Scaling Smart Contracts: Interview With æternity (AE) Developer Nikita Fuchs

æternity is one of the more unusual dApp platforms.

Launched in 2017 via an ICO for its Aeon (AE) token, the project aims to offer a more scalable smart contract platform. Moving smart contracts off-chain, the platform also utilizes “decentralized oracles” which allow for data from outside sources to be used in smart contracts on the platform.

Nikita Fuchs is Blockchain Application Developer at æternity. With a background in Business Informatics and experience building on the Ethereum blockchain, he was well placed to talk to us about smart contracts, oracles and the future of æternity.

Could you tell us about aeternity and your part in the team?

æternity is a blockchain with an emphasis placed on accessibility, scalability and superior governance. We’re building the quintessential platform for developers and enterprises seeking to deploy decentralized applications of all flavours. Although æternity is built upon a quite similar principle as Ethereum, æternity’s smart contract language, Sophia offers a range of notable advantages and features developers have needed for a long time, especially allowing a much greater degree of flexibility when manipulating smart contracts.

My role is to bring a background in Business Informatics and building production-grade solutions on the Ethereum Blockchain to the development side and currently work as a Blockchain Application Developer and development coordinator in conjunction with æpps and core development team.

What aspects of aeternity are you most excited about?

I think the promise of scalable blockchain applications is a driving force for me – to date, distributed networks have been bottlenecked as a result of their architecture. We’re working at the vanguard of a relatively untested concept – that is, state channels – to bring to life a vastly more scalable ecosystem which can equally serve private use cases in a way that on-chain smart contracts cannot.

We’ve designed an OCaml-based programming language, as we believe functional programming languages to be vastly more efficient when it comes to working with distributed systems, to achieve performance in a way that existing ones (such as Solidity) simply cannot.  

Could you explain how oracles work and their potential use cases?

Sure. At a fundamental level, they’re sources of data. If we were to consider something like a smart contract that pays out the winner of a bet on a horse race, the logic is easy to program – send x to the winner. However, figuring out who the winner is, isn’t something a blockchain is capable of natively, so an oracle needs to be pointed to in order to feed the smart contract the outcome. In this case, it could be as simple as querying a betting website for the results.

Oracles are the bridge between blockchains and the real world. Without oracles, smart contracts are little more than glorified calculators that exist in a void. The betting example is somewhat simple in comparison to more sophisticated use cases – one could envision the applications in any number of industries when data piped from businesses, news feeds or IoT sensors are leveraged.   

On the surface, it makes sense that the success of blockchain technology is contingent on the success of oracles. The ‘oracle problem’, however, is often discussed in tech circles: by relying on one source of data, you effectively centralize the point of failure (something a distributed network is designed to combat). This is something that stands in the way of innovation in the field, but we’re now seeing a number of decentralized oracles emerge (this is a mechanism we’ve built into æternity from the outset).

What are the biggest challenges facing aeternity from a technical and an adoption perspective?

Chiefly the same ones as other blockchain projects – in spite of what headlines may indicate, this field is very much in its nascency. I don’t think the public at large have dissociated between cryptocurrency and blockchain yet (the former is regarded as more of a speculative asset at present).

Some of the major barriers to overcome are undoubtedly usability (we’re actively trying to build a platform that’s simple and intuitive to use) and, of course, educating the masses on the benefits of blockchain technology (our investment arm, æternity Ventures, aims to do precisely that).

Has it been tough to grow and maintain such a large team?

It has certainly been challenging to grow the company to where it is now – we have quite a large team, but we’re confident we have some of the greatest innovators in the space working with us.

Of course, it’s nice to be working on an open-source protocol, as it means that it isn’t just the company in charge of pushing updates and building on the software: we’re proud to have such a varied range of devs working on æternity in their own time.

What do you make of the growing competition in the smart contract platform cryptoassets vertical? Do you think there will be any clear winners and losers over the coming year?

It’s great to see so much interest in this space, both from veterans of incumbent industries and a new generation of blockchain enthusiasts. I’m doubtful that, in the future, there will be as many protocols, but the talent will converge around the most prominent ones.

Everyone has their own theory as to which ones will shine in the coming years. I believe simply that the winners will be those with vibrant communities, those that are easy to build on top of, and those that can handle the high throughput needed for large businesses. I think immutable code needs to be future-proofed, and functional programming languages are the way to do this, consider Erlang, for instance: many consumers don’t know that the very foundations of the internet and the apps they use daily rely on it to function.

Are there any particular interesting trends you see in the industry right now?

The layer two protocols being designed on Bitcoin and Ethereum are exciting – they allow for near-instant transactions and experimentation without damaging the main chain. I think it marks the beginning of a generation of blockchains focused on scaling upwards (with additional layers) as opposed to scaling outwards (by increasing block sizes).

Where would you hope to see æternity in a couple of years?

Many members of the team echo the sentiment that we’re laying the groundwork for something that will last for generations to come (it’s in the name, after all!). In the next couple of years, we hope to have fleshed out what I view to be a foundation for individuals and organisations to build on top of the Internet of Value by increasing our global reach and making the tech as accessible as possible.