This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cointelegraph spoke recently with Dr. Jutta Steiner, the co-founder and CEO of Parity Technologies, about what originally drew her into the Ethereum (ETH) crowd and how she plans to bring more interoperability to blockchain.
During the recent TechCrunch Ethereum Meetup in Zug, Switzerland, Steiner detailed how her background in math and science ties into her work with blockchain, as well as how the new Polkadot protocol could help usher in the web 3.0 era.
Molly Jane: Could you begin by telling me a bit about yourself?
Jutta Steiner: My name is Jutta Steiner, I’m the CEO of Parity. I started this company three years ago together with Gavin Wood, who was one of the original co-founders of Ethereum. I myself used to work for the Ethereum Foundation, looking after security before the launch of the Ethereum platform.
Before that I had a background in applied maths, so I spent quite some time at uni, moved a bit in consulting after my PhD, and then got more and more interested, basically at around the time of the Snowden revelations — interested in what’s actually happening online, what’s happening to our data? How does this all work?
And I ended up reading a lot, accidentally came across Maidsafe, which was an early project in that space as well, and then saw people discussing Ethereum in that context about four years ago, how to use it for access management of data. And then I met the Ethereum people, this is how I got involved basically.
MJ: So it all started with Ethereum for you?
JS: I mean, yeah, I had read about Bitcoin and it was interesting to me from a math perspective. But I only realized the potential when I came across these discussions of what can you actually do with Ethereum. I really liked this level of abstraction.
MJ: Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Ethereum?
JS: Back at the time, I got interested in what can you actually do with it. This whole data perspective was interesting, but then also around the same time I met Jessi Baker, who was just starting a company called Provenance, where she looked at trying to create a Facebook for products, like bringing transparency to supply chains. That was sort of the idea — like, what’s the history, what are the people, processes behind products, etc.
I ended up working for the Ethereum Foundation on security. But then, when working on problems, I was realizing that really the technology isn’t there yet where it needs to be in order to become mainstream, and so out of that frustration Parity came out do as a company.
But we wanted to further work on the fundamental technologies and push that forward, which kind of nicely ties back to my math and science background. So being able to push technology on that end is pretty good fun.
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MJ: So what exactly is Parity? How is it connected to the new Polkadot protocol?
JS: We started Parity by basically taking all the learnings from the early days of Ethereum and coming up with a new implementation.
Initially, the ideas evolved a lot around just pure interoperability. A few years ago, the discussions about private chains and public chains started so it seemed sensible, and it also seemed sensible as a way of optimizing scalability.
But then over time, things like governance became also more of an issue, and we really started thinking about what is the next level of abstraction that we need to bring to this technology in order to make it much more genuine, much more easy to adapt to solve all these issues.
What we’re doing at Parity is coming up with a fundamentally new way of building online services. The way how the web has evolved and applications on the web — everything we do, every service we use, we always have to rely on centralized servers, where all our data is hosted, where there’s like an authority that decides on how does the service work, what happens if there’s contention.
And what we’re trying to build is basically a system where there’s much more agency on the user side, where there’s less of the divide between service provider and the people that use the services. So that it really becomes a much more open, a much more peer-to-peer way of interacting with each other where we don’t have to go through Facebook, through Google buttons that have seamless interacting with our friends or whoever we want to interact with.
That’s what we call web 3.0, the next level of the web.
And that’s where Polkadot, or the technologies around Polkadot, sits right now. Substrate is a technology that we just released in a PoC [Proof of Concept] state in a test net, it’s a very general framework for spinning up your own state machine.
MJ: How long do you think it would take before we actually would enter the web 3.0 era?
JS: So are aiming to release Polkadot at the end of next year. Now that doesn’t mean we’ll already see applications, I think that’s going to be a gradual process. I mean, there are things you can use already to make your applications more decentralized, more peer-to-peer, there are some solutions for having interoperability, like cross-chain transactions.
I hope that over the next few years we’re going to see the first implementations, applications that fundamentally use this. A lot of what we have to solve evolves around usability and user experience, and this will probably still take a bit. Also, there is sometimes an advantage from having systems a little bit centralized, because you can have a massive efficiency gain in certain cases, and we still haven’t found out where we have to make these trade-offs.
