Q&A with Johan Pouwelse, an Associate Professor at Delft University of Technology
Associate Professor at Delft University of Technology based in Delft, Netherlands, and the founder of one of the largest blockchain labs in the EU, Johan Pouwelse is joining “The Future of Business Blockchain” panel discussion at Rethink Trust engineering conference in Amsterdam on June 29th. In advance of the conference, we spoke to Johan about distributed trust systems and the key academic milestones in the history of trust.
How did you get interested in the field of distributed trust systems?
Johan: For over 20 years I’ve been trying to build online trust. A long time ago we experimented with a database of music that everybody could edit and improve, musicbrainz.org. This was years before Wikipedia got started. That experience got me hooked ever since.
You built your first system in 2007, before Bitcoin. What are the key academic milestones in the history of trust?
Johan: Trust data is always under attack. The scientific agent community has always been focused on formal trust models and calculating trust. Turns out that it is a more difficult problem to spread and protect information on who is trustworthy and who is not. The academic milestones consist of the few scientists who solved that harder problem without a trusted central party:
1987: “Epidemic algorithms for replicated database maintenance,” Alan Demers
1998: “A gossip-style failure detection service,” Robert van Renesse
Mojonation experience paper
2002: “Large-scale newscast computing on the Internet,” Mark Jelasity
Stack,” live Internet deployment of permissionless gossip
The Netherlands was one of the first countries to have a decentralized finance system, a pioneer in fintech, and is now a global center of blockchain innovation. What is it in the Dutch tradition that enables such forward-thinking, and how does it influence you and your group?
Johan: Our low-lying country simply disappears in the ocean if we stop working together. We have a deeper tradition of working together than most other cultures.
How can we ensure that the trust mechanisms built on blockchains don’t die – who will maintain them, who will ensure the value of the tokens, and how can the value based on computational trust be preserved?
Johan: All our systems are academically pure and require no maintenance. Everybody is responsible for their own genesis block, storing their own transactions, and their own personal shard. Lies, false accusations, and fraud can exist but lead to digital ostracism if detected.
How do you see academia and industry collaboration in the emerging blockchain field – that needs strong research but also a broad adoption and trade volume? What are the key strengths of labs like yours to add to the table?
Johan: The current puzzle-based paradigm with proof-of-something is likely to transition to a trust-based approach. This needs strong research investments but solves scalability and 51% attack issues. Our key strength is that we have 10 years and 9 months of live ledger experience. We launched a primitive ledger in Aug 2007, we are not smarter or richer than others. Upcoming September we have 960 fresh computer science students coming in, selecting the top 1% of talent for your lab also helps.
What are you looking forward to at Rethink Trust?
Johan: I’m excited to be in the room with so many people interested in trust. We never had that before.