Interview with David Sønstebø - Cofounder of IOTA and JINN (Part 1/4) - Draft

Part I: David

In stark contrast to his polarizing image on social networks, David is a deliberate, soft-spoken guy with a complex mind and a keen sense for words. BLABLABLA

Enter IOTA. How did it all begin?

“I think we need to go all the way back to my origins in this field. We have to rewind to about 2005 where I really got infatuated with the ideas and the technology of the future, and the possibilities that arise from these. I think that was the time where I really had this epiphany that virtually nothing is impossible from a physical point of view. If you start out with just the scientific assumptions, postulates or the axioms of reality in physics then as long as humans figure out how to manipulate those different subatomic particles, then there is no limit.”

“If someone told you a thousand years ago that you could have a 75 inch 4k HDR TV, you would consider him crazy, but humans figured out how electrons work, how photons work and how these different things interact with each other, and then we made these things. And that’s pretty much the story of everything, that nothing is impossible. As long as you abide by the laws of physics, of course, you can’t break those, you have to start there. But after you’ve realized that on a very deep level, you start to see the world in a very different way. At least I did. And at that time - back then in 2005 - I started getting into nootropics and all of these fringe science and technology areas.”

“You had pretty much four or five websites that were dedicated to this. You had longecity.org which is a forum dedicated to researching the human life, life expectancy and extension of that expectancy etc. This is the Kurzweil crowd. And then you had another page called overcomingbias.com which was a brand by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson, and they had the topic of rationalization, applying the concept of rationality throughout society. At least if you’re going into this at an entry level, the series that they’ve written is a perfect introduction. It’s one of the greatest blogs - together with lesswrong.com, these two.”

“All of these things kind of happen at the same time. I was subscribed to the everything list where you have people like ??? was there when I was there Nick Bostrom which is of course the originator of this entire super intelligence and virtual reality / simulations simulation hypothesis, so I was very fortunate at a very early age to be exposed to these kind of genius people.”

“I was just 15, 16 years old talking with these people that completely changed my outlook on everything, because then I realized: ‘Hey, this isn’t science fiction, this is just applied science and engineering.’ If you’ve had this conversation with people that were not exposed to this, they would consider you kind of insane - if you started talking about AI like ‘in 10 to 15 years we will have artificial intelligence driving our cars’. But today it’s suddenly mainstream, all the politicians are talking about it and they’re using it to leverage their position.”

“Anyway, I was really fortunate that I was so young. That my brain wasn’t filled with all these preconceptions of what was possible and what wasn’t possible. And that’s where it all began. That was the catalyst for me to go into this. And then I learned about Bitcoin probably around 2010. To me it was like a peripheral thing, it was not my main focus, because economics was not the most interesting topic for me. Sure, economics has a lot of interesting sub-categories and it effects the world in a very fundamental way, but for me it was not the most interesting thing and back in 2010 when I first heard about it, I didn’t read into the fundamentals. I remember I used it on Silkroad a couple of times to buy weed, but that was the limit at the time, because I was way more into things like smart systems, smart infrastructure, internet of things and artificial intelligence.”

This is not the typical hobby of a 15-year-old, right? Why were you interested in all these things in the first place?

“I think or, actually, I know for a fact that ever since I was born I was plagued with this infinite existential rumination, I should say. I had to take sleep medication when I was three or four years old, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the universe and all of these questions that children have, but my brain just couldn’t let go. I couldn’t tune it out to be like ‘Yeah, whatever, the world is strange and absurd’. Instead I kind of dug deeper and deeper into it.”

“My brain has never been able to shut up, it just keeps digging.”

“And that was why I was so interested in physics. I wanted to understand the underlying substrate of reality - and, of course, when you go down that rabbit hole you come to the 21st century early. You meet quantum mechanics and then you kind of hit the stone wall, because there is no progress beyond that. You can subscribe to the Copenhagen interpretation, you can subscribe to the Everett interpretation or to David Bohm or to any of these mainstream interpretations, but there is no experiment that proves any of that.”

“So when I reached that point, when I kind of understood all the way down there, there was nothing more to be gained, I had to move on to the things that actually affect the lives of people living in reality - rather than just understanding reality. If you just understand things and you don’t apply that understanding to anything then it has no value. You have to apply the knowledge to be of any use. And that’s when you feel empowered.”

