Five Lessons AI Must Learn from Crypto

Builders need to communicate effectively – and demonstrate real value – to allay the world’s innate skepticism of the unknown.

Artificial Intelligence is in the hot seat. Last month, the FTC announced an investigation into the workings of ChatGPT. Industry leaders recently convened at the White House to promise “voluntary commitments” to manage AI’s risks. All of this is taking place in a media environment that ranges from ambivalent to transparently hostile

The headwinds facing AI are not an isolated phenomenon. From Bitcoin to Amazon, tech seems to be on the back foot in the battle for hearts and minds. 

Perhaps no corner of the space better demonstrates this reputational backlash than crypto, which has become a target of intense criticism as well as growing government crackdowns. These difficulties should inspire thoughtfulness on the part AI investors and entrepreneurs. After all, it took less than two years for Web3 to go from a media darling to a cautionary tale

To maximize its potential, AI must avoid repeating crypto’s mistakes. Here are five key lessons AI’s backers need to learn if they want to avoid a fall from grace.

Deliver on your promises

The cryptosphere has, in too many cases, over-promised and under-delivered. It has churned out white papers detailing new creator economies and personal ownership of data. But the public has mostly seen it deliver speculative coins and faddish digital collectibles. Eventually, people got tired of waiting for the “killer app” and moved on.

At first glance it may appear that AI, whatever challenges it presents, is delivering impressive results. But beyond the excitement around Google Assistant, or the novelty of ChatGPT’s ability to contrive songs or cocktail recipes, there are pitfalls on the horizon. Right now it appears, for example, to be unable to do basic math

AI’s backers say the technology will literally save the world. And when you make big promises, you need to deliver.

Don’t assume innovation is enough

Perception is reality. If enough people, and their elected leaders, perceive something as posing a threat, they will use the levers of government to stop its development. One need only look as far as nuclear power generation to see the way popular anxiety can stop development cold.

That governments often act based on emotion is in tension with a very real worldview – widely held among tech developers and others from a hard science background – that objective reality trumps feelings. 

I once had a debate with a colleague – an engineer – about fake sneakers. There was a theory that the same factories contracted to Nike and Adidas to churn out limited-edition Jordans and Yeezys were being used to produce counterfeits of those very products – using the same materials and techniques, minus the official corporate stamp. My colleague was adamant that this made them genuine – they were the same in every way except that they lacked some ethereal, arbitrary corporate validation.

Yes, I said, exactly. And that lack of validation made them counterfeit. Sometimes perception – what people think and feel – outweighs everything else. 

Simply put, crypto has been losing the battle of perception. 

Blockchains are not, fundamentally, about a bunch of tokens based on dogs trying to supplant the U.S. Dollar. They are a powerful way to record and store information digitally by distributing and managing it by consensus across large numbers of computers. This can enable much greater transparency, security, and privacy – but it also introduces performance requirements that have rendered many early applications cumbersome and costly to use. 

Over time, though, as these systems keep developing, the challenges will be overcome. This is how innovation works: Orville Wright was airborne for just 12 seconds, but his innovation helped set in motion a cascade of development. Now, it is routine to fly between continents at nearly the speed of sound.

In the same way, blockchains stand to rewire everything from pharmaceutical supply chains to real estate – but only if they’re allowed to develop. And if a critical mass of people, and policymakers, believes they are likely to do more harm than good, they will stop it in its tracks.

And if enough people believe AI will enrich the plutocrats while impoverishing, and possibly destroying, everything else, they will kill that, too.

Build bridges, don’t burn them

Anyone who has spent time in crypto circles can attest to the heavy strain of anti-authoritarianism that runs through the space. This can verge on a kind of college-dorm-style utopianism. The blockchain movement can be its own worst enemy when it appears to “poke the bear” or push the envelope of what is legal because of a basic skepticism that existing laws are legitimate at all.

As well as throwing down gauntlets, entrepreneurs need to know how to extend a hand. If the other participants in an economic or political system perceive things as win-win, rather than zero-sum, they are much less likely to try to block your path. So if they want to shape the future, AI developers need to demonstrate that their products will make people’s lives happier, more prosperous, and more convenient – not just that they’ve built a technical marvel.

Listen to the people who have been here before

Silicon Valley has long pushed a mantra of disruption. But that doesn’t mean everything that has gone before needs to be overturned. Experience has an important part to play in understanding when to push for fundamental change, and when to work within existing structures. 

Too much of the discourse around crypto has been dominated by inexperienced iconoclasts. To shepherd a young technology into the mainstream, its backers need to show they can contribute, be constructive, and deliver tangible benefits for millions of “normies.” If they don’t, they can count on fierce resistance.

Some notable AI proponents can be worryingly glib. Perhaps most visible is Elon Musk, whose very public antics have contributed to the perception of AI (and everything else he touches) as an amoral tech-bro circus. For his part, OpenAI founder Sam Altman is drawing comparisons to a comic book supervillain for WorldCoin and its universal retina scan

If the skeptics are perceived as the only mature voices in the AI conversation, skepticism will carry the day.

Demonstrate value

Societies don’t adopt technologies at scale unless they see benefits that outweigh the dangers. Most crypto headlines over the past year have highlighted things that seem dangerous or illegal. At the same time, the products on offer have a tendency not to be the most user-friendly. There are reasons for this, but the combination of negative headlines and inconvenient products has been a major impediment to crypto’s adoption.

We are, obviously, bullish on blockchains. The technology has a key part to play in the development of next-generation systems that can vastly improve the world’s financial and informational wiring. But large-scale failures to clearly demonstrate value early on amount to a missed opportunity.

AI has a chance to avoid crypto’s mistakes as it grows exponentially. Schools, businesses, and governments are rushing to understand and react to game-changing apps like ChatGPT. The challenge for entrepreneurs is not convincing the world that the tech works, but assuaging fears that it works too well. 

So AI’s backers would be wise to learn the lessons laid out here. We must always remember that political and economic decisions are driven by human experiences — and not necessarily by technological merit. AI needs to communicate what it’s for and what it wants to do, clearly and constructively. Then it needs to deliver.


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