Tim Beiko on Ethereum's moonshot
Despite the events of the past year, Tim Beiko still believes in seeing Ethereum to its ultimate form: a protocol for human coordination.
Written by Shreeda Segan
Photography by Brian Van Wyk
When you consider how synonymous Tim Beiko’s name is with the Ethereum project today, it is hard to imagine that Beiko watched it from the outside for a very long time, a young man driven to entrepreneurship with a T-shirt business at 16 and an “Airbnb for luggage space” in his 20s, holding various jobs through web2, including helpings with product management at Google and later at ElementAI. But even artificial intelligence wasn’t enough to keep Beiko stimulated. At that time, he found that most progress in the industry came from research laboratories — institutions that Beiko felt progressed too slowly.
The year was April 2016, and like many others, Beiko had learned about The DAO — an aspiring decentralized investment fund that launched in April 2016 and managed to raise $150M from more than 11,000 investors in less than a month, making it one of the largest crowdfunding experiments at the time.
The DAO piqued Beiko’s interest; it seemed to demonstrate crypto’s potential for experimentation. By June 2016, the DAO was hacked. The Ethereum network had to resort to a hard fork to keep the funds safe, meaning the protocol underwent a permanent chain separation, rendering everything in the old chain invalid.
But Beiko, excited by Ethereum’s mission, was not turned off by the challenges. He kept watching. “I learned about a woman who left her VP role at Goldman Sachs to build an index fund on Ethereum,” he remembers over Zoom. “And a guy who decided to go all-in on prediction markets and managed to raise $5M on Ethereum through an ICO for something that would never get funded in traditional tech. I don't think I've ever met somebody who started going down the crypto rabbit hole and didn't get sucked in.”
That’s where Beiko’s Ethereum journey begins. He put in two years at ConsenSys working on their protocol team, before moving over to the Ethereum Foundation (EF). He leads its bi-weekly All Core Devs meeting, which keeps various teams working on Ethereum aligned.
And Beiko, who is easily one of Ethereum’s most influential contributors, is still going down the Ethereum rabbit hole today, despite the events of the past year — whether it is the $32B FTX meltdown, the rollercoaster ride of crypto prices, or the many industry-watchers who swear up and down that crypto and the philosophies that underpin it are dead.
That is because Beiko believes in the Ethereum moonshot. He is driven by its ultimate goal: to become a protocol for building decentralized applications and smart contracts — or as the foundation puts it, “a protocol for human coordination.” If everything goes according to plan — if Ethereum manages to scale while preserving the properties of decentralization and censorship resistance — Beiko believes Ethereum could become akin to something like a country: a sovereign economic zone.
And in this economic zone, experiments can be run that have no other place in the world. The Ethereum protocol can be built for scale, for the long term, no matter how future builders decide to use it. It’s a plan delineated on a multi-stage, multi-year roadmap — a roadmap that clearly delineates the EF’s moonshot.
“It feels like so many of the institutions in the real world are very slow and risk-averse and don't want to experiment on things,” Beiko says. “At least on an economic and technological front, Ethereum is a place where we can run a lot of those experiments. We can see which ones work and maybe export the best ones out to the real world.”
Satoshi Nakomoto pseudonymously published the Bitcoin whitepaper in 2008. This whitepaper inspired Vitalik Buterin, who went on to publish the Ethereum whitepaper in 2013. Bitcoin was created in 2008 as an alternative to traditional fiat currencies; Ethereum, on the other hand, was designed as a protocol for building decentralized applications and smart contracts.
It’s common to hear Bitcoin described today as “ossified”: resistant to change. This is something that Beiko says Ethereum must try to eventually anticipate — though it hasn’t been something they’ve contended with yet. “Bitcoin has this view that the protocol as-is should not change significantly,” says Beiko. “It's unlikely that some new functionality gets added, whereas Ethereum is willing to add new functionality.”
Beiko tells me that he believes the key distinction between Bitcoin and Ethereum is that Bitcoin pushes changes every couple years — and even when they do, they’re minor. Ethereum, however, ships 1-2 major updates a year and has done so for the past several years. He also tells me that the Bitcoin community favors soft forks while Ethereum hard forks. A fork is a change to a blockchain’s protocol. With a hard fork, previous transactions are rendered invalid; with a soft fork, any new changes can work with the old prong, meaning they are “backwards compatible.” Softs forks, according to Beiko, typically add constraints to a protocol. And while hard forks require heavy coordination to be successfully implemented, they actually have the chance to add new functionality to a network. By choosing to err on the side of adding functionality — not reducing it — Ethereum has, at least until now, avoided ossification.
“To me, ossification feels like something that’s going to happen to us."
But when it comes to further improvements to the protocol, Beiko believes that most of the “low-hanging fruit” has already been picked. He, along with a few others, recently helped Ethereum transition to a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, which allows validators (those responsible for verifying transactions) to compete to add transactions to the blockchain, depending on how much cryptocurrency they stake. Previously the network relied on proof-of-work, which encouraged all users of the network to simultaneously solve computational problems in order to add transactions to the blockchain — a process that consumes a lot of energy.
The Merge reduced Ethereum’s energy consumption by over 99%. It was celebrated as one of the most successful and pivotal moments in crypto history thus far, and phenomenally difficult, what one founder describes as “changing the engine on a plane mid-flight.”
And the hard fork to proof-of-stake proved something important: Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum was still adaptable.
The latest Ethereum roadmap, released in November 2022, outlines several follow-up stages, each a rhyme on “merge”: The Surge, Scourge, Verge, Purge, and Splurge. Having a reasonable understanding of the entire roadmap has been described to me by friends as “requiring multiple PhDs,” with Buterin often seen as the sole person with total understanding. Beiko tells me that the goal of the roadmap is to improve Ethereum’s scalability and security.
