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AI, Blockchain, and the Internet Computer: Insights from DFINITY Founder Dominic Williams

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interview-Dominic Williams

In the rapidly evolving landscape of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence (AI), few visionaries have made as significant an impact as Dominic Williams. As the pioneering Founder and Chief Scientist of the DFINITY Foundation and the driving force behind the Internet Computer Protocol (ICP), Williams has dedicated his career to pushing the boundaries of decentralized systems and reimagining the future of the Internet.

From his early days of exploring the potential of networked computers to his innovative work on blockchain consensus techniques and cryptocurrencies, Williams has consistently been at the forefront of technological advancement. His journey, marked by a relentless pursuit of innovation, led to the creation of the Internet Computer—a revolutionary blockchain network designed to extend the public internet and provide advanced “stateful serverless cloud” functionality.

In this exclusive interview, Williams shares insights into his path to founding DFINITY, the transformative potential of the Internet Computer Protocol, and the unique advantages of integrating AI with blockchain technology. He delves into the concept of Decentralized AI (dAI), its applications, and its crucial role in ensuring the integrity of AI training datasets. Williams also discusses the impact of AI smart contracts on Web3 and beyond, highlighting real-world examples and future opportunities for developers and researchers.

1. Could you start by sharing a bit about your journey and what led you to found the DFINITY Foundation and develop the Internet Computer Protocol (ICP)?

I’ve always been into computers, right from childhood. The interest peaked while pursuing my degree in Computer Science when I noticed the power of networked computers for the first time. One thing led to another and when I finally set out on my entrepreneurial journey in the mid-90s, I knew that I wanted to advance the area of distributed systems and the internet. 

After university, I was looking to build a “GameCoin” to support the creation of a pan-game virtual goods economy, and soon found that the technology necessary to create a GameCoin was missing, owing to the need for fast transaction times, low cost, and massive throughput. I spent most of my work thereafter repurposing classical distributed computing consensus techniques for the blockchain setting, and in 2014, published a paper describing the Pebble cryptocurrency. It was the first serious paper to propose architecture and mathematics designed to support an infinitely scalable cryptocurrency using classical distributed computing science.

While working on Pebble, I proposed techniques to advance proof-of-work systems, and had become very involved with the early Ethereum community. Someone from that community came up with the term “World Computer.” My interpretation of that term was very different from the Ethereum community’s. I came to believe that a blockchain could extend the public internet with advanced “stateful serverless cloud” functionality. Consequently, my interests switched, my ambition grew, and I decided to pursue the creation of a World Computer.

I started using the term DFINITY for my work in 2015, which is short for “decentralized infinity.” My initial purpose was to support the creation of an Ethereum 2.0 or Ethereum 3.0. Eventually, though, the huge amount of research and engineering work involved in realizing the kind of World Computer I wanted to create, meant that it became its own project.

The DFINITY Foundation was created in October 2016,  In 2018, the foundation raised investments from hedge funds and venture capital firms, including an early crypto investment from the renowned VC Andreessen Horowitz, before they began creating crypto-specific funds. There’s been no looking back since then.

2. What initially sparked your interest in blockchain technology and decentralized systems?

My earliest connection to blockchain technology has to be from the late 90s when I was developing an online internet file storage system which relied on a cryptography library. This library had a link to a paper called b-money, which was an important antecedent to Bitcoin. I was intrigued by the concept, and it fostered my later strong engagement with blockchain tech. This preceded one of my earliest entrepreneurial exploits in building an MMO (massively multiplayer online) game for kids, which grew to 3 million users. 

The service used a game server I created myself that could scale horizontally, just by adding new nodes, and was also the first major production system to use a now-famous database called Cassandra, which scaled similarly. This was a much needed learning curve as it allowed me to explore techniques related to scaling systems. 

Over time, my natural inclination towards developing large computer systems gave me a high-level view of what kind of future platforms the world would need, and this became a driving factor in my founding DFINITY.

3. In what ways do you believe the Internet Computer Protocol will transform current Internet paradigms?

The Internet Computer enables a new and much broader Web 3.0 paradigm, which involves full stack decentralization, in which blockchain replaces Legacy IT and Web 2.0

The Internet Computer is created by a decentralized network protocol called Internet Computer Protocol that is by far the most sophisticated ever devised. The protocol is the product of many world-famous cryptographers, computer science researchers and engineers working at DFINITY. It is extremely complex, and relies heavily on novel distributed computing math, cryptography, and other computer science.

We are the only blockchain network in the world that is capable of hosting social networks and enterprise systems. This ultimately means that ICP provides an alternative to the Legacy IT stack, which incorporates Web 2.0 infrastructures such as centralized cloud services run by Big Tech, which operate databases and web servers. 

By allowing humanity’s systems and services to run entirely on a blockchain, we can create a decentralized internet that is highly resistant to hacks, almost unstoppable, and easy to scale. This new breed of systems and services would also be built on a public network, rather than running on private Web 2.0 infrastructure such as cloud services. 

4. Can you elaborate on the specific advantages AI brings to smart contracts compared to traditional smart contracts?

AI doesn’t provide advantages over smart contracts. However, when AI runs as a smart contract, it gains all the unique benefits that only smart contracts have. It becomes securely decentralized. Having AI on-chain, enables greater autonomy in governance of smart contracts. This helps achieve all the inherent advantages of smart contracts, making it tamper-proof, unstoppable and composable. 

5. In your view, how will AI integrated into smart contracts influence the evolution of Web3 and potentially transform other sectors beyond blockchain technology?

