Once tweeted as the “Uber for knowledge” by Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin, Augur, a blockchain-based predictions platform is launching Monday.
One of the earliest applications built on Ethereum, open-sourced software Augur allows users to create and make bets on anything from President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, to when the first hurricane in 2019 will make landfall in the U.S. By entering a market dominated by the likes of PaddyPower and DraftKings, the team building Augur hopes to gain a competitive edge by lowering fees and allowing any user to create their own bets.
“I have been excited about the possibility of prediction markets on Ethereum for a long time,” Buterin, an advisor to the Forecast Foundation, or the team behind Augur, said in a statement.
Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin that distributes several copies of a ledger to multiple parties, has been touted as a way to speed up transactions and lower their cost. And because no single party controls the system—unlike in the case of PaddyPower—it depends on users to come to a consensus on the accuracy of a bet’s outcome.
“Anyone can create a market,” said Tom Kysar, head of operations at the Forecast Foundation. “Augur is [a] truly global financial market. If you look at financial markets today, it’s hard for Apple stock to trade in Russia or China. Capital controls make that trade difficult.”
By allowing users to create almost any bet, even obscure ones, players on the betting platform can potentially hedge against anything. A soybean farmer worried they’ll be hit hard should a full blown trade war between China and the U.S. come to pass, for instance, could wager that negotiations will sour—therefore recouping some of their soybean-based losses if the scenario unfolds.
Augur raised about $5.5 million in an initial coin offering in 2015, though its REP tokens now have a $377.3 million market capitalization in secondary market trading. It plans to settle bets in Ethereum, while it plans to user REP tokens as incentives for users to accurately report on bets, or dispute outcomes that have been incorrectly reported.
The launch also comes amid friendlier rulings for the sports betting industry. In May, the Supreme Court struck down a law barring states from authorizing the practice—thus allowing state governments to make their own calls. But even if states continue their bans, Augur can’t be shut down because of its open-sourced, decentralized nature, says Multicoin Capital Managing Partner Kyle Samani. It’s one of the reasons he’s invested in the platform.
“Augur is the first one that the governments can’t stop it even if they wanted to,” he said.
One major long-term concern the team behind Augur will have to watch out for: Scale. Augur is based on the wisdom of crowds, or the belief that many minds are better than one expert. Thus the more reports there are on an outcome, the less possible the system can be gamed.
For now at least, Augur’s user base is limited to those who own Ethereum. The platform is also likely to run into further troubles, even if it gains popularity among that base. For one thing, applications based on Ethereum have jammed the blockchain in the past. CryptoKitties, the game of trading and breeding cartoon cats, became so popular that Ethereum users complained of waiting hours for transactions on the broader blockchain to pass. At the time, the developers behind CryptoKitties were forced to increase transaction fees.
As a result, Augur isn’t married to the Ethereum system, especially since fees associated with the blockchain are its biggest expense. At the moment, however, no other projects are usable with their project.
“We considered it,” said Joey Krug, co-founder of the foundation, when asked if the he has considered another blockchain upon which to build its project. “Right now at the moment, there aren’t any alternatives that are live and viable. But there are a few we are looking at pretty closely.”
For now though, Augur considers Ethereum’s woes as a necessary growing pain for the system.
“It’s pretty obvious Ethereum today doesn’t scale,” said Krug. “We’re okay with that. It’s good to have slow growth and make sure there’s not security vulnerabilities. It’ll be a few years before Ethereum will be scalable.”