unique compared to others?
Okay, so that's exciting.
I love the AVA community! I love what we've built! I don't want to jinx it but I think what makes it unique is it's devotion for scientific inquiry. You do not see the AVA folks talking about “When moon?”, “When Lambo?”. They're talking about, you know, how is the core technology different fundamentally? Why the protocol has the future it does. As a result, I've engaged in really interesting discussions with the community.
They will also talk about representation, how much voice somebody should have. It's been fantastic. So it's a very diverse community based on their background, but we've managed to somehow hold a whole lot of coherent, interesting discussions. So I'm not sure that's going to continue to scale, but I'm really excited about the fact that it's a science oriented community.
13) Project aside, what are some other crypto/blockchain communities that you admire and why (this is not an endorsement)?
I happen to be a big fan of Ethereum, so let's start with it. I've been involved with the project since its very early days and in a remote capacity. I wasn't part of the founding team, but I've watched it with great interest. They managed to build an incredible dev army, and I think that's been great. At AVA we’re trying to do the same. We recently built something called Athereum. It's essentially a fast version of Ethereum, and it is there to currently act as a stopgap measure to help scale Ethereum before Ethereum 2.0 can be rolled out. It’s there as a “beta” platform.
I'm also a big fan of Tezos. It has a very interesting take on things. I like the fact that they're working really hard to make their code amenable to automated analysis. So I love things that are correct by construction. Not enough things in the crypto space are so, and it's something that I very much admire in the project.
I also admire the fact that Bitcoin (BTC) is very well used, and you have to give their community credit for that. We all worked together to make it a household name and it’s surely wonderful to see become one. A lot of people's first introduction to crypto is through Bitcoin, and that's a great position to be in. I also admire the fact that Bitcoin showed the world what was possible, although certainly lots of roadblocks exist.
14) What social-media platform do you like most and why, and are there any improvements which you feel can be made to these platforms for an even better community user-experience?
I happen to like Twitter a lot. And I happen to dislike it with as much fervour as I love it.
I like it because anybody can engage with anybody else. I dislike it because it optimizes for continued engagement as opposed to socially good outcomes, giving rise to emergence of tribalism. People like it when two people go at each, and Twitter’s amplification mechanism makes it more likely that the fight is seen. What we don't have are ways for people to constrain the tone of the conversation - to steer the conversation in more positive ways.
15) With the endgame being mainstream adoption, do you think crypto/blockchain communities will still have an important role to play in a post-adoption environment?
Absolutely, because the adoption isn't something that's external. Crypto should solve global-scale problems, and the community behind that project should be the very users that are benefiting from the solution to their problem.
It's not the case that Wall Street will wake up one day and say every stock certificate we have, we're going to put it on the blockchain now. That's probably not going to happen. What will instead happen is every new company will issue tokens and shares on the blockchain organically. The future is us. It's not out there to happen to us. We make it so we are the seeds of that future. And that's why it's so important to make sure that there are no bad apples. So we need to keep our eye on the goal of making the world a better place, and see why we should be optimistic, because we're going to be the ones shaping this.
In our penultimate section we are going to ask you a question regarding AVA Labs.
16) What do you feel sets AVA Labs apart from your competitors (that is if you have any)?
We do not see ourselves as competitors to other platforms or coins. However, although there are two thousand other coins out there, three things set AVA apart.
One, we have a breakthrough new protocol that is in an entirely different class from every other protocol that came before it. It is probably the biggest thing in distributed systems since the Bitcoin whitepaper. And it's only the third time that somebody came up with a new protocol family. It’s not just a new protocol, it’s a new way of constructing a whole series of protocols. What sets off Avalanche apart is sheer scalability, inclusiveness, speed, and efficiency. So that's one.
The second thing that sets it apart is that the AVA platform/network doesn't follow the same model as everyone else. Everybody else copied the same model from Satoshi. They have one coin, one network. Instead, we have a collection of networks and coins. Think of it as almost a platform of permissioned and permissionless blockchains. You can, for example, say “I would like to create a new real estate coin and I don't want this stored on every other node, only the ones that I know what they are capable of. This is going to require storing a lot of data. I want my notes to have special features”. Now, what kind of special features? More resources, more ram, more disk, etc. You may also want your nodes to be located inside the US, or outside. Do you want everybody to have signed a legal agreement, and do you want everybody to respect the whitelist, the black list or what have you? You can issue assets on the default network, if you like, but you can also create these sub networks with their own abilities, with their own properties and subject to a well-understood governance regime. So your legal contracts go down the stack. For a company that's wishing to issue a digital asset, they know exactly what they're going to get out of the network. This is not something they have on a public network of any other kind. So that's number two.
Number three is the fact is ability of governance by users. Most other coins have to fix a lot of parameters on creation day (for example, ZCash fixed its coin creation). If you look at what's happened at ZCash today, they are over-minting coins. In AVA, participants can become the central bank, and that is a completely drastic, different way of doing things than anything else we've seen before. Tezos has something similar but Tezos is unconstrained. Tezos can change with just the hash approval. Whereas in AVA you know exactly which parameters can change and what cannot change. This adds a welcomed level of security. So it's a more constrained, predictable form of governance.
Well that just about does it, but before we end this interview we’d like to ask you for something which we believe will say a lot about your belief in the industry, and which may inspire those who are reading.
17) Can you come up with a short argument for our readers on why you feel cryptocurrency and blockchain (or just one) has a bright future?
Sure there is. How much time do I have?
All I can say is crypto, of course, has a bright future because it rethinks and reimagines all of finance and business flows. That much is clear. For the companies that do understand the enormous opportunity ahead of them, this core tech is very different from what we had before. It has intrinsic mathematical properties that allow it to be adopted in settings where other people would have to at least think twice or would be unable to operate because of lack of trust. The technology engenders trust by itself from the ground up, and therefore it obviates the need for trust in humans and human processes, and that itself is the biggest selling point of this technology. Given what we know about human nature, given our long history of people always misbehaving when in positions of power, we understand that this is a drastic rethinking of how businesses could work and how finance could work.
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