Exploring JavaScript and Smart Contracts with Agoric CEO Dean Tribble by@saragpinto

Exploring JavaScript and Smart Contracts with Agoric CEO Dean Tribble

May 3rd 2022 988 reads
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In this slogging thread, we invited Dean Tribble, the CEO of Agoric, an open-source development company. Dean has been pursuing a vision of large-scale networked computer systems for decades. We discussed JavaScript, smart contracts, and defi.
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Sara Pinto

Slogging insights

In this AMA, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dean Tribble. Dean is the CEO of Agoric, and had a vast journey in tech by being involved in various software projects and startups since the 80s. He has been pursuing a vision of large-scale networked computer systems and that led him to smart contracts.

This Slogging thread by Sara Pinto, Dean Tribble, Dimitar Bochvarovski, Pawan Sharma, Mónica Freitas and Limarc Ambalina occurred in slogging's official #amas channel, and has been edited for readability.

Sara PintoApr 15, 2022, 4:00 PM

Hey @channel, please join me in welcoming our next AMA guest, Dean Tribble, the CEO of http://agoric.com. Agoric is an open-source development company launching an interoperable Proof-of-Stake chain and economy.

Please feel free to ask Dean anything about:

  • JavaScript smart contracts for better composability
  • Scaling web3 through the 10M+ JavaScript developers across the globe
  • Reducing common smart contracts vulnerabilities
  • Building an economy in the decentralized finance (DeFi) industry

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Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:01 PM

Hello! Thank you for having me!

Sara PintoApr 15, 2022, 4:01 PM

Hey Dean Tribble, it's great to have you here with us. Can we start off with you telling us a bit about your background?

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:14 PM

I had my first computer job when I was 15, my first startup (funded by the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell) when I was 17. So I’ve been doing software and startups since the 80s. Much of it has been in building large scale distributed systems.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:06 PM

I have been pursuing a vision of large scale networked computer systems for literally decades. I worked at Xerox PARC (with a few of my colleagues here at Agoric) on early secure distributed programming languages and operating systems. Modern-day promises in JavaScript and RUST descend from that work. I then went and worked on hypertext (before the web) at Xanadu. Somewhere in there in 1989 I worked on the first production smart contract (yes, 5 years before Vitalik was born 🙂.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:07 PM

Since then I’ve worked on lots of large scale systems from early brokerage information systems in Java to my previous gig of a multibillion dollar payment instrument. Usually it’s about bringing new tech to market to enable mo stranger to cooperate more successfully!

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:08 PM

That is what got me into smart contracts in the first place: “software enforcing the terms of a contract-like arrangement between multiple parties” just enables so much more cooperation in the world. All the businesses from eBay and PayPal to AirBNB and Lyft are that kind of business.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:10 PM

Those all require a trusted intermediary, and as we know they aren’t always trustworthy 🙂. But then along came blockchain that enables independent computers in different jurisdictions to run the same software and verify each others work, and suddenly you can run smart contract businesses without the trusted intermediary. That’s what got me into building smart contract infrastructure for next generation of blockchains. And here we are 🙂

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:13 PM

That makes me realize I skipped Sun and Microsoft in there.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:15 PM

At Sun Labs in the 90s, we had a project to build a smart contract platform. That’s a big part of the early design work that led to elements of Agoric’s JavaScript smart contract platform.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:16 PM

At Microsoft, I was an architect on the Midori (research) operating system, a research operating system using the same aysnc message/ocap/promise based architecture approach that we now use in the Agoric vm/kernel.

Dimitar BochvarovskiApr 15, 2022, 4:12 PM

What a career 🙂

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Dimitar BochvarovskiApr 15, 2022, 4:18 PM

Why JavaScript? I mean, me personally am a Web Developer and use JS in my day to day life, and is the language that I won't change for anything else, but there is a lot of discussion about the issues that come with JS, such as dynamic types, and the ease of making mistakes with memory management...

