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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

1 month ago

You may not know about The Merge, yet it could change society

IMAGE: Ethereum.org

Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency. The Merge, a mid-September event that will convert Ethereum's consensus process from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake if all goes according to plan, will be a game changer.

Why is Ethereum ditching proof-of-work? Because it can. We're talking about a fully functioning, open-source ecosystem with a capacity for evolution that other cryptocurrencies lack, a change that would allow it to scale up its performance from 15 transactions per second to 100,000 as its blockchain is used for more and more things. It would reduce its energy consumption by 99.95%. Vitalik Buterin, the system's founder, would play a less active role due to decentralization, and miners, who validated transactions through proof of work, would be far less important.

Why has this conversion taken so long and been so cautious? Because it involves modifying a core process while it's running to boost its performance. It requires running the new mechanism in test chains on an ever-increasing scale, assessing participant reactions, and checking for issues or restrictions. The last big test was in early June and was successful. All that's left is to converge the mechanism with the Ethereum blockchain to conclude the switch.

What's stopping Bitcoin, the leader in market capitalization and the cryptocurrency that began blockchain's appeal, from doing the same? Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he or she is, departed from public life long ago, therefore there's no community leadership. Changing it takes a level of consensus that is impossible to achieve without strong leadership, which is why Bitcoin's evolution has been sluggish and conservative, with few modifications.

Secondly, The Merge will balance the consensus mechanism (proof-of-work or proof-of-stake) and the system decentralization or centralization. Proof-of-work prevents double-spending, thus validators must buy hardware. The system works, but it requires a lot of electricity and, as it scales up, tends to re-centralize as validators acquire more hardware and the entire network activity gets focused in a few nodes. Larger operations save more money, which increases profitability and market share. This evolution runs opposed to the concept of decentralization, and some anticipate that any system that uses proof of work as a consensus mechanism will evolve towards centralization, with fewer large firms able to invest in efficient network nodes.

Yet radical bitcoin enthusiasts share an opposite argument. In proof-of-stake, transaction validators put their funds at stake to attest that transactions are valid. The algorithm chooses who validates each transaction, giving more possibilities to nodes that put more coins at stake, which could open the door to centralization and government control.

In both cases, we're talking about long-term changes, but Bitcoin's proof-of-work has been evolving longer and seems to confirm those fears, while proof-of-stake is only employed in coins with a minuscule volume compared to Ethereum and has no predictive value.

As of mid-September, we will have two significant cryptocurrencies, each with a different consensus mechanisms and equally different characteristics: one is intrinsically conservative and used only for economic transactions, while the other has been evolving in open source mode, and can be used for other types of assets, smart contracts, or decentralized finance systems. Some even see it as the foundation of Web3.

Many things could change before September 15, but The Merge is likely to be a turning point. We'll have to follow this closely.