“Hey, this is actually something I can contribute to, this is something I can actually use in my life and and do something with it, so after that I was 100% dedicated to learning as much as possible, reading as much as possible and I read about Bitcoin etc, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I really read into the fundamentals of the blockchain. And I thought, hey this is at the moment actually the most potent technology that I see. It can have huge ramifications for society and economics and technology in general. So I said, yeah, okay I’m going to go all in on this and since then that’s been my full-time job. And then I met Sergey Ivancheglo, come-from-beyond, in 2013 and he just had made NXT.”

Cfb mag seinen Auftritt sovietstyle

Part II: CFB

Sergey Ivancheglo, Come-from-Beyond or simply CFB, is the second Co-Founder of IOTA. Under the pseudonym BCNext he developed the currency NXT. BLABLA

“So if you rewind back to 2013, pretty much everything that existed were Bitcoin and a hundred copies of Bitcoin that literally were the copy pasted code. People just changed a few parameters and said: Hey, this is a new coin, buy it. But NXT was the first completely radical redesign of the blockchain. It used another consensus mechanism which was proof of stake. It was the first 2.0 blockchain in the sense that you could do revolting on the blockchain, you could do asset management, messaging, stuff that all of these big other coins could not do so.”

“And I teamed up with Sergey. He’s this brilliant engineer, one of the absolute upper echelon of the people in the blockchain space. He has pioneered so much of what we take for granted today, but his main drawback was that he didn’t have the fuller vision, an idea how to take this to the real world. He insisted on using a pseudonym for NXT, he was that kind of person. He was brilliant, but an engineer in the end. It even gets so bad that sometimes I would have to write sentences for him, because he just doesn’t communicate that well with regular people. And so we paired up.”

“And I was more seeing this from a ‘How can we actually take this technology and apply it to the world in a bigger vision’ angle and he was able to modify the actual underlying infrastructure according to those needs. So I think we complemented each other very well, even though we were very different personas. I remember that we were fighting over virtually everything in the beginning, because we had so different worldviews on a fundamental level, but it was great.”

Did you ever meet in person at that time?

“Back in 2013 this were still all forums. Blockchain was seen as something you only use to buy drugs. So we got to know each other over forums or over Skype, we talked everyday, we worked together every day, but it was completely remote. We didn’t arrange a meeting before we decided to work together. This was like: Let’s just work together - and that also epitomizes the new era that we are in. That there is absolutely no reason to let the physical barriers be barriers, because there is no excuse for not being able to work together, regardless of where you are on the globe. I have people in Alaska, I have people in India, it doesn’t matter. It was just a no-brainer, we didn’t even think about it. It was just ‘go with the flow’ and take it from there.”

Part III: IOTA and JINN

“It was 2013, NXT had just come out, then we go to early 2014 and we were working on trying to expand this, because you could see that the mainstream was slowly taking notice, there was an article in TechCrunch or WIRED. The real world is suddenly noticing this thing that we’re doing, so it was a really amazing and exciting time. Today it’s trivial, you see this everywhere, everyone is talking about it, but back then it was like wow.”

“Then one day in early 2014 I had this call with Patrick Byrne who was the CEO of Overstock, and Overstock was this first big retailer, a multi-billion dollar company that actually applied blockchain via Bitcoin payments. Patrick Byrne is a very eccentric libertarian, so he said, ‘I just want this, because it’s decentralized technology, and that’s all I care about’.”

“I got in touch with him, we started talking about how you can use the blockchain to actually disrupt the entire stock market. This has always been his pet peeve. If you google Patrick Byrne, you will see that he has had several lawsuits against different multiple stakeholders at Wall Street, he’s at war with Wall Street, so he said, ‘Hey you guys, you have this technology.’ And I said, ‘Yes, we already have this and there is nothing stopping you from taking this technology and applying it. Of course, there are regulatory issues that will have to be ironed out, but from a tech perspective this is completely feasible’.”

“So this got the ball rolling in those quarters. I remember he was called in by NASDAQ and they wanted to meet up and discuss all of this. This was the precursor ??? and all those those companies that came a year later, but to me and Sergey, even though FinTech is very interesting, it wasn’t the most interesting, we were more focused on technology in general, like how can technology improve the world and not just how can FinTech improve the world. So in 2014 we instead started his project called JINN - which is just a placeholder name, but we always procrastinate when we have to figure out the full name for it, because you’re giving this a name that has to make sense long term.”