Dimitar BochvarovskiApr 15, 2022, 4:19 PM

And I am a big fan of Kyle Simpson, to mention. He has interesting courses for object capabilities in js

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:19 PM

I love that question because it has both unsurprising and surprising answers.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:22 PM

The unsurprising answer is in the “…is the language that I won’t change for anything else…“. 13.9M developers! I want to see more cooperation in the world, and smart contracts are an incredibly powerful tool for helping that happen. For that to matter though, it’s got to be available to most of the programmers in the world. It’s not much help if, to get a smart contract built, you have to go pray to the priesthood of 10k expensive Solidity developers. It’s easier to find a good lawyer and do it the old-fashioned way! So we set out to meet devs where they are at and empower them to build smart contracts.

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Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:27 PM

The surprising answer is that JavaScript is more securable than most other programming languages, due in large measure to the contributions of our, Chief Scientist, Mark Miller. He’s has been driving the needed elements into JavaScript from our earlier secure language work since the beginning. His 2015 paper at financial cryptography on “Capability-based Financial Instruments” showed examples in the E programming language that you can now write in JavaScript on Agoric.

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Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:33 PM

The reason JS is more securable is also partly an accident of history: the JS language was standardized in ECMA, whereas the browser host environment for it was standardized in W3C. That corresponds to a user-mode/system-mode separation that is required for secure operating systems. You have never seen a design boundary as well defended as committees defend their turf 😄. So the only way that a JS program/module/whatever gets authority to anything in the system is if it’s put into the global object used for evaluation. In the browser, that global includes

such, whereas in node, the global includes
and the like. Mark and others have kept JS on that track. And with a few additional features (e.g.,
) we are able to evaluate JS code (e.g., on the blockchain or in servers) where the only authority it gets is to specific services we provide it It can’t get at the filesystem, the network, etc.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:35 PM

that’s the “hardened JavaScript”. It’s open-source, available for web2 and web3 at https://github.com/endojs/endo, and runs in any standard JS environment. It’s the backbone of MetaMask’s next gen wallet, used in Salesforce’s AppExchange, and of course used for our smart contract platform.

Sara PintoApr 15, 2022, 4:19 PM

Dean Tribble, that’s incredible! You had quite the journey. I have to ask, in the name of the not-so-tech-savvy folks, could you elaborate on smart contracts on the blockchain? And what do you mean by composability?

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:44 PM

As for what a smart contract is: “software enforcing the terms of a contract-like arrangement between multiple parties”. That it! Hence eBay and PayPal and Lyft and StubHub all are largely smart contract business deployed by a “trusted intermediary”. So smart contracts were $1T+ market cap *before* blockchain. We rely on the intermediaries to faithfully execute their software, and most transactions go through without any human involvement by the hosting company.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:46 PM

Such businesses took off much faster once there were good libraries and platforms to rapidly compose new businesses without coding everything from scratch (e.g., shopify, stripe, etc. all provided components that developers could reuse).

Dimitar BochvarovskiApr 15, 2022, 4:51 PM

Why was it so hard to came up with a "code that can be executed on the blockchain", which is what the smart contract is in general (correct me if I am wrong), and we needed to wait for Ethereum to come with this solution?

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:52 PM

But my favorite component model example is in the UI space (I worked on UIs as an intern in the Smalltalk group at PARC after all). Before React/vue/etc., experts could build some pretty cool stuff in JavaScript. BUT it’s a nightmare to debug fancy apps written in raw HTML/JS (I still recall my last round of trying to debug why the tax rate of some purchase page wasn’t changing when the user changed their zip code). React provides a component framework for user interface components that completely addresses many of the hard problems in building fancy UIs, and more, enables components built by multiple parties to work together extremely well.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:54 PM

The result is that shortly after React came out, new developers can build fancier, safer, more responsive, more helpful applications than experts could the year before React. That’s what a component framework gets you.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 4:58 PM

Our goal is a framework that provides the same kind of support, but for smart contracts that handle digital assets, pricing, etc. (instead of ouse clicks and rendering). In platforms like Ethereum, there are security hazards that are frankly too high-risk for cryptoexperts, let alone application programmers just trying to solve their business problem. Our framework is designed to protect developers from those hazards.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:02 PM

So a smart contract is not “code that can be executed on a blockchain”, since there was $1T+ of value in smart contracts before blockchains!

