The NEAR Foundation announced today that Illia Polosukhin, co-founder of NEAR Protocol, has been appointed NEAR Foundation CEO to lead the NEAR ecosystem into the next phase of building an open web. As the person who has driven the vision for NEAR from the very beginning, there is no one better to oversee the growth of the NEAR Open Web Ecosystem and guide the constellation of teams building on NEAR to work together towards that common vision. From the earliest days of NEAR, Illia’s vision of an open web has guided the development of the ecosystem and served as a north star for the Foundation. In his new role as CEO, he will be able to realize that vision in a more direct and streamlined way.
Last week, Illia sat down with Blockleaders Editor Jillian Godsil to talk about his vision of creating a blockchain that that worked. Here is his story:
Illia Polosukhin began coding at the age of ten. He was quite the coder Ninja although sadly he does not have much time for coding these days as he runs the busy NEAR protocol with co-founder Alexander Skidanov. He has also left behind his fiction writing: short stories and half started science fiction novels. However, in his early thirties, he is still young enough to return to his creative writing – or at least he will have time when NEAR gets to at least one billion users.
He stresses two things during our conversation. Firstly, NEAR is not an Ethereum killer (despite several click bait style headlines floating in the ether – he is positively collaborative). In fact, he presses his hand to his head when I reference these headlines, they are the bane of his life. Secondly, while having one billion users is a genuine target he does not care where these users reside – he is happy to share.
A native of Ukraine, he was privy to post soviet society and its volatility. He has lived through hyperinflation and multiple bank failures. These societal restrictions were ameliorated by the influence of his mother, an engineer and maths polymath. He mixed in mathematical and programming circles which led him to competing as a student in competitive programming which is, according to Illia, the Olympics of coding.
“We also have long cold winters so it is something to do.”
long cold winters
Coding is more than a cold winter pastime. To Illia it is a very pure form of logic. “You want to solve a problem, you code and you solve the problem.”
At university, Illia worked part time, coding for a company in Kharkiv which had its headquarters in San Diego. He was fascinated with machine learning, which is another pure form of logic, only this time coding with a machine which learns from practice. He was offered summer work in San Diego and he jumped at the chance.
Originally, Illia was focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence – anything to do with neural networks. In 2012, while he was in highschool, Google published its cat neuron paper, where 16,000 computer processors in Google’s X Lab taught itself how to identify a cat.
“Nobody told it what to look for. It did it all by itself. I knew this was important.”
Illia was fascinated also by natural language which is the way humans express and share knowledge.
“Visual is important (that’s how most species communicate) but language is a lot more intelligent. We need to look at how we actually process language effectively.”
After college, Illia spent some time with Google working in an area afterwards called transformers and which was the precursor to ChatGPT.
He was working on improving data models and trying to develop smarter datasets. At this point, he engaged with computer science students across the world which delivered great data but also a headache on how to pay them.
This was when he cottoned onto the use of Bitcoin as a global payment system. However, as both Bitcoin and Ethereum were expensive to use, he knew he needed a simpler, faster and cheaper iteration.
“Our early ambition at NEAR was to create a global payment network that guaranteed ownership, was accessible, scalable and cheap to use – for billions of users.”
So why did cryptocurrencies only come into their own for Illia at this point. How had the value of Bitcoin not seemed useful before? In a phrase – proof of work.
POW was a complete antithesis to basic human forces of nature.
We all accept the proof of work (POW) aspect to Bitcoin and early cryptocurrencies. We don’t need to explain POW except to new entrants and we have moved on significantly – almost to the point where Layer 1 and Layer 2 protocols are confusingly similar. For Illia, however, the POW was a complete antithesis to basic human forces of nature.
“So Bitcoin offered the premise that the more successful you were, the more energy you are using. That’s not natural.”
Then in 2017, Illia learnt about Proof of Stake (POS) and that made sense to him. And that’s when NEAR.AI began to transition to NEAR Protocol.
“We have tooling for middleware, data aggregation, even for decentralized front ends. We make it easy for developers to fork new applications. We make it easy for developers to onboard users; they don’t need to install anything, they don’t even need to pre fund their wallets.
“NEAR isn’t just a Layer 1 blockchain, it’s the Blockchain Operating System for an Open Web.”
In the future, Illia doesn’t see blockchain distinction being important with boundaries shifting. It’s why he doesn’t mind where the first billion users land.
“From a user perspective all of this will be abstracted. Users won’t have to navigate between different chains and use different wallets. In fact, users won’t even know what blockchain they are on.”
NEAR Protocol is not targeting exclusive, niche areas of crypto. Instead, it is targeting the majority of people: people who need a better financial system, people who need better economic opportunities and people who just need better entertainment solutions.
“We are focused on making access easy, like using your email to set up an account. We are actively working with apps with millions of users already, apps like Sweatcoin, where blockchain complexity is abstracted.”
Back in 2021, the NEAR Protocol raised an eye watering $500 million but as Illia points out – they are building an ecosystem not a product and that takes people, time and money.
That also explains the focus on creators, which includes developers. Illia sees NFTs as a really interesting experiment where creators in all walks of life could control and own their content.
“We want to make sure people are compensated for creating content and to offer a new economy for them – especially people coming from developing world countries. We are leveling the playing pitch.”
NEARCON 2023 is just around the corner and Illia is keen to build on community, generate hype and contribute back into the platform.
“Whether you are building, creating or learning, we want everyone to become part of the community. At the end of the day, NEAR works because everyone contributes and I’m inviting everyone to get involved.”