“Crypto Titans” is a series of personal interviews conducted by CoinMarketCap with prominent and forward-thinking minds tinkering on and behind the scenes of the cryptocurrency landscape. Click here to see all the Crypto Titan interviews up to today!
This interview continues the series with Emin Gün Sirer, a professor of computer science at Cornell University and the founder and CEO of consensus algorithm startup Ava Labs. Sirer is known for designing the first proof-of-work cryptocurrency, the Karma System, back in 2003 — five years before Bitcoin. As CMC’s latest Crypto Titan, Sirer explains why Karma never took off and how crypto itself could easily turn into a scam.
What first attracted you to cryptocurrencies?
I got involved partially because there are so many scams, and I like scams. I like cataloging them. I like figuring out how they work.
In my own background, growing up in Turkey, we were exposed to a crap ton of scams. I thought that gave me a leg up on what I consider the poor, naive, sweet children of America who have never seen a really good scam. I thought, hey, this is really fascinating.
Do you see any scams in crypto that rival those in Turkey?
I think that crypto can turn into a scam very easily unless there is a societal net surplus being produced, unless the technology is being used to create value that would otherwise not be there. Just the mere act of selling and buying coins is not going to produce returns. The only people who can come up with money are those people who are taking the money from other people or losing that same money. It’s a net-zero game, and the miners can end up playing a role here for money transfer from one to the other.
Have you had any personal failures in cryptocurrency that have prepared you for the future?
You can be right and fail. You can do things correctly with the information, and fail.
I’ve had many. For example, I built the Karma system in 2003, which had proof-of-work mining. As far as I know, that was the very first implementation of proof-of-work minting. I’m not aware of any other prior work, although there is a paragraph in a Ronald Rivest [cryptographer at MIT] paper from 2008 that mentions the idea in passing.
Mine was the first implementation, it’s very well-cited in over 500 citations by academics, but my system did not go anywhere because I didn’t get the timing right, and I didn’t have a vision as big as Satoshi. Satoshi came up and said, “Hey, I want to replace the dollar.” I wasn’t trying to do that, I was starting to come up with a payment system for people who want to share files online.
I had a much more limited vision, a much more realistic vision, but it would have been much better to have an unrealistic vision that rallies people than to have a realistic vision that is narrower in scope and doesn’t get people going with the same fervor.
I also did not have the timing down, I didn’t appeal to the right kind of crowd. Satoshi ended up appealing to the take-down-state libertarianist sort of demographic, and I didn’t. That was one issue.
Over the years, I’ve also learned not to make price predictions. I made a small-scale price prediction once saying that there was a security flaw that affects Bitcoin and that’s cause for being negative on the price movement going forward. Now, I was right in the short term, the price did go down after I said it would. But what people will do to you is they will take your tweet out of context, and they will say, “Oh look, six years ago you said this and that, and since then, the price has gone up.”
There are people who will abuse anything you say, will pull it out of context, or craft a different narrative around it. It’s generally not a good idea to make price predictions, even when you do know good fundamental reasons for what the price should be.
If you had to give a piece of advice to those starting out in the crypto industry, what would it be?
One piece of advice for anybody is that at any moment in time, there really aren’t that many big open questions ahead of us.
We as humanity, we as a group of people, are obsessed with only so many handful of big issues facing us, and have mobilized new sources for tackling them at that point in time.
And as of this moment, crypto is dead right on center. Rethinking the fundamental foundations of how economies ought to work, how business flows ought to work, how things should be structured so as to provide greater transparency, auditability and reassurance to users is absolutely fundamental.
The crypto revolution is here to stay. It’s one of those few things that I can identify as there is great intellectual depth behind the scenes here, and it’s going to revitalize what we do.
There are a couple of other things. Obviously, A.I. is one of the other ones we’re collectively working on. We’re obviously collectively working on [eradicating] a number of diseases. Some [ideas] are very well understood, are right center forward, and some are too fantastically far away.
My advice to people is pick those things that are foremost in people’s minds and people’s consciousness, and for which we have the right tools to tackle the problem. It is a folly to be too early. I was a little too early in 2003 with a coin. You don’t want to be researching the colonization of Pluto, it’s too far fetched. We’re not there yet, but we are right squarely dead on and center with crypto.
What advice should they avoid?
Now, you see a lot of other advice getting thrown around. My big, big advice to people is do not see this as a get rich quick scheme. Do not turn into a trader. Do not get consumed by the financial aspect of things, where you sell tokens or you tell people to buy tokens.
A business of that kind, you’re fanning not the use, not the positive societal outcomes, not the positive productivity increases that really bring value to our lives. Instead, you’re trying to take money from Alice to give to Bob. That’s just the zero sum game. There is absolutely no value to be had.
You want to be able to go to sleep and sleep soundly at night, knowing that if you take the world from wherever this is to a better spot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.