CasperLabs wants to help ‘morph’ China’s BSN into AWS of blockchain

Yeah, we’re talking about Blockchain Services Networks here, and CasperLabs, a proof-of-stake-based smart contract just announced that it’s doing a partnership with China’s BSN to cater to the network’s global developers. Now it’s the latest blockchain protocol in a growing list on BSN in China. What does this mean for developments in China? What does this mean for the world?

Well, joining us today is CasperLabs, CEO Mrinal Manohar. And Mrinal, it is great to have you on the show. You are dialing in from Dubai right now, right?

Mrinal Manohar: That’s right, I’m in Dubai and it’s a pleasure to be here Angie, thank you for having me.

Lau: Great to have you. Of course, you’re traveling when most of the world is staying put and you’re here to tell us — and we’d love to know more about this — you’ve just signed with China’s Blockchain Services Network. What does it actually mean?

Manohar: I think China as a country is taking an extremely progressive stance on blockchain at least in terms of the technology. Let’s separate how they deal with tokens and cryptocurrency. Let’s talk about blockchain technology as part of the technology stack, which really is probably the most important part. I think China’s taking an extremely progressive position here. It’s one of the few countries which has a government-endorsed network, which is trying to be layer-1 and network agnostic at first — as is any technology — but obviously, over time you will have networks that have more usage, networks that have less usage based on their featured usability. 

I think this is a great initiative by the Chinese government. I think Red Date [Technology] is doing a really good job with this. I think the issue is people are scared to use blockchain technology primarily for a bunch of reasons, but one of the big reasons is regulatory. People are like, I don’t know if using this technology is going to get me into trouble and I think having state-level endorsement is a great way to push the technology forward. I think other countries should also learn from this and also embrace the technology as much as possible. We’re super excited to be a pre-launch network that’s already integrating with BSN. And I think their aim to help enterprises and agencies use this technology, regardless of the cryptocurrency aspect, is a point of view that we share. So it was just a very natural partnership, and we agreed on most of that stuff.

Lau: A lot of our audience comes from enterprise and commercial space and just starting to understand the impact of Blockchain Services Network. So let’s talk about that a little bit more. And I’d love your insight in perspective there. Blockchain Services Network is what China is enabling blockchain protocols like CasperLabs, but a whole host of others, including Ethereum and just an enormous list of layer-1 protocols, as you’ve said. And what it actually is creating is this technical infrastructure that allows everyone to participate on this platform so that local governments might decide to incorporate some smart city layering using blockchain they might work with CasperLabs, but then they might work with Ethereum, or they might work with Quorum, or they might work with a number of other layer-1 protocols. So that’s the China side. And then there is another side to this. This is Blockchain Services Network International. So can you tell us the difference? Will you be working on both infrastructures?

Manohar: Yes — we’ll be working with both. There are use cases where you want your infrastructure to be limited to a certain geography — I get it. There’s local regulation, et cetera. And so I see why there’s also a localized offering. But we’re definitely working with both. The core public network that we’re launching is highly diversified. We have validators from every major continent in the world, hundreds of them. And so the network is going to be highly diversified and geographically split, and so we will work with both arms of the agency.

The one area where the Casper network technology is slightly different from other blockchains is we don’t really mandate private or public settings. It’s a completely public permissionless network that we’re setting up, but you can use the software in a private permissioned instant if you wanted to. It’s all completely open source. We’d love to help people do that as well. I think our ability to deploy the technology in a hybrid matter is the reason why we’ve been seeing a bunch of enterprise adoption. If you can think about the way cloud computing happened. It didn’t force enterprises to put 100% of their infrastructure on the public cloud. It lets people pick and choose, and I think that’s fairly important for any technology to say. So, yeah, we’ll work with both sides. And I think because of that modality, it kind of makes a lot of sense for us. 

Lau: In real-world terms, how would people work with BSN and this menu of choices that now includes CasperLabs.

Manohar: That’s actually a great question that I do not have a wonderful answer to. The way it looks like to me if you look at the interface, it’s similar to, like an Apple App Store or like an Android app store in the sense that you see the list of applications you can search based on type of application — much fewer, obviously, like Apple’s App Store probably has a couple of million applications on it right now. So it looks kind of like that and you pick your flavor. Its earlier stages. 