MJ: What would you say to someone that says: «I don’t know what you’re talking about with this web 3.0, I like using Facebook, it’s familiar, I don’t care if they take my data”?
JS: It’s hard if people don’t see what the underlying mechanisms are that make systems like Facebook really not the perfect systems to interact with. But I guess the recent revelations around Cambridge Analytica in particular have shown the government how powerful these platforms have become, which the hearings have shown.
There is a spotlight now on all the services to come up with answers, because governments fear the interference that comes through these services. I believe we’re gonna see regulation that will play in favor of decentralization to a certain extent. We’ve seen Europe already with GDPR, so there’s a directive on data protection. Although there are some questions around, like how this would work exactly with blockchain. I believe on the political side a there is a lot of will of making sure we don’t give power to governments that are completely unregulated.
MJ: I know some blockchain companies have experienced problems with the GDPR because of the «right to be forgotten» clause, since the whole point of a blockchain is that nothing is ever forgotten. How do you see that contradiction playing out?
JS: I hope that we see clarification from regulators and from lawmakers over the next couple of years. In principle, I see that the people that believe in blockchain technology and the people that were behind the GDPR have a huge set of common goals, basically giving power back to to the users. And it’s unfortunate that the drafting of the GDPR came just before blockchain became a thing, and so became way too specific in the way it was drafted.
I mean, politics can be slower, but I would hope that people will recognize the potential of the technology, and therefore, I don’t know, create sandboxes, or actually find a way of just leading to more clarification.
MJ: Could you name an example of a country with a regulatory framework where they’re doing everything right? Does that exist yet?
JS: Where they’re doing everything right?
MJ: Ok, most things right!
JS: Switzerland was interesting because small countries have it easy, right? Or easier because they’ve always struggled with retaining, maintaining relevance and so they had to be more agile and adapt to changes in the environment much more quickly.
I think we’re gonna see a lot of regulatory innovation or regulatory competition between countries, which helps entrepreneurs to a certain extent, but then only so much as this is all global. This is technology that we’re building for the entire web. I’m not sure whether I’ve seen anybody who does everything right, but it’s quite good that people are mobile these days and they just move around wherever they can build their business, it has to add to regulatory competition.
MJ: I saw you retweeted the other day a meme about women in crypto, where the media is shouting «Where are the women in crypto?» and there’s a woman shouting back, «I’m right here!» How many times do you get asked about what’s it like being a woman in crypto?
JS: I get asked frequently my perspective on this and what needs to be done, and then, I guess, my frustration with that topic comes a lot from…often those discussions are very nuanced, but then in the end all that gets printed is like just a complaint, like there aren’t that many, or like the main topic of the article is that there are only Lambos, and I don’t think it’s helpful.
I believe it’s more helpful to just talk about the work that people do.
I don’t find it inspiring if I see people just driving their Lambos either, it wouldn’t have been the reason why I would have come and work in crypto, but instead seeing people that just work in the space and becoming interested in the topics.
That’s what I believe should be talked about.
MJ: Parity experienced a problem with the freezure of wallets containing Ethereum back in November 2017. In April, the frozen wallets became a news topic again due to an Ethereum proposal to reverse the hack that did not end up getting passed.
Is “unfreezing” the wallets something that Parity are still thinking about?
JS: There are a lot of efforts within Ethereum to come up with answers, like how to fix the issue of governance in general. And the reason why governance is an important thing is because if you have an answer to this, it’s easier to come up with ways where you decide on contentious issues, like whether you want to have a fork or to unfreeze the funds.
And I believe this is a fundamentally needed debate, because we haven’t figured this out yet, how do we actually want to govern decentralized systems, and that’s what we are trying to work out with the community.
I do believe if you want to encourage innovation in space, you need to make sure you don’t discourage experimentation. Like the optimization that led to the freeze was a very sensible optimization back at the time.
And the truth is the tools that we need in order to write smart contracts, safe smart contracts, aren’t there yet. And the wallet freeze wasn’t the only issue that happened where people lost access to their funds. There were other issues, and I still hope that we find a solution where bugs in infrastructure that led to people losing access will be fixed in an adequate way.
MJ: Are you personally involved in the cryptocurrency market? Do you trade, do you hold, do you care?
JS: I wish I was, I don’t have time for that! Between looking after the company and looking after the family there’s very little time to be personally involved.
MJ: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us!