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Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:04 PM

Bitcoin is itself a smart contract; it’s software that’s enforcing rules for transfer of BTC. It’s the first smart contract that didn’t need a trusted intermediary.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:07 PM

Eth brought support for running other people’s software. There were a couple of requirements for that. The gold standard of blockchain is

multiple computers in different jurisdictions and different administrative domains all coming to consensus about data, choices, and computation.

I’ll unpack that, and then talk about why it’s important 🙂.

Pawan SharmaApr 15, 2022, 5:12 PM

Hey Dean Tribble Could you please explain a bit about offer safety in Agoric and does it refunds the original asset plus the transaction fee or just the original asset ?

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:13 PM

multiple computers in different jurisdictions and different administrative domains all coming to consensus

Means that no human, organization, or government can unilaterally change the systems behavior. They would have to simultaneously compromise a majority of machines (which are controlled by other parties) to compromise the integrity of computation.

about data, choices, and computation.

Data: “Dean has $100 in his account”
Choices: “Dean tried to withdraw his offer before the auction closed. Did he win the auction and spend his money or did he get his money back?”
Computation: “the auction ran and determined that Dean would be the winner”

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:20 PM

The novel hard technical part is “all coming to consensus”. If you know all the computers (you don’t) and you can rely on them all to not cheat (you can’t), then we know how to count votes and make sure it’s a majority. The area of Byzantine Fault Tolerance covers handling the “what if they cheat”. The most brilliant insight in BitCoin was how to address consensus when you don’t know all the participating computers.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:25 PM

Finally, for those computer to all check that they agree, they have to actually agree! So the same program run with the same arguments multiple times in multiple places have to produce the same answers (this is called “deterministic”). That turns out to be hard! If they can see the clock, they can behave differently. If they can see any memory address, they can behave differently. If they can see when garbage collection happens,…you get the idea.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:29 PM

So Solidity has a lot of issues, and is very low-level, but it does execute deterministically. Our hardened JavaScript lets you run JavaScript deterministically! That will make all this accessible to a lot more developers

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:35 PM

Pawan Sharma asks about “offer safety” in Agoric. That’s one of the critical properties of the smart contract framework. Familiar safety properties are things like memory safety and type safety, where they just completely eliminate some large class of bugs. They don’t solve everything but they can take 80% of bugs off the table.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:38 PM

Offer safety is a safety property at the economic level.

First the setting: In existing blockchains smart contract systems, you execute transactions by sending money to a “random number” (an account address) and hoping something good happens. People have sent (and lost) assets to “addresses” that weren’t real accounts, that were wrong accounts, to contracts that then had failures, etc. This model is both error-prone and a horrible user interaction. I want to send money to my friend John, not to 0x234ag3453.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:52 PM

Real business involves quid pro quo: “I will give you $X if you give me concert ticket Y”. We support that directly. So in our API, clients invoke smart contracts by making

s. Each offer says what they
, what they will
for, and under what circumstances they can
with their assets. The payments in that offer then go into the framework itself and NOT to the smart contract. The only way the smart contract can get the assets is if it provides the assets that the offer wants.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 5:59 PM

So what’s offer safety look like for an auction?

  • seller makes an offer to the auction smart contract in which they want at least $40 and they will give a concert ticket X
  • each bidder makes an offer in which they want the concert ticket X, and give an amount corresponding to their bid.