Currently, the Internet Computer is the only blockchain that can run AI as smart contracts, and the capability has only recently started showing its potential value. AI is such a transformative technology, it is hard to foresee all the ways that truly on-chain AI running as smart contracts will be applied, but we should all expect to be surprised.

What is certainly true is that AI smart contracts will have applications within DeFi and Web3 social media. For example, Web3 social media will need to do intelligent content recommendation, like existing Web2 social media platforms, to grow big and fast. Such multiplication can only be achieved with AI. 

There is also the advantage it offers segments such as autonomous KYC in terms of cost, decentralization, and removing bad actor threats. These factors are quite important from a regulatory standpoint, and will enable wider proliferation of Decentralized AI across geographies.

6. How is ICP contributing to the broader decentralized ecosystem, and what partnerships or collaborations are you most excited about?

Today, the web3 ecosystem that dominates the headlines involves services such as social media, games and the metaverse being built on Web 2.0 infrastructures. These services only use blockchains to store tokens and NFTs, which reference content stored elsewhere, and snippets of very basic logic described in smart contracts. 

The Internet Computer hosts Open Internet Services services, such as social networks, which are controlled by communities through special (SNS) DAOs that transparently update their logic and govern them. Over 2 million “Internet Identities” have been created by the users of these services, and the enterprise and government sectors are now exploring use cases, with the City of Lugano in Switzerland leveraging it in production, and FederItaly using it for the “Made in Italy” certification.

The Internet Computer network itself is also controlled by a special kind of advanced DAO called the Network Nervous System (NNS), which autonomously updates and configures the network. In the first two years of operation, the Internet Computer experienced no down time at all, while proposals submitted to the NNS seamlessly upgraded its ICP protocols. This revolutionary governance system, which runs as part of its protocols, allows the network to adapt and evolve, ensuring that it gets better every time.

7. Can you give an example of how this technology is integrated into society in 3-5-10 years?

The world will split between centralized AI and decentralized AI. Centralized AI will be huge LLMs like GPT, Claude and Grok. These will involve massive data centers, and serve millions of users. However, there will be a long tail of AIs that are run for a specific purpose.

For example, projects, companies and government departments will run their own AIs to better coordinate their operations and information flows. Law firms will run AIs that allow for referencing past and current cases. Research firms will run AIs to ask about the corpus of scientific papers they are interested in. Web3 social media will run AIs to perform content recommendation. And there will be AIs that act as DeFi wallets, which can be given commands such as “when BTC hits $100,000, sell half my holding into USDC.”

These AIs will be decentralized AIs running as smart contracts. It will not be possible for hackers to break them or steal their data. The unique advantages that smart contracts confer will easily outweigh the relatively small resulting loss in performance and efficiency. Blockchain is the future of this because it solves the core problems that will otherwise make widespread adoption hard.

8. Can you share some real-world examples where AI smart contracts are currently being used? What impact do you foresee they will have on various industries?

The first demo of a neural network running on the Internet Computer, was given just a couple of months ago. It did image classification inference through consensus i.e. analyzing pictures, and reporting what they contain. Now lots of projects are working to incorporate on-chan AI, and some of these are visible in the Internet Computer ecosystem.

Since the demo, upgrades to the Internet Computer blockchain have speeded up inference almost 10X. Further upgrades to the Internet Computer will eventually make it possible to run LLMs as smart contracts. It will be possible to have a conversation with the blockchain, and use AI smart contracts to do things like audit Solidity contracts on Ethereum, to check whether they have reentrancy bugs, backdoors, and malware inside.

9. What opportunities are available for developers and researchers interested in contributing to the development of AI smart contracts?

DFINITY is a not-for-profit with a mandate to perform R&D that advances Internet Computer technology, and to support the ecosystem. We therefore support those looking to build fully on-chain AI projects. 

Developers can apply for the DeAI grant which is given to those interested in exploring the intersection of AI and blockchain. Those interested in what DFINITY is working on should check out the Global R&D presentations that are on once a month, these showcase what is being developed by DFINTIY and ecosystem. I expect there will be lots of AI over the next few months.

10. Looking ahead, what are your long-term goals for the DFINITY Foundation and the Internet Computer Protocol?

The goal we’re working towards is a blockchain singularity. Blockchain singularity means that most of humanity’s operations and services will be reimagined and rebuilt on-chain. The Internet Computer is the only third-generation blockchain capable of hosting these types of services. AI is also a major focus point for us. We are working tirelessly to bring large and more complex models on-chain. We’re excited to show the world the benefits blockchain can bring to AI.

Interview Summary

Dominic Williams’ visionary work with the DFINITY Foundation and the Internet Computer Protocol is charting a new course for the future of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence. Through his groundbreaking efforts, Williams is not only redefining how we perceive decentralized systems but also pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the digital landscape.

The Internet Computer stands out as a transformative force, offering a robust alternative to traditional IT infrastructures by enabling full-stack decentralization. With its advanced network protocol and unparalleled ability to host social networks and enterprise systems, ICP is poised to revolutionize the current internet paradigms. Moreover, the integration of AI into smart contracts, as Williams highlights, brings a host of unique advantages that promise to enhance the autonomy, security, and functionality of blockchain-based systems.

As we look to the future, the potential applications of dAI are vast and varied, from DeFi and Web3 social media to autonomous KYC processes and beyond. Williams’ insights underscore the significance of these technologies in creating a more secure, scalable, and transparent Internet ecosystem. The DFINITY Foundation’s ongoing support for developers and researchers further solidifies its role as a catalyst for innovation in this space.

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