BSN was announced a few months ago, it’s not been years. And I think over time there’ll be much more gradation. If you think about AWS, you’re picking like an infrastructure provider there, you have very specific — if you want to run an Oracle, for instance, on your AWS — there’s a very specific page that you can go to and understand how exactly to do that. I think it eventually morphs into that. But practically right now looks kind of like an app store but it’s early days. It’s going to develop over the couple of years.

Lau: That’s actually a really great way to describe it. It is kind of like a state-initiated or inspired AWS for blockchain protocols.

Manohar: Yeah. 

Lau: And so the opportunity is really the limit of your imagination. What are some of the applications that we could see from both enterprise or even government?

Manohar: Rather than talking about very, very specific use cases, I’d rather talk about, what I think are the two things that are really exciting outside of finance. So decentralized finance and finance in general I think everyone understands why it’s interesting on blockchain. 

Two things that we found really interesting and where we’re seeing a lot of traction: One is use cases where digital uniqueness is really, really important. If you step back and think about blockchain, what it does really well is create digital uniqueness. It’s the best version of copy protection we really ever had. We’ve tried to copy protect MP3s and movies for decades and everyone’s seen how that’s failed pretty badly. And now we finally have a great copy protection technology.

So things that require digital uniqueness — well what would that be? A patent, the license to a song, the license to a video — these are all instances where having digital uniqueness or the ability to count the amount of digital copies of something are really, really important. We’ve seen a lot of traction there. 

One of the companies we’re working with is called IPwe. They have a patent database of thousands for Fortune 100 companies. And being able to publicly track licensing of patents for example, is really, really powerful. It’s kind of like a butterfly network. There are 200 patent offices worldwide. Thousands of companies that interact with these try to be at the center of a butterfly network like that is hugely, hugely valuable. If they think about why Amazon is so successful, it’s because they’ve bridged a massive butterfly network of a huge set of sellers and a huge set of buyers.

You can do similar things with patents, you can do similar things with music, et cetera. So that’s one use case. I think the other use case is where counterfeiting has real-world consequences. For example, if a bad part got into like an airplane engine, that would be really bad. It could crash and things could go really bad. So, while supply chain is interesting, it’s more interesting where the risk of counterfeit is a real problem. And we’ve seen like a lot of use cases there where the risk of counterfeit medical devices or extremely high tech industries could have life-threatening consequences. And blockchain is a great way because the immutability of the track and trace of that underlying product is as much higher than existing technologies and these are done manually right now — it’s very expensive.

Those are the two, call it, flavors of things other than finance that we’re seeing a lot of traction in. I do think it’s only going to be limited by people’s imagination but right now this seems to be where there’s at least a willingness, because I think the obviousness of the revenue and cost-saving opportunity is quite evident as opposed to some of the other use cases where it might be more of a stretch.

Lau: Well, and even if we just take your example of supply chain in healthcare and medical supplies. China’s one of the world’s largest exporters of face masks. And while there are enormous magnitude of face masks that are up to standard and have passed all the rules and regulations, there is also, unfortunately, that fake market. And there have been exposure and that. And so even with Covid-19 and vaccinations, it is absolutely integral to lives that this is a real vaccine that has been traced to source and is real and not fake. So to the point, I think we are seeing real world cases right now.

Manohar: Absolutely. There’s a lot of cases where the risk of a counterfeit product could have life-altering consequences. And if we have the technology to solve things like that, I think it’s just irresponsible not to.

Lau: So with BSN, what value does [the] Casper network bring specifically to Blockchain Services Network, compared to other protocols on the list already?

Mrinal Manohar: Well, quite a few. If I split it into three parts, the first is we’re really about scalability without any sort of sacrifice. If you think about the industry in general, everyone’s view is like, what should we do different from Ethereum to get this thing to go faster? And our view has been: “No, we think Ethereum kind of has it right.” If your protocol isn’t fully decentralized, it doesn’t have a security level similar to proof of work, you’re just using an expensive technology that doesn’t get you all the benefits of being a blockchain. 

