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Rong Chen: From Supercomputers To Decentralization

The Elastos Founder reflects on the birth of the internet, and the next steps.

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Blockchain project Elastos is — borrowing from Winston Churchill — a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The key appears to be decentralizing the web, in whose creation the project’s founder had a hand.  

Rong Chen, Elastos Chairman and Founder, took some time to discuss his journey to decentralization with Crypto Briefing, including the twists and turns that positioned him among the leaders of the blockchain space today.


Right Place, Right Time

Rong has been working on operating systems since 1985, when he came to study at the University of Illinois for his Master’s Degree. His destiny, however, appears to have been sealed when  he earned a scholarship with a computer science lab at China’s Tsinghua University, along with the half dozen people who would become future founders of Lenovo.

“I really wanted to be a chief architect of a supercomputer. It just so happened that the Lenovo lab had a scholarship for that.” said Rong, adding that he had no knowledge of what the Lenovo team was building. And while he had nothing to do with Lenovo’s success, the team inspired him. Chen likewise inspired them, and was the envy of the Lenovo Lab when he earned a scholarship to come to the U.S.

“I realized when you launch a startup, you don’t have to be super smart. People think wow, Lenovo, the biggest PC manufacturer in the world. But at that time, everybody was just a normal person. No one was super smart. No one had that big of a dream. That was one incident,” said Rong.

It wouldn’t be the last time he was at the right place at the right time.


Coming to America

It happened again when Rong arrived at the University of Illinois. He had dreams of being a chief architect for a supercomputer — but fate decided otherwise.

The campus had two supercomputing centers, including the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), where Rong ended up. This is where the first civil (non-military) computer was built.

“It all happened at the University of Illinois. Again, it was not by design. I just happened to be accepted,” a modest Rong explains. He had been eager to accept a job at Bell Labs for the summer and not participate in the NCSA. But, as a Chinese citizen, he was not allowed to work off-campus.

So he “settled” for the on-campus lab, designing software for supercomputers and doing animation graphics. Little did he know history was about to be made again. “Three or four years later, the very same team[NCSA] invented the web browser,” said Rong.

Incidentally, the University of Illinois also counts Marc Andreessen among its alumni, but Rong wasn’t one of his classmates. Rong was with the first batch, among the first four or five programmers to ever have worked in the lab.


From Architect to Operating Systems

Rong was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming the chief architect of a supercomputer, when he began to work for a research and development center as an assistant.

That’s he learned Amdahl’s Law, which suggests that supercomputing has no future. Rong’s aspirations went up in smoke.

So he quit and went to work on supercomputer apps instead of research. “It was a major change from chief architect to operating systems,” Rong says. He spent the better part of a decade as a senior software engineer for Microsoft; he later said that Operating Systems were an even worse discipline than supercomputers.

These experiences would eventually become the cornerstone of how he views the blockchain today.


A Game-changing invention

Rong stumbled upon the blockchain in 2016. He explained what it meant to him:

“Satoshi’s invention was really game-changing. For the first time, we could have a kind of computer which cannot be controlled by any individual, corporation, or government. It can’t be turned off by one individual. It’s a ledger not controlled by one party.” 

Prior to this, Rong was doing enterprise IoT:

“I was looking for new funding and we had beta or alpha of industrial IoT running already. Then we needed new funding. I was desperately looking anywhere to make that happen, and that’s when I found the blockchain. I realized those kids are talking about dApps and TPS. Come on, let me show you something.”

Rong met the early blockchain pioneers, and learned about the space and decentralization. But, when they discussed what makes a dApp, Rong realized they needed a more senior guy around.

The crowd had already become rich on bitcoin; they weren’t interested in learning from him. If he could not convince them, Rong decided, he would lead his own team. So this group became both his competitors and his peers.

At that time, people were discussing how Ethereum and Bitcoin were too slow. Rong was dismayed to learn that people were still speaking in terms of transactions per second:

“I could not believe people could still be so ignorant and talking about ‘can we have a blockchain comparable to a supercomputer?’ No way. Never. People still today think the blockchain could compete with a supercomputer at 1 million TPS. By 2016, people were still talking about that and that’s what really surprised me.”

That goes against Amdahl’s Law, he explained, which states that this is an impossibility.

Ethereum, he says, is another great invention, but also easily misunderstood. Similar to an operating system, when you’re dealing with apps and ecosystems, you need developers willing to build on them, he explained.

Rong envisions a world where there are no websites and where consumers could engage with content directly without Facebook manipulating any data.

“Can we call that a new web, a decentralized app? The answer is yes,” he says. “If we could get rid of all the websites, we can have WeChat without Tencent. YouTube without Google. Twitter without Twitter.” This is his vision, and 2019 is the year he says Elastos is going to do it.


New Web

The Elastos team is comprised of 70 full-time employees as well as open-source contributors who are rewarded with the Elastos token.  All told, there are approximately 100 people working on the project.

That’s not bad for a new Web, the first phase of which is planned for the end of March. By that time, the Elastos blockchain should be autonomously running. Things really ramp up on April Fools’ Day, which is when a new decentralized Elastos will launch.

“Developers will start to build apps that are peer-to-peer to sell concert tickets, music albums, movie tickets, all peer-to-peer and with no website,” Rong says, pointing to two more milestones: one in August, when dApps should be up and running and another by year-end 2019. “Hopefully, that is when we will have the beginnings of the whole new web built,” he said.

Any individual or project that tries to disrupt something as big as the internet is sure to run into their share of controversy, and Elastos is no exception. Most recently, Elastos has become the target in an investor-led lawsuit for selling alleged securities. Nobody seemed to mind when cryptocurrencies were trading in a bull market.

As for Rong, fate has taken him this far. We have a feeling there is more to come in his journey from supercomputers, to operating systems, to total decentralization. Wherever that is, history is likely to be made – again.


Crypto Briefing does not accept any payment or financial benefit for biographical profiles. A profile feature is not an endorsement of any project or token. 

The author is invested in digital assets, including Ethereum which is mentioned in this article.

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