Cryptocurrency and Digital Assets: Terror and Opportunity

Cryptocurrencies soar in value, plunge, hit new highs, are written off, rebound, and hit new highs again, and the cycle repeats. We should be terrified. Over the last five years, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether have outperformed the overall market. However, can the general trend of outperformance last, or will these digital assets drop over 90% like some of its other crypto brethren? Is there a sustainable performance that creates the foundation for either a new currency or a valuable asset class? Probably not. Forces that drive these eye-watering returns seem to be the same as those that drove the social media-driven insanity behind meme stocks such as GameStop. We are seeing social media mobs controlling demand to a limited supply, creating price spikes that look attractive to any speculative investor. Unfortunately, demand can dry up quickly and the price subsequently falls through the floor. Financial markets ruthlessly sort nonsense from substance. Volatility and existential threats have been brutal and extreme for digital assets and the reckoning for crypto has been predicted for some time. However, digital assets are not on their way to history’s dustbin. Reality is more nuanced, and I try to provide a more detailed analysis since a broad brush hardly seems appropriate. The weakest and craziest portions of the crypto world have been exposed as nothing more than silliness. But some valuable components remain resilient and offer tremendous opportunity. I will explore these in detail. There is more cause for optimism than pessimism among the best and the brightest. We will explore these opportunities while harshly dismissing the hype and silliness – avoid the terror of a worthless market.

Today, Tomorrow, and the Apocalypse

The future does not need us, and apparently, we don’t need it either.

The future isn’t what it used to be.

Humankind evolved to have a long-term view, either from religious teachings, the seasons, empires, and epoques, beyond the temporal spaces of our lifetimes. We went from living in an extended present to thinking about a long-term future.

Our horizons have gotten much shorter. When I wrote my latest book, “The Ten Year Horizon,” ten years seemed a sufficient and faraway temporal space to discuss a long arc of basic scientific research and discovery that could address our most urgent problems. However, it’s most appropriate to think a century ahead in order to understand the future we really want. It’s not just for us, it’s for generations to come.

Collectively, mankind has never had so many ways to destroy itself through self-made dangers including nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, climate change, antibiotic resistance, and many other self-manufactured threats. It is time for temporal maturity and ignore the tumultuous waves striking the boat today and keep our eye on the long-term horizon.

Short-term thinking has brought the potential for a catastrophic crisis even closer. Perhaps now it is time to grow up and think about the future. What do we want to be – because whatever that may be, we are certainly not working towards it now.

Lessons Lost

Open markets, free global trade, and limited state interference lead to greater shared prosperity. Heavy-handed Industrial policy and state intervention impede progress. It’s the economy and inequality, trade imbalances, are not what drive shared global wealth. Industrial policy, restricted trade, government subsidy, and overall intervention are challenging to get right, and hoping to achieve multiple goals simultaneously. One subsidy does not tackle climate change, boost industrial and economic growth, or enhance security. It is bound to fail. Time to revisit how things actually work through incentives to innovate, sensible economic models, prosperity, and wealth creation. No other mechanisms drive change or address the world’s most critical issues.

Put Down the Pitchforks

Stunning capabilities are emerging from large language models like GPT 4 that, until very recently, were thought to be only theoretical. We could never have the data sets or the processing power to generate real and usable results. Well, all that has changed – rather suddenly.

But is it time for the torches and pitchforks? What are the serious risks that accompany this technology?

There will be good and bad, like every new era. Will it be the Middle Ages all over again and we’ll experience The Plague before the Renaissance, or will it be more balanced and reasonable? There are good, bad, and many things in between whenever humanity advances.

Let it happen. Put down the pitchforks.

ChatGPT Is Not Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is disrupting all software and services – when applied within narrow and specific parameters. It performs useful tasks and provides meaningful information for decision-makers but within well-defined data sets.AI still has significant limitations, and large language artificial general intelligence programs like ChatGPT (AGI) may not be the big leap forward many imagine. It is not the vanguard of a new era permeating every aspect of our professional, academic, and personal life. AGI’s usefulness is overstated, and it is not going to happen. Intelligence is not a lumbering statistical engine searching for patterns to generate a useful response. AGI is. The predictions of AGI are superficial and dubious. True intelligence is the ability to think and express improbable but insightful ideas (e.g., Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and many other improbable, insightful, and truly intelligent insights). Machine learning cannot do this. ChatGPT is a lumbering statistical engine searching for pattern recognition and feeding on incomprehensible terabytes of data and extrapolating the most probable answer. By contrast, the human mind is an efficient elegant system operating with small amounts of information. Human intelligence creates explanations. It does not infer conclusions by brute force and spurious correlations.