But let’s bear in mind, blockchain is always going to be a more expensive technology than a database. There is cost-saving associated with centralizing computation and there is a cost to spreading it out. And so people are only going to pay that cost if they’re getting the benefit from it. I think that’s a reason why Bitcoin and Ethereum are the most popular networks right now because they don’t sacrifice decentralization or security. Our approach right from the beginning, why we’re called the Casper network is we started with, the starting point at Ethereum Research, which was CBC Casper, which was proposed around 2017. We’re really, really fortunate to have excellent researchers like Dr. Daniel Kane, Andreas Fackler and others at Cardinal Cryptography that really took CBC Casper to a place that is provably live, provably secure.

So we have a pure proof-of-stake protocol that doesn’t rely on random sampling, doesn’t rely on sharding, doesn’t rely on any of the sacrificial methods that actually scale. So you get the same level of decentralization and security that you would in a regular proof-of-work blockchain and it’s still a couple of orders of magnitude faster than the current proof of work chains. So that’s one. 

I think the second reason why a partnership like this makes a lot of sense is on the UX and developer experience side, that’s actually where we’ve spent a lot of time. We support open programming standards, we support Rust and Assembly Script right out the gate. But over time, anything that compiles down to WebAssembly. But we also have specific features that are really good for UX. IF you think about blockchain, sender always pays a transaction fee. In our model, you could write a smart contract in a way that the receiver does. The owner of the DApp actually fronts the cost for transaction fees. You can use any sort of payment methodology which creates really good end-user experiences. And there’s a couple of other features. But I won’t go into too much detail, but essentially we’re very, very developer and enterprise-friendly. We have CICD, which enterprises need.

And the third thing is the ability to use the software in hybrid, private, public — doesn’t matter what modality you want to use it in. A lot of use cases we’re working with, they keep a lot of the infrastructure private. They run an instance of the Casper blockchain privately and then they get all the trust and all the great stuff about the public network, but only on their terms. They don’t have to violate any of their customers, NDAs or any of their customer requirements because the data that they want to keep private is kept private. But the fact that a certain event or a certain transfer happened is now immutable because they put that on a public network, which they are unable to reverse. And I think that way you get the benefit, the best of both worlds. And I think we’re fairly unique in the sense that we’ve set up our software to be deployed in any modality, which I think is important for the industry in general. So I think those three things.

Lau: And what does it say about your global expansion strategy? And certainly, your goal to expand into Asia?

Manohar: It’s a first move of many. We recognize that Asia is an extremely important geography for us. As a company, we’re primarily based in Europe. Most of our engineers are in Europe and we’re based in Switzerland. But we understand both in terms of investment. We’ve raised just under US$40 million [as of] today, and a lot of it has come from China, from funds like HashKey with the Wanxiang Group, lots of amazing partners. So we’ve been lucky to have a great investor set. But more than that, we realize that a lot of the development activity, especially, state-sanctioned enterprise push into blockchain is happening primarily in China, Japan and Korea, much more so than the West.

And I think part of that is [that] cloud infrastructure and distributed compute has existed for a long time in American and European tech stacks. And so some people are not seeing the value. I think Asia is kind of leapfrogging. If you think about how Asia basically skipped the landline and went straight to the mobile phone, it’s kind of like what’s happening here. It’s like a lot of cloud computing infrastructure is kind of being skipped and people are just moving directly into blockchain. That’s the way we view it. So we view BSN as a larger part of a very, very comprehensive Asia strategy that we do want to have. [I’m] really looking forward to it. I think if you’re in the space and you’re not in Asia, you’re kind of missing the largest part of the market. You’d be crazy not to be part of it.

Lau: We certainly agree to that perspective. Being based in Asia at Forkast.News, it really is becoming very clear that a lot of the innovation leadership is happening here, certainly from the regulatory point of view even, and just creating an environment in which that is being nurtured. I think BSN is the premier example of that. When you have a state-initiated infrastructure layer that allows international blockchain protocols to work in China, but then also work internationally. I’m curious about that — the BSN China and BSN International. So what would the impact be on the China side for you and the international side? Is that distinction clear to you?

