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The Big Interview

Tezos’ Arthur Breitman on changing the way people think about money

In this exclusive interview with Coin Rivet at Paris Blockchain Week Summit, Tezos co-founder Arthur Breitman talks of the challenges of changing a mindset

Looking a little flustered and clearly stretched for time, Tezos co-founder Arthur Breitman arrived somewhat late to our interview. Towering above me, I hadn’t realised just how tall he was, although his geeky appearance and awkward smile were immediately recognisable.

The brilliant French technologist strings sentences together with all the eloquence, grace, and speed of an Olympic gymnast. Some of the twists and turns of our conversation were equally as challenging to follow.

But just like Olympic-level stakes, you would expect nothing less from the man who co-founded Tezos to be the last cryptocurrency standing.

A conversation with Breitman is not exactly small talk. His vocabulary is extensive not just on a technical level. It’s also peppered here and there with a French twist, forcing me to ask him to repeat himself on more than one occasion.

After all, having a deep discourse about the future of money and self-amending blockchains isn’t all easy to digest.

The problem with the way most blockchains function

Anyone who’s been in the cryptocurrency industry for half a minute will know that governance in blockchain is a key issue.

The way that most blockchains implement a change in rules or protocol is by executing a hard fork. According to Breitman, the problem with hard forks is that there are too many central actors at play trying to influence the rest.

“You basically try to convince everyone to try to change at the same time, and if you convince enough people to do it then it can happen. But it requires a lot of coordination, and that coordination can only be obtained if you have sufficiently loud central actors… It’s a lot cleaner if you don’t change the rules, but you have a specific rule on the chain to modify your changes. And that’s what Tezos does.”

On-chain governance through a self-amending ledger

Tezos wants to get rid of the central actors through a self-amending ledger that combines specific rules that never change with different ways of achieving consensus.

“So there is a bit of a paradox here,” Breitman says. “The solution is that you need to have rules to change rules, and that’s also the problem. Basically, what you want is to have a formal process that describes if we are going to change these rules, this is what’s going to happen.”

In the Tezos network, anyone can propose a change of rules by submitting a piece of code to the network. “So you propose that piece of code and then people vote on-chain deciding whether we want that piece of code or not,” he says.

He concedes that while Tezos is known for this on-chain governance, in reality, much of the consensus is previously achieved off-chain.

“In practice, what happens is that you probably have an offline discussion and you get some rough consensus, and once you get there, then you ratify the decision on the chain by telling the chain ‘hey, we’ve agreed that and here’s some evidence that we’ve agreed’, and then everyone goes for it.”

How Tezos overcomes the challenge of voter incentivisation

Breitman admits that voter apathy is a problem, but Tezos is countering it through its delegated voting system (Delegated Proof-of-Stake).

Tezos doesn’t have miners on its network. It’s actually bakers (maybe it’s a French thing) that produce the blocks.

He explains, “The bakers are statistically similar to the rest of the holders. It’s just that we’ve identified that they are more active participants and what people do is they delegate their votes to these people.”

Tezos was about to enter the third round of voting on its latest proposal when we spoke, and Breitman enthused:

“In the last two votes in the second phase of the vote, participation was over 80 percent, so that metric is doing fantastic!”

He laughs, and you can see the flicker of contagious enthusiasm in his eyes.

Lack of innovation in Bitcoin was a problem for the Breitmans

The Breitmans decided to launch Tezos not only because of the forking issue that they saw with other blockchains, but also for what Arthur saw as a lack of innovation acceptance with Bitcoin.

He says that in the early days, when the industry was awash with altcoins, the Bitcoin community wasn’t concerned because they were innovating – and the innovations could be folded back into the network. But then, somehow this stopped happening.

“I mean, one of the major ones was when the Zero Cash paper came out and there seemed to be no interest among key Bitcoin figures to implement that protocol inside of Bitcoin even though it was very much the philosophy of the project. And I was like, well this is really sad. Is it going to be the case that just because Bitcoin was first we’re going to miss out on all the scientific advances that are happening in this field?”

