We recently had the privilege of talking with Michael Kong, General Partner of Digital Currency Holdings and Chief Information Officer at Fantom Foundation. As an experienced researcher, developer, and advisor, Michael brings multifaceted expertise to the Fantom team.
Michael, thank you for taking the time to give us some insight into your background and work. Care to give a brief overview of your personal and professional history?
I am based in Sydney, Australia, where I was born and raised. While studying Information Technology and Finance at the University of Sydney, I worked in the University’s Programming Languages group developing software to analyze the Ethereum virtual machine (EVM) instruction set to find bugs in smart contracts and compilers.
I completed my degree in 2017 and wrote an honors thesis that was modified and published in the OOPSLA (Object-Oriented Programming, System, Languages & Applications) journal. I spent the rest of 2017 as CTO of Block8.io, a blockchain software development firm, before founding Digital Currency Holdings, a company that advises funds and cryptocurrency projects. One of our key projects at Digital Currency Holdings has been Fantom, which I am happy to say has been claiming most of my attention!
So you have been involved in the blockchain space in various capacities. How did you initially get involved with blockchain development?
I started buying and selling bitcoin in 2013, and in late 2015 a friend introduced me to Ethereum. I started writing smart contracts in Solidity shortly after, and in 2016 I was very fortunate to be able to start a new research project in smart contract security at the University of Sydney with Assoc. Prof. Bernhard Scholz, who is now working with us to develop a new verifiable, register-based virtual machine. Our work at the University of Sydney set me on a path of blockchain development and advising that has been incredibly rewarding and energizing.
And how were you introduced to the Fantom project?
A Digital Currency Holdings business partner introduced us to Dr. Ahn (Ahn Byung Ik – President/CEO of Fantom Foundation), who wished to start a new distributed ledger using DAG-based asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerance (aBFT) principals. His goal was to run decentralized applications for peer-to-peer payments and supply chain management, mainly in the food technology space. We saw great promise in the project and provided technical, legal, and fundraising assistance.
How would you explain what Fantom does to someone without technical/DLT knowledge?
Currently, Fantom is able to produce tens of thousands of transactions per second in a test environment using basic transactions (i.e. transfers of value from one account to another). Instead of Bitcoin or Ethereum, where transactions have to wait for the next block to be mined, Fantom confirms transactions as fast as possible without having to wait for a block to be mined. Basically, Fantom enables transactions to be confirmed much faster.
A person with your reputation would bring incredible value to many teams. What convinced you to dedicate your time to Fantom?
Thank you for your kind words. I think that’s an exaggeration!
Firstly, I was interested in helping them create a new register-based virtual machine since that tapped into my research interests from my time at the University of Sydney. On a technical level, I believe their approach to using asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerance (aBFT) can work. On a business level, their project has gained robust support in Korea, but also globally. I wanted to contribute to their momentum.
Given your vast experience within the blockchain space, what do you consider Fantom’s most significant advancement from launch to present?
The most significant advancement has been the development of the team and global technical partnerships. We’ve been able to hire amazing developers and researchers from North America, Europe, Russia, South Africa, and Australia. We’ve also established technical partnerships, including one with my former Programming Languages team at the University of Sydney, to develop a new verifiable computing engine. This team underpins the success of Fantom and has allowed us to push commits to GitHub on almost a daily basis.
What is your favorite aspect of the Fantom project in terms of the impact it will make towards global blockchain adoption?
The impact of Fantom’s fast, secure and scalable distributed ledger will be enormous. For example, users will be able to transact peer-to-peer without the need for a bank or credit card, in an entirely trustless environment. This would significantly lower transaction fees typically paid by the consumer and merchant, and, in particular, empower individuals in communities without strong financial systems to transact securely.
A strong middleware and distributed ledger will also allow individuals to build large-scale decentralized applications to run on top of the stack, enabling, for example, the development of decentralized smart city technologies.
Can you think of any guidance you received when entering blockchain that would be relevant to Fantom’s success?
Focus on building the technology, and be transparent with the community about all of its successes and failures. I believe it is critical for any successful project to keep the community informed throughout development. Ultimately, we are creating technology that needs to be used by others.
What do you feel will be Fantom’s biggest hurdles in the coming months, speaking from past experiences?
Having a successful mainnet launch will be challenging. We need to test the distributed ledger with many different configurations, and in many different environments, while ensuring it is secure against many consensus-level attacks. If we can demonstrate a mainnet that is secure and fast, then we have achieved a major milestone, and future developments will be improvements to the existing technology.
Many teams also face regulatory hurdles. How do you feel Fantom will be able to navigate the different regulations in various countries?
The regulatory environment is challenging, as many governments around the world are still creating regulatory frameworks, some of which conflict with one another. Fantom has always made sure to keep up-to-date with regulatory changes. We speak to several law firms on a regular basis and have our own in-house legal counsel, Fred Pucci, who has a background in securities law and was the Global Head of Compliance at Australia New Zealand Bank (ANZ), one of the largest banks in Australia. Their legal advice will help guide Fantom going forward.
What do you feel are the best attributes of the team you’re working with, and how should the Fantom team tap into these strengths to help them accomplish their goals?
The team members’ best attributes are their passion, intelligence, and hard work. Everyone on the team is committed to making Fantom a success, and they take that job very seriously. This is critical in any successful project, especially a fast-moving one in an emerging ecosystem. Additionally, the team has been curated brilliantly – each individual has important skills to contribute. For example, we have two teams with backgrounds in networking and distributed computing research and development who are focused on developing Fantom’s distributed asynchronous ledger. We have another team with decades of experience in virtual machine development and formal verification research building a new middleware stack for Fantom and the community as a whole. The relevant technical expertise is unparalleled, and they are quickly pushing forward in the right direction.
What is Lachesis protocol, and what makes it such a unique value proposition?
Lachesis is the name of Fantom’s new consensus algorithm, which is based on asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerance (aBFT) using a Distributed Acylic Graph (DAG)-based structure. What makes it unique is its improvement upon “Gossip about Gossip” consensus. We make several improvements—such as the use of Lamport timestamps, Graph dominance ideas, and others—to ensure that messages are sent between nodes as quickly as possible. There is no waiting for blocks to be mined. The DAG based on the Lachesis consensus algorithm enables the network to confirm these fast and secure transactions deterministically, and it underpins the performance of the network.
How does that system guarantee so much transaction throughput?
As soon as a node receives a transaction, it attempts to broadcast it to other nodes to have the transactions signed by them as well, in order to achieve a super-majority consensus of two-thirds of the network’s total confirmation power. A variety of techniques are used to speed up communication between nodes. In addition, we are implementing incentives in our Proof-of-Stake model to encourage validators to run better-performing hardware. For example, the network can constantly analyze the average time it takes for nodes to sign messages across the network and better reward faster-performing nodes, thus encouraging better node performance. Better hardware on the network means increased throughput.
Any final thoughts?
Technology is not impersonal – the people developing and using these tools are what drive a project’s potential. Fantom’s focus on gathering the right talent and building the right relationships has set them up for success. I believe in the technology Fantom is building, and I believe in the team that is building it.
This concludes first of our 1-on-1 interview series! Follow us on Twitter for more upcoming interviews, news, analysis