Manohar: So I don’t want to misstate this, this is how I understand it, but there will be certain applications where data can’t move China domicile, meaning the set of validators needs to be localized. And so, you’d have to set things up in a certain way to ensure that. So I think that’s part of it on one end, and also because on the documentation and access side, there’s a language barrier, obviously, like between technology you want to deploy within China and then internationally. And so I do think they’ll be distinct landing pages just like you’d see with any infrastructure provider. But that’s the way I understand it right now. But as I mentioned, it’s in the earlier stages right now and right now, I think most of the focus is on integrating blockchains first, how exactly that modality works out, we’ll have to wait and see. That’s a distinction as far as I can say.

Lau: Well, we have to wait and see because the partnership with BSN was announced even before the launch of CasperLab’s main net.

Manohar: Yes, although pretty soon. We’re in test. We have a ton of like distributed validators on our system. We will launch pretty soon this quarter sometime.

Lau: And how will it change people’s daily lives in China?

Manohar: Honestly, hopefully, in terms of like how they interact with their application, etc., not much. Meaning it shouldn’t. If you think about it, the best technology is not obvious, right? For example, people watch Netflix all the time. Netflix, almost the entire infrastructure is on AWS. You’re using AWS even if you don’t know about it and all the best technologies like that, you’re using it even if you don’t know about it. 

So how will it affect people’s daily lives? One, let’s just think about the end result, right. If I bought a mask online — the example you gave, to prevent Covid — and I want to make sure it’s for a particular manufacturer, and you can hit the verify button, and you know the technology that’s verifying this is trustable because it’s immutable and can’t really be corrupted. Now, what’s happening on the back end is a blockchain is being pinged, people are looking up hashes and there’s a lot of stuff happening on the back end. But ideally, the end consumer doesn’t even realize that all of that’s happening. So ideally, in my view, there are going to be better services, there’s going to be more trust and products that you buy, more freedom and your ability to transfer things and transact with other people. But hopefully, the end-user doesn’t even realize that they’re interacting with blockchain technology. 

If blockchain wants to be taken seriously, it needs to go into — We always say that at Casper, we’re like: “Let’s try and be 99% invisible.” Like the best technologies are the stuff you don’t know. Like Zoom is great, right? We’re using it right now. There’s a million things happening in the background, but our interaction with it was, hit a link. And that’s the way it should be for end users — my view at least.

Lau: I hear you on that, and certainly that’s increasingly the case. I want to ask you about the virtual ban on cryptocurrencies in China. So you have a Casper token and how does this mesh with CasperLabs that you’re part of the BSN, the Blockchain Services Network in China, but in China, nobody would legally be allowed to exchange or buy or I think they could hold your crypto, but they wouldn’t be allowed to exchange it or access it in a more liquid way. How do you balance that?

Manohar: Well, we view the token primarily as a way to pay for computation and a way to stake the network, like do people sometimes use these as a transfer mechanic? Sure. But actually, the function is just to: (A) Provide security to the network, meaning you’re a staker — and China, I don’t know exactly what the legal position is, but some of the largest staking pools in the world are in China. HashFork, Huobi Pool, SNZ Pool, all China-based and some of the largest staking pools in the world. So one of the primary things is, the security of the network is based on staking those tokens, which gives you a huge economic disincentive to attack the network. That’s where we derive the security from.

The other function is anything you’re doing, for example, registering a patent on the chain, registering and facemask on the chain or, anything related to the supply chain, you have to pay for the computation using the underlying Casper token. So, again, I don’t know if, like, paying for computation is something that Chinese regulators have really gone after. So if you think about those two primary uses of the underlying token, it’s very consistent with an infrastructure or utility product, much more than a value, which, of course, it can be used for. But that’s not really the primary intent.

Lau: And with now this BSN announcements with the upcoming mainnet and all that, and of course, this is on the backdrop of what we’re continuing to see in real-time unfold, which is extraordinary monetary stimulus, still U.S.-China trade tensions that exist. But we do have a new U.S. administration. How do you compute all of these changes, even geopolitically between China and the U.S. that allow you to expand, innovate and grow?

Manohar: Well, honestly, I try to be apolitical, like, honestly, I think who the administration is in the U.S. doesn’t really affect U.S.-China relations as much as people tend to think it does. They are the two largest economies in the world and both are self-interested in beating the other. So I think things like trade wars and differential taxation are just going to exist for a while. It’s just the reality. If you look at history over any time the largest economies do this to each other to maintain their own positions. Our position is against that backdrop,  we view our underlying tech stack as purely global. Our investor set is completely global. We have some investment from the U.S. as well, but Asia has actually been probably our single largest source of funding. And so overall, we don’t like to get in the middle of that. I think if you think about it day to day though, the amount of business done between U.S. companies and Chinese companies is absolutely massive.