Zoe holds all the assets, and notified the contract of each offer. When the auction closes, the auction contract atomically

the concert ticket to the winning bidder and the winning bidder’s money to the seller. That reallocate will only succeed if the winning bid is enough for the seller and if the concert ticket is indeed what the bidder bid for.

No misbehavior, bug, etc. on the part of the auction contract can enable it to take money from the bidders that are not getting the concert ticket.

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Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 6:01 PM

That means that the clients of the auction are MUCH safer. They don’t need to read the auction code to know that they get their desired ticket or their money back.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 6:02 PM

Also the creator of the auction contract is happy too: many of the hazards in Solidity are around handling money that you are not supposed to hold onto. There have been literally $1B+ lost/stolen due to sloppy handling of returning money from contracts. With Zoe and offer safety, you don’t need to write a single line of code in the contract to deal with that safely.

Dean TribbleApr 15, 2022, 6:09 PM

A related property is “payout liveness”: remember each off has an

as part of its terms. The default for that (which you conveniently don’t need to specify) is “whenever I want; it’s my money dang it!“. Well OK it’s called “OnDemand” 🙂 That just means that you can exit whenever you want, and again, no bug or malicious behavior on the part of the contract can delay you exiting the offer and getting your assets back. Note however, that “your assets” might be after some reallocations have already happened. If you offer was “I’ll buy up to N tickets for X moola”, then it might have already reallocated some of those N to you and taken money for those, consistent with the
that you specified. But once your exit signal comes in, Zoe pulls your assets and returns them to you without the contract getting to intervene. Similarly, if the contract crashes, hangs, etc. Zoe will exit your offer. It’s astonishing just how much money is unintentionally “locked up” in contracts where users have no means to get their money back!

Sara PintoApr 15, 2022, 6:13 PM

Dean Tribble, thank you so much for your detailed answer! What about the smart contracts vulnerabilities? How can they be reduced?

Pawan SharmaApr 15, 2022, 6:21 PM

Dean Tribble Great explanation !!

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Dean TribbleApr 17, 2022, 8:50 PM

For ways to reduce smart contract vulnerabilities, we discussed

  • offer safety
  • payout liveness

Additional critical ways:

  • async coupling to prevent reentrancy
  • component reuse to avoid reimplementing everything

Dean TribbleApr 17, 2022, 8:58 PM

In Ethereum and other chains (most recently PolyNetwork), billions in losses have come from “re-entrancy”. That’s where if there are 2 components (or contracts) A plans to call B and then do something X, but B calls back into a (re-enters A) before it can get to X. For example, A is an auction, an B requests a refund from bid. B says “send me my refund”, and so A looks it up, and sends the refund to B, and then records that it has given a refund to B. BUT when B is sent the refund, instead of replying “thanks”, it immediately send the “send me a refund” message to A again. Since A has not yet recorded that B has received its refund, it goes ahead and sends the refund again. And again, B reacts to that with “send me a refund”. The A service never gets to the point of recording that B has received its refund, so B just does this until it has drained A’s account. It sounds absurb when said like this, but this was exactly the bug in 2017 that got folks wondering whether the tech behind Agoric could help blockchain. And one $660M exploit last year was the same basic problem. It’s because the architecture of Eth allows, supports, and even requires reentrancy.

Dean TribbleApr 17, 2022, 9:00 PM

The Agoric model is fundamentally asynchronous, meaning that when A sends a message to B, it doesn’t sit there waiting for B to do something. It moves on and finishes recording what it needs to record. It means that trivial example aren’t quite as trivial, but it also means that non-trivial examples (like DeFi) aren’t fraught with security hazards.

Mónica FreitasApr 18, 2022, 11:22 AM

Hey Dean Tribble! Great to have you with us! What would you say are the main challenges when it comes to building an economy in DeFi?

