For a man whose cryptocurrency has lost nearly £15bn in just over a week, Dominic Williams seems strangely relaxed.
"Look at the crypto markets too much and you'll get an aneurysm," he says wryly.
Certainly, this week has likely given crypto enthusiasts a headache. The price of Bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency, shook markets on Wednesday with a 31pc plunge in the morning followed by a 33pc surge in the afternoon.
On Thursday, it was trading at around $40,000 (£28,305) , around $25,000 below its April peak.
Meanwhile, Ether was down 44pc at less than $2,000 at one stage, while Williams' "Internet Computer" cryptocurrency , known as ICP, shed nearly 60pc of its value, down from more than £30bn on its launch just days before.
It followed a fresh warning this week by the People's Bank of China that virtual currencies can't be used as money. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have also been under pressure following a series of tweets from billionaire Elon Musk , a major cryptocurrency backer, around his reversal on Tesla accepting Bitcoin as payment.
Williams, however, says he won't be distracted by short-term changes. For the 50-year-old, the goals of Internet Computer and his non-profit group Dfinity are more lofty than those of Bitcoiners hoping to cash in on speculation. With Internet Computer, he wants to reinvent the way people interact with the world wide web.
"The Internet Computer is the world’s first internet scale blockchain that runs smart contracts at web speed," he says. "These things are revolutionary."
Internet Computer's cryptocurrency, ICP, is essentially a digital token that runs on a blockchain called the Internet Computer, which allows anyone to build or run apps and services without having to rely on cloud computing giants such as Amazon and Microsoft or social media companies such as Facebook.
Similar to other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum , it runs smart contracts, which are computer codes that automatically execute the terms of an agreement when certain conditions are met, whether that be for the exchange of a currency or a rental service.
But Williams believes his system can do this at a previously unseen speed and scale. "In 10 years, the wider tech community will realise that the Internet Computer is on a trajectory to one day become humanity's primary compute platform for building software," he says.
The technology behind it is dense, even for obsessives in the cryptocurrency world. According to Mira Christanto and Wilson Withiam, of analyst company Messari, "most of Dfinity's obscurity is due to its technical complexity and abstract vision". Despite this, it is one of the most well-funded cryptocurrency projects with $121m from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, early backers of Facebook.
Williams founded Dfinity in 2015, which is based in Zurich in Switzerland, as a non-profit to work on decentralised internet technology.
Currently, the internet relies on decades-old systems to ferry data between computers. Much of this infrastructure is controlled by Big Tech firms. Williams hopes his technology can help developers and users break away with technology that is not dominated by any one company.
A 20-year vision
ICP, the Internet Computer cryptocurrency, acts as an incentive. An autonomous manager program that Williams calls the "Network Nervous System" will dole out the currency to data centres to reward them for joining and powering the network.
Currently there are 48 such centres, but by the end of the year there will be 123 and ultimately, Dfinity hopes, thousands. In a virtuous cycle, data centres will convert the currency into computing heft, which they then sell to developers to run their services.
It is part of a 20-year vision for Williams, a self-proclaimed computing prodigy. As a child growing up in Oxford, he wrote down lines of code between classes on paper before he had a computer at home, and later aced his computer science degree at King's College London. He founded a digital storage start-up during the dotcom boom and later a video games company which was sold to Disney.
By 2014 he had dedicated himself to researching cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that powers them. A blockchain is essentially a record of transactions that can only be created by numerous computers working together, which use encryption to verify each other's identity and check each other's work.
The challenge has been to do this efficiently, quickly and at scale; Ethereum and Bitcoin have struggled with all three. Both require huge amounts of energy to run , and are limited in how many transactions they can process, with what Williams describes as "catastrophic" effects. "They have probably created a trillion tonnes of CO2", he says.
While Ethereum can be used to run code, Williams says this costs the equivalent of $5m for a gigabit of data for a year.
Dfinity believes it has cracked these problems, and its pitch deck doesn't shy away from calling its advances "a paradigm shift that will change everything". It describes the Internet Computer as "the third great innovation in blockchain" that will let people "reimagine how you build everything".
Williams appears to passionately believe his technology is new, a break from what has come before. While it has been compared to Amazon Web Services for the blockchain, he dismisses this.
"It's disinformation," he says heatedly, "we are not a cloud competitor". He rages against a "wall of FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt]" over the company, calling other blockchains "stone age technology". He also claims the system would be virtually immune to hacking and boost privacy by taking data away from centralised tech firms.
Ppl asking for trad. blockchain marketing from @dfinity
— Dominic Williams ∞ (@dominic_w) May 18, 2021
One person who has worked with Williams says: "He is one of those people with an intellect that fits into Silicon Valley. Extremely smart, charming, opinionated, when he's right, he can be profoundly right."
Not all experts are convinced by Williams' vision, however. Ruben Verborgh of the University of Ghent, says: "Sharing computation is not new, they haven't invented it."
Verborgh is working on a technology called Solid, backed by Tim Berners Lee, which also wants to decentralise the backbone of the web . But he adds that a "two-sided benefit is important" to incentivise entrepreneurs or users to adopt using a decentralised web, similar to how Dfinity uses a token to enable its version of the web.
But all such projects face the battle of prising users away from the stickiness of Facebook, Google, Amazon and others to ensure their success.
‘Either we are lying, or it’s breakthrough technology’
Cryptocurrency analysts see great potential in Dfinity's aims, but remain cautious at this early stage. Many of its early tokens are controlled by investors and team members, subject to a lock up.
Shelly Palmer, an influential technology consultant, questioned in a blog why much of Dfinity's code was held under license. He said: "It's not in the spirit of the envisioned open, transparent world espoused by Dfinity."
Even bullish analysts are concerned hype could escape reality. Mati Greenspan, founder of Quantum Economics, notes: "Becoming the primary base layer of Web 3.0 seems extremely ambitious."
Williams is undaunted by naysayers. Why, he asks, would a developer want to run "on your crappy blockchain and not this one, one that has been built by the world's leading cryptographers".
"Either we are lying, or there is something going on here. I'll tell you what’s happening. It’s called breakthrough technology."
So far, crypto investors have yet to make up their minds.
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