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We’re talking about a general purpose infrastructure for funding public goods in the same way that money is a general purpose infrastructure for funding private goods. There’s definitely a lot of challenges. But at the same time, but if we can make that work… it’s huge.

Vitalik Buterin

Historically, progress in the field of cryptography has had major consequences. It has changed the course of major wars, made it possible to do business on the internet, and enabled private communication between both law-abiding citizens and dangerous criminals. Could it have similarly significant consequences in future?

Today’s guest — Vitalik Buterin — is world-famous as the lead developer of Ethereum, a successor to the cryptographic-currency Bitcoin, which added the capacity for smart contracts and decentralised organisations. Buterin first proposed Ethereum at the age of 20, and by the age of 23 its success had likely made him a billionaire.

At the same time, far from indulging hype about these so-called ‘blockchain’ technologies, he has been candid about the limited good accomplished by Bitcoin and other currencies developed using cryptographic tools — and the breakthroughs that will be needed before they can have a meaningful social impact. In his own words, “blockchains as they currently exist are in many ways a joke, right?”

But Buterin is not just a realist. He’s also an idealist, who has been helping to advance big ideas for new social institutions that might help people better coordinate to pursue their shared goals.

By combining theories in economics and mechanism design with advances in cryptography, he has been pioneering the new interdiscriplinary field of ‘cryptoeconomics’. Economist Tyler Cowen has observed that, “at 25, Vitalik appears to repeatedly rediscover important economics results from famous papers — without knowing about the papers at all.”

Though its applications have faced major social and technical problems, Ethereum has been used to crowdsource investment for projects and enforce contracts without the need for a central authority. But the proposals for new ways of coordinating people are far more ambitious than that.

For instance, along with previous guest Glen Weyl, Vitalik has helped develop a model for so-called ‘quadratic funding’, which in principle could transform the provision of ‘public goods’. That is, goods that people benefit from whether they help pay for them or not.

Examples of goods that are fully or partially public goods include sound decision-making in government, international peace, scientific advances, disease control, the existence of smart journalism, preventing climate change, deflecting asteroids headed to Earth, and the elimination of suffering. Their underprovision in part reflects the difficulty of getting people to pay for anything when they can instead free-ride on the efforts of others. Anything that could reduce this failure of coordination might transform the world.

The innovative leap of the ‘quadratic funding’ formula is that individuals can in principle be given the incentive to voluntarily contribute amounts that together signal to a government how much society as a whole values a public good, how much should be spent on it, and where that funding should be directed.

But these and other related proposals face major hurdles. They’re vulnerable to collusion, might be used to fund scams, and remain untested at a small scale. Not to mention that anything with a square root sign in it is going to struggle to achieve widespread societal legitimacy. Is the prize large enough to justify efforts to overcome these challenges?

In today’s extensive three-hour interview, Buterin and I cover:

  • What the blockchain has accomplished so far, and what it might achieve in the next decade;
  • Why many social problems can be viewed as a coordination failure to provide a public good;
  • Whether any of the ideas for decentralised social systems emerging from the blockchain community could really work;
  • His view of ‘effective altruism’ and ‘long-termism’;
  • The difficulty of establishing true identities and preventing collusion, and why this is an important enabling technology;
  • Why he is optimistic about ‘quadratic funding’, but pessimistic about replacing existing voting with ‘quadratic voting’;
  • When it’s good and bad for private entities to censor online speech;
  • Why humanity might have to abandon living in cities;
  • And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.


Blockchains beyond cryptocurrency are themselves a big sector that I’m very excited about. But being realistic, there has been very little actual deployment of blockchain applications outside of cryptocurrency so far. And I do think that’s going to change and it’s starting to change. For example, in Singapore there is this thing called OpenCerts, which is basically using blockchains to verify that certificates like university degrees haven’t been revoked yet. And they’ve managed to get partnerships with a lot of universities and different institutional entities. So there’s things like that. But now and in the past, cryptocurrency has definitely had the biggest impact.

And it’s definitely had both good and bad consequences. On the bad side, there’s obviously hacks and thefts and ransomware and all the things that people already talk about. And on the good side, I think people do underestimate the extent to which it’s actually helped people by making it easier to move money around.

I’ve been an evangelist for this thing called social key recovery, which basically says that you have an account and you have one master key that can do things, but then you also specify some set of other keys. And these other keys would generally just be like your friends. And the idea is that any majority of those keys could come together and switch your master key to something else. So if you lose your master key, they could recover it. In case your master key gets stolen, then the idea is that you would store most of your money in a savings wallet that would enforce like a one day delay before you can take money out, and so you’d get your friends together within the day so that they can switch the key and cancel it. And it’s a security model that exists in the real world already. For example, WeChat uses it for account recovery. So I definitely want to see more experimentation with social key recovery.

A lot of problems become easier when you stop living in cities. Like in the nuclear case, I did the math once and if you spread out everyone equally across the entire earth’s surface then 7.6 billion people divided by 150 million square kilometers of land mass gives you 51 people per square kilometer and at that rate nuclear bombs become a less cost-efficient way of killing people than hiring samurais to run around with swords.

Let’s suppose that there is some public good that exists and people can start contributing to building now, but it’s a thing that’s not really recognized well as a public good today, but you think it’s going to be something that’s universally agreed to be a really important public good 20 years or 50 years from now. Right. So like something that’s at the end stages today might be ending slavery. Something which is in the earlier stages today might be contributing to carbon emissions reduction and or even just AI research itself…

The general pattern here is that you can create tokens that basically correspond to proof that you actually participated in this public good project today. So carbon credits would be one example here and you can start markets for these things today and you can make these markets work like having them be really efficient, have them be international, and anyone in the world can participate in all these things. And then you assume that the world is going to be more well coordinated 50 years from now …. governments of the future may just end up buying up these tokens to thank people who helped in the past and to maintain the commitment that these kinds of tokens are going to be valuable for things that will matter in the future.

So the basic argument is that I was arguing against people that say that free speech is purely a legal protection that applies only to governments and that private entities censoring whatever they want is A-OK and it’s totally just their policy and we should be neutral about it. And the main argument that I have there is basically that first of all, there’s a reason why we have free speech norms and the reason why we have these free speech norms most fundamentally, is that if you want to create an environment where good ideas win, then you want to have an environment where you don’t have these weird side incentives that really heavily penalize you for publishing certain kinds of ideas where those incentives have nothing to do with the idea’s underlying goodness.

Government censoring is obviously one example of that, but we’re increasingly living in a world where these private entities also have a huge amount of power over basically how we talk to each other and how each story gets presented. And if a private entity ends up censoring that, then it in many cases ends up having a lot of the same kinds of costs that government censorship does. And so we should be upset at them for exactly the same kinds of reasons.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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