Sara PintoApr 18, 2022, 2:20 PM

Oh, I see. Thanks for explaining, Dean Tribble. Reentrancy can cause a lot of trouble. Is there any way to know when we are dealing with a reentrancy system?

Dean TribbleApr 18, 2022, 4:48 PM

re rentrancy; it’s part of the system architecture, and so cannot be papered over with different languages or helper libraries. A system in which calls between contracts or contract components are call-return (A calls B and waits for the answer) are almost always reentrant. If while A is calling B (“hey get me my refund”), someone else can call into A, then it’s likely reentrant. The architectures that aren’t either use asynchronous messaging (like agoric) or just have limited semantics (like e.g., Kadena).

Dean TribbleApr 18, 2022, 4:55 PM

re challenges in building an economy in DeFi

  • building a solid platform of course. We are finishing that now.
  • bootstrapping the liquidity. Markets work because there’s money of some form providing grease for the gears. Believers need to bring that “grease” up front so that it’s easy for users to trade with each other rather than struggling with the system.
  • navigating regulatory issues. ’nuff said.
Sara PintoApr 18, 2022, 10:27 PM

Dean Tribble, what about scaling web3 through JavaScrip developers? What do you mean by that? Is something Agoric is working on?

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 1:29 AM

It’s at the heart of what we are working on. Lots of folks talk about scaling transaction speed or blocksize or latency. But the hardest thing to scale is the developer base. To reach a significantly larger community of developers, we cannot expect that they will drop their current languages and tools and work on yet another programming language. We must “meet them where they are at”.

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 1:30 AM

So with agoric:

  • developer in the most popular programming language on the planet
  • using the most popular development environments and tools
  • with programming models that they are familiar with (event loops with promises, react-style components, etc.)
Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 1:33 AM

The specifics matter (e.g., JavaScript with async execution and such) but it also matters that the priority is enabling developers that just want to get something done. Our platform should grow like JS and Node did: from teh ground up because it enables programmers to get stuff done! :)

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 1:33 AM

My goal is that “if you can build a web2 application for the cloud, you can build a web3 application for agoric”. It’s early, so we aren’t there yet, but we will be.

Limarc AmbalinaApr 19, 2022, 2:08 AM

Hi Dean Tribble thanks for joining us! My question is: why open source? What benefits and cons does this model have and how do the pros outweigh the cons?

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 3:46 AM

Lots of reasons for open source.

Personal motivation: I’ve had the opportunity to work on some amazing projects. The problem is that some of the most amazing didn’t ship, and so that part of my life had some fun, interesting, but ultimately much less valuable time spent. Much of what we are doing is finally building an open source version of really useful tech that we’ve built in multiple incarnations, but haven’t been able to easily carry forward into new projects.

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 3:48 AM

Cultural motivation: JavaScript is a largely open-source world. And we want lots of reusable components. Historically, that kind of reuse flourishes best in an open source environment: devs know that other devs are goign to the same tech stack for components, so that’s where they will build and contribute their components.

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 4:03 AM

And finally: the core value prop of blockchain is high integrity via decentralization: smart contracts are executed on multiple computers run by independent operators in different jurisdictions. If they are all running the same, closed-source software, then we would get essentially no decentralization. The implementors are a single source of failure. And really it needs to grow into community-owned code. Thatonly really works with open-source.

Sara PintoApr 19, 2022, 4:40 PM

That's a wrap! Thank you so much for being here answering our questions, Dean Tribble. Do you have any final thoughts or is there anything you'd like to promote?

Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 5:09 PM

We will be launching our “mainnet1” to provide a community-backed stable token for the interchain environment. Come participate with the community in http://agoric.com/discord and sign up for the newsletter and http://agoric.com/newsletter ! And if you are web2 developer, checkout endojs. Thanks for having me!

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Dean TribbleApr 19, 2022, 5:16 PM

And of course our Agoric announcement channels,
Telegram (https://t.me/agoric_ann) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/agoric).

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