If you think about the amount of computer infrastructure in China, like Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, Google, all these products are used very, very highly in China or glowingly not so much by this much more popular. But Microsoft has an operating system — Oracle for databases — these are used very, very much. In the US, every single smartphone we have is manufactured in China. And so if you actually peel back and ignore political rhetoric, the amount of actual business being done between the U.S. and China is actually pretty unprecedented and has been, I think it’s at record levels relative to import-export has ever been in the history of humanity.

So, again, going back to my point about being apolitical, I mean, when you look at the reality on the ground, what politicians say, politicians are going to say, they have a different set of constituents and what they’re trying to achieve. If you actually look at general business, I think the level of business between the U.S. and China is at a level that we’ve actually never seen historically. And as a truly international company, we obviously support that. Long term, our aspirations are to have a big beachhead within Asia.

Lau: Did it surprise you when you were looking for global funding that they seemed to get it? I mean, obviously a big part of your funding comes from Asia. Did it surprise you that it didn’t equally come from the U.S. side or the West side?

Manohar: Well, no, I’d say [that] we’re about 50-50. We got quite a bit from Europe as well because we are European-based. No, it didn’t surprise me. If you look at the bitcoin market cap or any databasing, you look at exchange volumes and you look at the pairs and see where most of the trading is being done. Asia is about 50 or 60% of this market. And so, you would expect that if you were to just table stakes, go around and see, like, who’s most interested in participating in a blockchain project.

You’d get about that percentage from the region. So I’d say not really surprised. Seems pretty consistent with what we’d expect, just given the relative size of the markets and interest in different places. The U.S., there are some really good VCs who are really, really supportive of blockchain technology. But in the U.S., I think part of it has to do with the financial system is fairly sophisticated. And so people aren’t as hungry for innovation, which I think is bad. I mean, like I think that’s a complacent attitude which will not work out well. But I think that’s really the explanation why the industry hasn’t exploded the same way as it has in Asia.

Lau: Well, it’s kind of the equivalent of, why redefine the pedestal when you’re standing on top of it? And yet everybody’s right now redefining that pedestal, including CasperLabs as we speak. But, finally, I got to ask you this.

When you think about BSN in China and just for one sovereign to say, “Let’s create an infrastructure matrix in the same way that as you used, you know, AWS on the private side when it came to cloud infrastructure.” Do you think an equivalent like that needs to be built from the West or outside China, or do you think BSN international kind of is already defining that space as we speak?

Manohar: I think it would definitely be like a very, very viable alternate, I think. I would be surprised if a Western government at some point doesn’t try to do a similar initiative. I’d be very surprised if they don’t. They might be a bit late to the party, but I think it’s almost inevitable someone is. So. But, you know, that’s healthy.

It’s great for BSN to be first out the gate. There’s always a first-mover advantage. And so it’ll always be a viable alternative. It’ll be like the biggest one in China but will also be a viable alternative globally.

I would be surprised if someone else didn’t try to do it. You almost have to. Otherwise, like you kind of look irresponsible. So I’d be very surprised if [no one] didn’t, but I think it’ll be a bit late. I sort of applaud [it] — what’s going on in Asia is pretty cool. Like I said, people are leapfrogging. Cloud was not as big there as it was in the West. People have just basically skipped over that straight to blockchain, just like they did with the mobile phone.

Lau: Well, it’s the leapfrog, both economically and technology-wise that we have seen as part of the Asia playbook. It’s how a lot of the economies have developed and continue to try to reach par with a lot of developed nations. So that’s just a continued story that we see here and now it’s playing out in blockchain.

But Mrinal, thank you so much. And the latest blockchain protocol, CasperLabs to join BSN China and BSN International. It was great to get your insights as to how this all lays out. And thanks for dialing in.

Of course, thanks for having me, Angie. I’m glad to talk to you. Thank you so much.

And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast.News, editor-in-chief. Until the next time.