Breitman likes to keep a low profile. It’s notoriously hard to get hold of anyone from the Tezos team, in fact. You won’t see their profiles on LinkedIn or pictures on the website. I ask why this is and if the spotlight isn’t a place he feels comfortable in.

“Yeah, I came into the spotlight and I wasn’t really used to it. I don’t normally like to be in the spotlight. I also had some creepy stuff happen to me like people taking my private pictures on Facebook and sending them on to chat rooms. So I wanted to protect myself and protect my friends, so everyone has a low profile on Tezos.”

The challenges of being a pioneer in an emerging space

I ask about the company’s infamous internal struggles, the lawsuit, and the run-in with the SEC. At this point, he immediately locks down. You could cut the air with a knife.

“If you have questions about the lawsuit, you should talk to my attorneys,” he replies, refusing to expand.

Thinking on my feet, I rephrase the question. I ask instead what he’s learned from the challenges that Tezos has gone through and if he ever gets tired of being on the cutting-edge. He exclaims:

“I’ve learned that success is difficult! They never said it was going to be easy. I’ve never launched a cryptocurrency before. There are some people who do it over and over and over. I don’t like that. I think the whole point is to try to be money and the whole point of Tezos is to be the last cryptocurrency. So it doesn’t make sense to launch others.”

He admits that travelling constantly can be tiring and that he’s “looking forward” to a time when he can just “stay in one place for a good six months”. But he also says that one of his greatest challenges is not the flying, but his inbox.

“I spend almost all of my day answering emails. It doesn’t always leave me the time that I would like to do more technical things,” he admits.

A husband and wife partnership

When I ask what it’s like working with his wife (and if this is a question he can answer), he chuckles loudly, dissipating the earlier tension. He says that Kathleen is now focusing on a different venture, building a collectible card game on the Tezos blockchain.

“She has her own stories about that,” he says, “but we were working very closely for a long time and it has its ups and downs. The benefit is that you know each other very well and you understand each other really, really well.”

He eludes briefly to the fact that having a co-founder (from what he hears) can be extremely difficult.

“You have to deal with the fact that they are someone else and that they are not always going to agree with you. In a couple, you’ve already developed all the skills you need to resolve these types of tensions. That part is great, the part that is not great is that you are unable to turn off sometimes. You know, you are on the weekend and you are with your spouse and you suddenly start discussing work stuff and all of a sudden work is taking up all your personal life.”

The ultimate goal of Tezos

I ask whether the ultimate goal of Tezos is to be the only cryptocurrency, to which he cuts in with a chortle:

“That is an aspirational goal, we have to get there.”

Realistically, Breitman believes there is still a very long way to go before that happens. He thinks that we will see consolidation over the next few years because we need strong blockchains with security, liquidity, and strong network effects.

He doesn’t believe we will have one global world currency either due to the different laws of individual nations and international frictions. But it’s not unrealistic to believe that we might have “three or four global cryptocurrencies”.

However, he counters, “to be clear, there will still be thousands and thousands of cryptocurrencies. But right now, you have distribution in terms of the number of transactions, adoption, users, and so forth. And the top ones capture most of the value, most of the transactions, and most of the users.

“I think that’s going to accentuate so it will be a sharp drop. So, we’ll have a very, very large one and a second one which could easily be half the size, and then a few other ones, and that’s basically it. The others will still exist, but you’ll have maybe one town with its own cryptocurrency, and it’s cute, but it won’t be an important player.”

When and how this will play out

“I don’t know if there will be a major catalyst for adoption,” he ponders. “I think that what it needs is time. People are used to very fast technology adoption cycles these days. They look at the cell phone and they say, ‘Oh my God, the cell phone was adopted so much more quickly than the telephone’. But it’s easy! A cell phone is just a telephone that you put in your pocket. The value proposition is so obvious and immediate.”

He laments that this is simply not the case when it comes to the future of money.

“Our value proposition is ‘hey, let’s change the way you are thinking about money and finance’. This is a lot more abstract, a lot more ideological and cultural, and includes a lot of ingrained ideas that people have. So it’s going to take longer just because people need to get used to it, and I think that’s a key ingredient. I don’t think it’s something that can be hurried. I just think this whole space needs time.”

Featured image from YouTube.

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