Ethereum endured an early test of faith. The people behind the barely year-old blockchain had taken Bitcoin’s idea of decentralized money and run with it, building a digital landscape where users, based on a mutual trust in code, could interact and create applications. Then hackers emptied $50 million from one of those applications, the DAO. Facing a crisis, a core group of developers swiftly altered Ethereum’s code to return the lost funds.
The heist raised a key question for Ethereum and for dozens of other platforms that purport to be “decentralized:” Who decides when the code needs changing? Even at the time of the DAO hack, when Ethereum was a small community, the move sparked dissent. Some people kept using the old code, splitting Ethereum in two. And since then, even as Ethereum has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation with a vast constellation of businesses, developers, and users in its orbit, its process for making hard decisions remains ill-defined, a warren of Twitter polls, developer votes, and in-person conversations. Now a controversial new proposal—involving not just code, but politics—is testing what that means for Ethereum’s future.
The effort, led by developer Kristy-Leigh Minehan, centers on the kinds of machines people use to mine cryptocurrency. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum is kept secure by a system called proof-of-work, which involves computers racing to solve complex math problems. The solver reaps the rewards, hence the termmining. A decade ago, when Bitcoin was just getting started, a miner could turn a profit using chips found on their home desktop—first with standard computer processors, and later with the GPUs that power graphics cards. But the rising value of Bitcoin set off a race for more powerful hardware. Along came another type of chip, ASICs—which, like a finer, sharper chisel, are specially designed to handle the computations used to mine a particular coin.
In 2014, as he developed Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin watched the rise of these specialized chips with trepidation. In the Ethereum white paper, he observed that Bitcoin had become dominated by large and well-financed mining pools using ASICs and described ways in which Ethereum
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