At the cutting edge of blockchain research is a potential $15 million
dollar venture by the Ethereum Foundation centered around a technology
called Verifiable Delay Functions (VDFs).

Acting as a source of computer-generated randomness that is
unpredictable and unbias-able, VDFs are envisioned for use in a
highly-anticipated “proof-of-stake”(PoS) system called Serenity which
the ethereum network will migrate to in the next few years.

What’s more, the ability to generate secure randomized numbers – if
implemented in Serenity – would be a feature that can be leveraged by
all decentralized applications (dapps) on the platform once integrated
into the ethereum codebase.

Speaking to current viability studies on VDF technology, Ethereum Foundation researcher Justin Drake told CoinDesk:

“We’re basically doing all this groundwork to make an informed go,
no-go decision on the bigger project. The bigger project is 15 million
dollars on that order of magnitude. So we want to make sure that if we
do go ahead it’s going to be successful.”

And in terms of making the final decision on the technology, Drake
stressed that the process of decision-making would be multi-layered.

“To an extent we need the buy-in from the wider ethereum community that
this is a good idea and that the foundation should be spending this
money,” said Drake. “This is something where we can reach rough
consensus on public calls.”

For now, Drake told CoinDesk that a number of essential tests will be
carried out by ethereum developers before a final “go, no-go decision”
is made on the incorporation of the technology into Serenity.

One of these tests, called the RSA ceremony, will require hundreds of
randomized individuals spread out across the globe to participate in an
experiment which tests the security of random number generation by a
VDF.

Outside of the RSA ceremony, there will also be a worldwide circuit
competition requiring participants to test and create specialized
firmware also called ASICs to run VDF computations.

As Drake elaborated:

“In the VDF, we basically need an ASIC which is very low latency,
that is very fast. The so-called circuit – the way transistors connect
in the ASIC – needs to follow a clever algorithm … We don’t need it to
be the fastest in the world, just fast enough.”

‘A fundamental new primitive’

And it’s not just the Ethereum Foundation looking at hosting circuit competitions to build VDF technology.

To this end, the decentralized app network Chia completed their
first-ever VDF open circuit competition, awarding a total of $100,000 to
relevant participants. The company is said to be gearing up for a
second round of competition by “incorporating the solutions from this
first round,” as highlighted in a press release.

“If we don’t do a great job of optimizing performance … there are likely
to be sudden jumps in performance of the best VDF that anyone has out
there post-launch, which could result in significant network
instability,” Bram Cohen, Chia’s co-founder, told CoinDesk.

Outside of Chia, there are a total of 11 other blockchain companies
exploring VDF technology – each with unique plans of their own.

As Revealed to CoinDesk in interview, the ethereum sidechain POA Network
plans to host “a public bounty” for a VDF implementation using the
ethereum open-source collaboration platform Gitcoin.

Other than Chia and POA Network, some of the notable crypto projects
researching VDF include file storage system Filecoin, smart contract
platform Tezos, decentralized app network NEAR protocol and ThunderCore.

The imperative for increased collaboration between all these companies,
according to Drake, is all the more needed given that VDFs are “like a
fundamental new primitive.”

“It’s quite generic in that sense … It would be nice if the industry
standardizes around a single VDF, partly because that would make the
various blockchain projects more compatible with each other but it also
means that we [wouldn’t] have to reinvent the wheel and [would
collectively] pay less,” said Drake.

And while at least one company was previously reported to be in
collaboration with the Ethereum Foundation on VDFs, Drake highlights
that for now, the foundation is working independently.
Potential for partnership

Unveiled last November, Filecoin had tentatively agreed to split costs
for a VDF viability study and reevaluate at a later date whether or not
to move forward with the necessary firmware development to bring VDF
ideas to life.

A protocol researcher from Filecoin, who wished to remain unnamed, told CoinDesk:

“We’re enjoying the collaboration with the Ethereum Foundation, but
at this point it’s not certain that Filecoin needs a VDF. It could
simplify things, but it’s one of a number of options we’re exploring.”

The representative also affirmed that, at present, Filecoin is moving
ahead “separately” from the Ethereum Foundation but may “potentially
co-fund third party proposals for exploratory VDF research with the
Ethereum Foundation” in the months ahead.

As such, Drake highlights that, for now, “the Ethereum Foundation has
moved on its own … [funding] various researchers, generally small grants
to the order of 10 and 25 thousand dollars.”

But moving forward, Drake estimated that the foundation could come to a
decision about whether or not to use the technology in as little as four
months time.

“So the various studies that we’ve just kicked off should take four to
six months but I think that in about four months we’ll be able to make
an informed go, no-go decision,” Drake said.
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