“We started this project of developing a new kind of microprocessor. If you look at the applications of computation today and compare them to the 90s or even the 2000s, they are completely different. Today computation is becoming ubiquitous, you see it everywhere embedded in every device. Oftentimes it’s a gimmick, if you go to Kickstarter, you will see your ‘connected everything’ which doesn’t make sense 99% of the time, but it’s that direction we’re going.”

“Computation is no longer something you put in a computer, it’s something that just is, it’s part of the everyday world today. Of course, you had Intel, you had AMD, you have ARM, you have all these big, big companies that have almost a monopoly on this market, but they have pretty much been focusing on mobile, desktop and servers only, so the Internet of Things is completely open for everyone. It’s been completely open forever, there is no standard yet, there is no best way of doing things and there are a lot of limitations.”

“So we decided, hey, why not just go for this. We did and we ended up hiring a lot of electrical engineers and professors that have been part of this and we kind of took it from there. And then of course, we started thinking about how can we incentivize the sharing of computation, because that was our vision, to make computation ubiquitous, to do distributed computing. And of course, because of our blockchain background we figured we could apply the blockchain, but we knew in the back of our heads that it won’t be that easy, because blockchain, even though it was a really good technology at the time, doesn’t scale very well.”

“A regular blockchain doesn’t scale very well. This is the biggest problem in blockchain. When you start thinking about distributed computing and billions of different devices sharing resources, whether it be computation storage, bandwidth or any technological resource, then you see that you need a much higher throughput than any blockchain can sustain. And this was the genesis of IOTA.”


Der Tangle von IOTA (In diesem Bild ist ein Fehler. Wer ihn zuerst findet, kriegt ein Jahr Membership kostenlos.)

“We have to actually start from the fundamental principles of the blockchain and see, if we can reinvent it from scratch, completely from scratch. So we retained the principles of complete decentralization and distribution, but we got rid of the blocks and got rid of the chain. Because if you look at it from an architectural perspective the blocks and the chain are a bottleneck. You can only put so many transactions into each block and there can only be so many blocks confirmed at a certain interval, so - as we see all the time in Bitcoin and Etherium - when the volume goes up, the network is completely congested. You keep waiting for days to have a transaction confirmed, unless you pay a mind-blowing fee. At that point you might as well just go with VISA or PayPal or something.”

Part IV: TRINARY/TERNARY

“For me in technology, if you actually want to create a product that will have any kind of adoption, it has to be what people call a ‘10x solution’. You cannot come up with a 10% incremental improvement, it has to be a radical shift in order for people to even notice it. There is so much legacy, retraining engineers is such a headache - unless it’s worth it.”

“So we started thinking about it like this: What is computation fundamentally when you literally get down to the bits? And of course, it is these ones and zeros that are true and false, and then you use those to build logic gates and those make up components, like an adder that is able to do mathematics, or a GPU that is able to do graphical processing, but on a fundamental level it’s still binary ones and zeros, i.e. bits. But if you look at this from a mathematical perspective bits are not the most efficient way to represent or process information. The most efficient way to do this is called Euler’s constant.”

“Euler’s constant is 2.718 and then it goes on to infinity just like pi. Just remember 2.7 - this is called radix e, because of Euler’s constant. And if you then look at binary which is radix 2, you have 2, then you have your 2.7 and then you have trinary which is 3. And then it’s this basic: If you look at which is closest, you automatically see that trinary is a lot closer to the mathematical optimal state, essentially. So that’'s the first starting point: that trinary - or ternary as you call it - is superior. And on a mathematical level this is non-controversial, every mathematician will tell you, yes, this is how it is, but when you start applying things to engineering, there’s not always a one-to-one overlap.”

“Back in the 60s and 50s there were actually quite a few ternary computers made in Russia which were called Setun. So people were very much familiar with the fact that ternary had benefits back then. But they were dealing with big, big transistors and very hard to measure voltage levels, and controlling voltage levels was not a trivial task. So it was much easier for them to just differentiate between on and off, rather than trying to pinpoint three different states with ancient technology - from our standard.”

to be continued