The first challenge to getting Ethereum to be widely used is cost. Ethereum’s “gas fees,” or the transaction fees one pays to those working on the blockchain, have fluctuated wildly with a current average price of $0.37/transaction, down from a peak of $23.82/transaction during the 2021 NFT boom that made it difficult to use Ethereum at scale.
According to Beiko, one solution exists in the formation of effective Layer 2s (L2s): parallel Ethereum blockchains built on the main Ethereum network (Layer 1s) that separately run all user transactions and “roll them up” into a single, efficient transaction to add to the Ethereum blockchain. Apart from adding transactions to L1s, L2s otherwise only interact with the Ethereum network in the case of fraud, bugs, or disputes.
Today’s L2 protocols, Arbitrum and Optimism, are referred to as optimistic rollups. They make the assumption upfront that user transactions are valid, verifying them only when a transaction is disputed — hence the term “optimistic.”
Rollups make it far cheaper for users to execute transactions than if they were executing on the main Ethereum network. Purchasing an NFT directly on Ethereum might yield a costly gas fee, for example, but purchasing the same NFT using the Optimism network might only cost an additional few cents.
So what does Beiko consider an ideal end-state for Ethereum? “Something like an extremely-secure bulletin board,” he says, a layer that provides data for those looking to build on top of it.
“There are many ways to store data in the world that are much cheaper than using Ethereum,” he says. “Because of the cryptography we use, we can always verify if certain data belongs on the chain, even historically, just based on what’s currently on the bulletin board.”
He also hopes to use Ethereum’s fixed security budget to focus on transactions that happened in the recent past — what he explains to be the most contentious parts of a blockchain.
“Ethereum is this short-term place to have computation and storage where you need extremely high-security assurances or economic weight behind those computations or that data,” he says. “There are other ways in the world to just store historical data or to run user transactions, which is what we're seeing with rollups.”
Even here, differences emerge between Bitcoin and Ethereum. Bitcoin endorses only one L2 protocol, the Lightning Network, designed to enable faster and cheaper transactions by allowing users to create "payment channels" between them, through which they can make multiple transactions without the need to record each one on the blockchain.
On the other hand, Ethereum pushes for an ecosystem of multiple L2 solutions — including ones beyond Optimistic rollups. Beiko adds that Zero-Knowledge rollups are another emerging solution, one that might provide even more security than optimistic ones.
In some ways, the Lighting Network fits right into the critics’ identification of Bitcoin as ossified. The Lightning Network is certainly simpler than Ethereum’s rollups, but it is the only L2 solution endorsed by the Bitcoin community. Rather than encouraging the formation of new, unique options, Bitcoin is resorting to sticking to what it already knows.
By actively encouraging the formation of multiple implementations, the EF takes a stance that is culturally distinct from those of Bitcoin maximalists (those who believe that Bitcoin is the one and only true form of currency). The EF is simply working to help the Ethereum community develop a solid base layer, the L1 protocol; whatever happens above L1 is up to the rest of the world.
Beiko has big dreams for the future of Ethereum. He describes a scenario in which Ethereum’s quadratic funding, a method for funding public projects that attempts to direct money towards projects with the most demand, determined by votes, gets adopted across domains.
In his ideal world, successful quadratic funding experiments on Ethereum (like Gitcoin) would encourage a small country like Singapore or Taiwan to use it to do their budgeting. “We import really smart people and capital to work. And we export the block space — really secure computation — to test new things at scale,” he says.
Beiko and his dog, DoDam.
But Beiko does a good job balancing his dreams — the moonshots — with the sure challenges. Currently, he is keeping an eye out for Maximal Extractable Value, or MEV, risks — ways in which transactions can be rearranged for validators to make the most money.
This could create a situation where a group of individuals on the network team up together to increase MEV. This is adverse not only because it’s extractive, but because it could disrupt the network’s inherent decentralization — something antithetical to the core of Ethereum’s, and Beiko’s, values.
Additionally, Beiko still thinks a lot about ossification. “At some point, it may not be socially possible to add new functionality,” he says.
In the future, Beiko explains, additional changes that can be implemented to the Ethereum network will have trade-offs — trade-offs that aren’t going to necessarily appeal to everyone, particularly as the number of nodes (and their owners) increases.
“To me, ossification feels like something that’s going to happen to us,” Beiko says. “But it’s also much better to have chosen to ossify than to wake up one day and want to make a change to the network but be unable to.”
As a network scales, coordination among the owners of nodes becomes much harder. Beiko explains that while ossification has its risks — it can hinder the ability of a protocol to adapt to new developments and changes in the market, for example — it may also be inevitable. And, he adds, it might not be something to fight super hard.
If that is the case, and if Beiko and the Ethereum community succeed, it means they’ve helped the protocol ossify in a way that sustains its values while allowing the rest of the world to build on top of it.
“There is still a ton to do, but sometimes we have this feeling that maybe once we’re done with this next batch of things, there won’t be another huge batch of things to do. And what does that look like? Maybe we only have five years left to do stuff. Or maybe we have ten. But are we doing the right things in these next five or ten years?”
Helping coordinate the merge — which isn’t technically fully finished to Beiko’s standards — may pan out to be one of Beiko’s biggest projects. And while members of the EF, Beiko included, prefer that the EF doesn’t become the focal point of the ecosystem — preferring, instead, that the ecosystem itself grows and adopts increasing responsibility — Beiko believes that some whisper of the EF will always be around.
“Even if the entire EF is just one person, they can help route people. If someone comes in and says ‘I want to do something with Ethereum’, that person can be like ‘OK, talk to these folks.’ And the EF can be the ultimate steward for experiments.”