Globalization and Optimism

Isolationism, fragmentation, and pessimism always fail. Globalization has been everyone’s favorite punching bag for a while. It is hard to feel optimistic about its prospects. However, globalization has a better future. If you are a fan of globalization, cooperation, and comparative advantage, the last decade has been extremely challenging. Ten years ago was a time of optimism on a global scale. However, economic and geopolitical forces have combined to add friction and fragmentation to global exchange. The benefits are now even greater and with everyone’s self-interest and mutual benefit, this geopolitical stalemate will pass – more quickly than is commonly thought today. Cooperation, integration, and mutual benefit win in the end. It is time to be optimistic once again.

Discovery, Innovation, and Crisis

Our most intractable problems cannot be solved with behavior modification, conservation, or our existing technology, regardless of its advanced or widespread applications.

Only new knowledge creating innovative solutions can address our most intractable problems. This can only be achieved through basic scientific discoveries and then combining these discoveries with enterprise-based innovation, commercial discipline, and competition. Innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Developing the best public policy as well as the best structure to enable innovative and creative solutions, as well as the economic incentive to scale these opportunities and make them economically sustainable.

Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will.

Industrial Policy – Stupidity by Another Name

Zero-sum thinking has begun. Despite comparative advantage, mutual cooperation, and specialization proving indisputably more beneficial than any other approach to economic interaction, this ideal is under threat. Rules and norms for economic integration lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created an order-of-magnitude increase in the average wealth of the Western population, and benefited countless hundreds of millions enabling a way of life otherwise unimaginable post-World War II. Now that system is under threat as developed countries subsidize alternative energy, attract manufacturing via expensive subsidies, and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out; national gain is now the highest priority. In other words, stupidity and zero-sum thinking have taken over. A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Management and control usually spell disaster eventually. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have greater substantial benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects. Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought are essential components to the development of any technology of substance and disruptive benefit.

Proud Certainty

In his preamble to “The Theory of Relativity,” Einstein implored his reader to, “set aside your proud certainty” because he was about to present something quite revolutionary, iconoclastic, and, as he discovered for many years after publication, challenging to be broadly accepted. Of course, his insights would be vindicated, and would soon be considered one of the leading minds of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the great minds in scientific history. Einstein knew things that everybody else was ignorant of and was ignorant of things that everybody else knew. That was probably the key to his great thinking – he assumed no knowledge and didn’t confuse himself with the trivial or unimportant. Always explore, race to keep up, clear the field, and let other vibrant minds pass. It is the spark of human creation, analysis, and understanding that gives us a glimpse of nature’s fundamental beauty. We only touch a small fraction, and our hardest work and most diligent thinking expose a little bit more – and that is one of humankind’s most worthwhile pursuits. Set aside proud certainty; be indifferent to your failings and the cacophony of critics. See, question, verify, and question again.

The Broken Road of Innovation

Discovery, innovation, and practical application are never a straight line and, the best analogy is “the broken road.” Our greatest discoveries and advancements have confusing, uneven, and broken pathways that often lead somewhere astonishing – even though at the outset the initial steps could never envision this as a final destination. Artificial intelligence is the embodiment of this concept. A powerful tool that can lead anywhere given the imagination and unlimited creativity of its users. There may be nowhere more impactful, generating therapies for unmet medical needs in record time, than artificial intelligence’s ability to mimic evolution in minutes. The real outcomes are still unpredictable, but the potential is unfathomable. AI languages that produce pictures seem to be initially relegated toward a combination of Tik-Tok influencers, outraged artists, and those with limited imaginations and creative skills. But now, AI-generated pictures can use text to direct specific protein designs with properties of shape, size, and/or function that make it possible for these new proteins to perform specific tasks on demand. This breakthrough may lead to more efficient and effective drug development and, the discovery in minutes of what evolution would otherwise have taken millions of years to develop.